Getting started

One of the most critical stages in the life of an effectively functioning Community of Learning | Kāhui Ako (CoL) is getting started. Making the decision to form a community requires shifts in both thinking and practice. For many leaders, teachers, children and young people, parents, families and whānau, their school/ early learning service is the teaching and learning unit they know best. While this does not change, the big challenge is to move beyond focussing on ‘my school/ early learning service’ to ‘our schools/early learning service’ – to a collective responsibility for the equity and excellence of outcomes for all children and young people within the CoL | Kāhui Ako.

As schools and services form together, there are big questions to ask.  Most of these begin with ‘why’ or ‘what’. These questions are important because the answers give clarity to the purpose for establishment – ‘why we are joining together’ and ‘what is it that we want to achieve?’ They help define the unique nature of each CoL | Kāhui Ako and help place the focus firmly on the benefit of collaboration for improved student outcomes.

Effective communication and high levels of relational trust create the conditions necessary for successful organisational learning and change.5 It takes time to develop relationships and trust. This process can be achieved from within the resources of the CoL | Kāhui Ako or it may require external facilitation. The most important aspect of this process is time – making time for formal and informal opportunities to work together, with a purposeful and collective focus both across and at different levels of the community. Collaboration and building relational trust go hand in hand.

Relational trust is fundamental to being able to engage in challenging conversations6 and the openness to learning required to make the practice and outcomes of community participants transparent.7 Working through what it means to have relationships that are trusting is critical for the work members engage in as the community develops. This is not easy and it can be uncomfortable.

When members of a CoL | Kāhui Ako are involved in a culture of high trust, they are able to open up and acknowledge what they do not know, take risks and share knowledge and expertise to support others. Such relationships help to create an environment where it is safe to share data and information about students and provide supportive educational pathways within a community. Both are fundamental to effective CoL | Kāhui Ako.

Creating a culture of collective responsibility is an essential part of getting started. Leaders in each CoL | Kāhui Ako have a critical role in establishing a compelling collective vision and setting priority goals and targets that represent the perspectives and aspirations of all community participants. It is a collective commitment to the community of what matters in teaching, learning and student outcomes. All members of the community need to ‘buy in’ to this commitment for it to be successful.


The big picture                          
  • Getting started requires collegial and community ’buy in’. It entails  a commitment to be part of a positively articulated and ambitious collaboration on behalf of students and their families.
  • Developing reciprocally beneficial relationships and trust takes time.
  • The early stages are important for members to develop ways of working together that enable them to be confident, open and honest with each other.
  • Building relational trust strengthens the capacity for members to acknowledge what they don’t know, to safely critique and challenge practices and to take risks and share knowledge and expertise with others in the community.
  • Strong educationally focused relationships among students, parents and whānau, teachers and leaders, and with other educational and community institutions, increase opportunities for student learning and success.
  • Well-developed communication channels, established early in the life of the CoL | Kāhui Ako, enable the exchange of ideas and the synthesis and use of new knowledge.

What have we found so far?

Starting up

There is a growing body of evidence about how collaborative networks are developing in jurisdictions other than New Zealand. As a country, there are lessons we can learn and insights we can gain from what is working and what is not. New Zealand, however, is different because we are building a country-wide system of communities rather than regional or district networks.

There are no recipes or exact blueprints for how this should look but there are evidenced-based guidelines for establishing and developing a CoL | Kāhui Ako. Most importantly, communities are learning from each other and responding to their unique, local context.

The most common motivation for forming a CoL | Kāhui Ako is associated with having been part of a former active network, cluster or association of professionals. Usually, where schools have taken part in a Learning Change Network, a curriculum-based cluster, a professional learning group or an improvement initiative, expectations of each other and productive ways of working are better articulated and there is a sense in their discussions and documented intentions of a better understanding of the protocols needed to work together.

It takes longer for a CoL | Kāhui Ako to get underway where there is no history of networking, a lack of clarity about reasons for collaborating or the absence of initiators willing to take a lead in organising the group. Ministry lead advisers and some external facilitators have taken an important role by initiating discussion about ways of working together and by explaining and clarifying operational matters about structure, roles, process and resourcing.

The most commonly stated reasons for forming a CoL | Kāhui Ako are around raising student achievement and/or taking collective responsibility for student success. Members refer to the importance of strengthening transition arrangements for the exchange of information, developing better coherence and establishing progressive pathways. In addition, opportunities to pool expertise, improve teaching practice and access professional learning are strong motivating factors.

Notwithstanding the focus on students, some principals and trustees see access to available resourcing and career opportunities as compelling influences on their decision to get involved. Some also join because they are anxious not to miss out – particularly in regard to professional learning and development resources.

The decision to provide more flexibility in the timing for appointing a leader has eased situations where member schools have found difficulties getting started. However, the time taken to establish useful ways of working and to clearly articulate purpose and direction through building relational trust cannot be understated. These activities are foundational for effective operation and an area where effective facilitation such as the role mooted for ‘expert partners’ could be very useful.

Who is involved in getting started?

Principals are generally the prime movers in initiating the establishment of a CoL | Kāhui Ako and they are the most visible participants at community meetings. This is to be expected when bringing together a number of learning institutions that have largely worked on their own. Within a forming CoL | Kāhui Ako there are generally one or more principals who are instrumental in encouraging others to join. The downside is that without clearly stated, understood and agreed reasons for joining, some principals reported feeling pressured to take part.

It is not clear at what point teachers become aware of their school’s involvement in a CoL | Kāhui Ako and what this means for them. Given that teachers play a key role in enacting the achievement challenges in their classrooms, and service it is important they are involved as near to the point of formation as possible.

The degree to which boards of trustees are involved in forming communities varies. There are early formalities that require board approval, so it is critical that trustees are involved and well informed. We found evidence that most principals kept boards informed at a basic level about what is happening through their regular reporting channels. However, trustees’ understanding and involvement during the establishment phase is particularly important given their roles as signatories to the Memorandum of Agreement, their CoL | Kāhui Ako employment responsibilities, strategic stewardship accountabilities and the role they play as parents and community members.

Trustees are less likely to take an active part in the establishment meetings that CoL | Kāhui Ako principals attend. This may be because meetings are scheduled at times where it is difficult for trustees to attend, but there is also some evidence that they are not formally invited. Where they have been informed and involved from formation, their contributions added both a school-level community and a parent-focused perspective to the discussions.

In some particular instances, the active involvement of boards alongside parents, whānau, community members and teachers has resulted in high levels of interaction and understanding about the aspirations and expectations for the CoL | Kāhui Ako. But these instances are not common in the establishment stages and there is room to look at what strategies/forums could be implemented to get a meaningful level of engagement and involvement for trustees. As early learning services increasingly become part of the CoL | Kāhui Ako, ways to involve governance and management groups should be investigated.

Similarly, there is room to explore the involvement of children and young people in CoL | Kāhui Ako. Some communities have come up with interesting ways to tap into the unique knowledge and perspectives they have about what, and how they learn. They have done this through vehicles such as specific focus groups, student-led interviews and videos and the use of opinion boxes and surveys.

These communities have found that drawing together student voice and recognising the importance of student agency in their own learning gives them insight into how they might shape their teaching and learning expectations across the CoL | Kāhui Ako pathway.

A growing number of communities are actively seeking to engage with their local iwi or rūnanga as they establish the direction and overall structure of their CoL | Kāhui Ako. These early connections take the form of aligning mutual education goals with iwi strategies, deepening partnerships and understanding about iwi aspirations, and involving iwi representatives in CoL | Kāhui Ako governance structures.


Establishing collective commitment

Building a culture of collective commitment and responsibility is an essential  part of getting started. One of the early roles for both leaders and facilitators is the establishment of a compelling vision around trusted and productive ways of working, valued and priority goals and a commitment to shared responsibility for the progress and achievement of all students. This collective commitment requires a shift in thinking about responsibility for the students in each individual school/ early learning service to responsibility for all children and young people in the CoL | Kāhui Ako. It is a critical ‘buy in’ stage in the work of the community.

We have found that CoL | Kāhui Ako are spending worthwhile time working through what “collective commitment” looks like in their unique community. This foundation work should and does take time, but it underpins the quality of adult interactions as the CoL | Kāhui Ako matures. CoL | Kāhui Ako are articulating their shared commitment through the development of a code/protocol for working together; a vision that usually includes a set of shared values and, for most, a considered description of the strengths and challenges in their community.

The codes and protocol CoL | Kāhui Ako have for working together have important commonalities. Among the various components, reference is usually made to active listening, being transparent and open with each other, respecting the contributions of members, having trust and integrity in interactions and being willing to share knowledge and expertise to maximise outcomes for students and teachers. These are all important in building the levels of relational trust necessary to enable members to safely critique and challenge practices in their CoL | Kāhui Ako.

Embracing the learner pathway from early years to 18 and beyond

CoL | Kāhui Ako have embraced the concept of a learner pathway in their discussions and documentation, noting the importance of coherence in curriculum and in pedagogy. They are particularly aware of strengthening their practices at key transition points so that students benefit from more effective transfer of data, connected teaching and learning and continuity of wellbeing practices.

While the pathway focusses on the learner, the actions of adults determine its effectiveness. Where CoL | Kāhui Ako members have well established relational trust and a shared responsibility for outcomes, it is more likely that their planning actions and collaborative discussions will achieve coherence. One of the key areas that CoL | Kāhui Ako are looking at is ensuring that data is reliable and reliably used across the pathway.

A number of CoL | Kāhui Ako are beginning to look at the pathway possibilities beyond the traditional schooling boundaries. This includes connecting to post schooling opportunities and linking with early learning services. At the school/post school, tertiary and employment interface some CoL | Kāhui Ako are seeing potential benefits in using existing Vocational Pathways programmes and engaging with local industry and trades. Engagement at the early learning service/school interface makes sense but this has been very slow to evolve because it was not part of the original IES initiative.

The pathway from early learning services to schools is often difficult to define  and may be part of the reason the current CoL | Kāhui Ako have relatively few members from the early learning sector. Inclusion is probably easier in smaller areas but in larger areas, particularly cities, there are many potential services that could be part of a CoL | Kāhui Ako but the logistics of inclusion appear difficult to both schools and services. In addition, parental movement across cities and large provincial towns usually results in children attending a service some distance from the school they will later attend and this is a complicating  factor.

The question about meaningful involvement for early learning services resides with the integrity of the pathway. This in turn means that the higher the number  of children contributing to schools in a CoL | Kāhui Ako, the more benefits accrue for children, parents and teachers. This does not mean that smaller services should be left out, but for organisational purposes it could be more useful for bigger services to represent the interests of all contributing services. Currently  the potential for cohesiveness and connectedness is largely untapped.

The shape of communities of learning

Over two thirds of CoL | Kāhui Ako have between 5 and 8 member schools and there is an expectation that these numbers will increase as schools/services seek to join a CoL | Kāhui Ako. Initial guidance cites 10 as an ideal size, but as CoL | Kāhui Ako are approved there have been practical reasons for smaller or larger numbers around demography, pathways or special character configurations. The caution for CoL | Kāhui Ako with larger numbers is to ensure that all member schools/services have equitable opportunities to contribute to CoL | Kāhui Ako decision- making processes and collaborative inquiry activities.

There are some gaps nationally in uptake particularly in areas where there would be significant benefit in CoL | Kāhui Ako establishment. These are most notable in some areas in South Auckland, mid Northland, Whanganui, South Waikato/King Country, South Wairarapa and Dunedin.

In metropolitan and some larger provincial areas, the pathway from primary to secondary school is more complicated after Year 6 because students may be zoned for, or be within close proximity to intermediates that contribute to secondary schools outside the CoL | Kāhui Ako. Although this can disrupt the development of a unique pathway, CoL | Kāhui Ako affected by this appear to be focussing closely on what they can achieve and developing their challenges and processes around the core of schools within the pathway. Some are beginning to give thought to how they might link with adjacent CoL | Kāhui Ako in the future and this would have considerable benefit.

Flexibility to form faith-based Catholic and area school CoL | Kāhui Ako are bespoke arrangements with commonalities in special character and/or rural location. The faith-based CoL | Kāhui Ako generally have several secondary options as part of their defined pathways and established shared interests and practices upon which to build collaborative practice. Similarly, area schools start with a unique pathway within each school but the CoL | Kāhui Ako provides a vehicle to share and enhance practice focussed on raising achievement.

The downside for CoL | Kāhui Ako outside provincial or metropolitan areas is the distance travelled in order to meet regularly. CoL | Kāhui Ako are beginning to think about arrangements such as video conferencing and the use of digital connections and documentation as solution-focussed responses. In addition, some smaller rural CoL | Kāhui Ako report the difficulties members have finding relief staff which would enable their full involvement in leadership roles, meetings and  activities.

As the take up and interest in CoL | Kāhui Ako has increased since the first approvals in late 2014, there has been some movement of schools in and out, and between communities. This is not surprising given that there are more options suited to demographics or pathway arrangements.

By and large the movement is positive and enhances the original configurations. However some principals told us of their disappointment when a key school in the pathway, such as an intermediate, opts out or chooses not to participate. This causes disruption to the potential continuity of learning and the building of coherent approaches to curriculum and teaching.



5        Bryk, A., Sebring, P., Allensworth, E., Luppescu, S., & Easton, J. (2010) Organising schools for improvement. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

6        Timperley, H. (2015). Professional conversations and improvement focused feedback. A review of the researcollaborationch literature and the impact on practice and student outcomes. Melbourne VIC: Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership.

7        Rincon-Gallado, S., & Fullan, M. (2015) The Social physics of educational change: Essential features of collaboration. Draft for comment prepared for the Ministry of Education.