Key findings

ERO found that the most important factors for success with educationally powerful relationships were:

  • providing extended learning across home and school
  • a whole-school focus on involving parents and whānau
  • the focus and complexity of the collaboration changed as students got older
  • teachers and leaders involving parents and whānau in designing and implementing a solution to underachievement.

ERO found that schools responded to the risk of underachievement in two ways - by preventing future underachievement and by supporting those not achieving as well as their peers to accelerate progress.

The examples of prevention of future underachievement focused on whole cohorts, such as all of Years 1 to 3 students, or a large group of a particular year, for example Year 10 boys, where similar cohorts had high levels of underachievement. The examples of acceleration involved smaller groups of up to 10 students. In many secondary schools, the example involved only one or two students.

The type of relationship a school had with parents and whānau of students who needed extra support to succeed was influenced by whether there was a whole-school focus on engaging with all parents about their child's learning and educational success. Most schools provided parents and whānau with regular and frequent reports on progress and achievement and most designed a range of activities to involve parents in the life of the school. Schools that had learning-centred relationships with most parents and whānau:

  • engaged with parents at the transition to and from the school
  • involved most parents along with their child to set goals and next steps
  • involved parents to develop curriculum priorities and principles
  • regularly reviewed their working relationship with parents and whānau.

Other schools had positive relationships with parents and whānau on a one-to-one basis, but these were not learning-centred relationships. For example, parents were involved in activities such as class barbecues or sport management, but may not have been involved in any sort of goal setting with their child.

In schools with low quality learning-centred relationships with the parents of students at risk of underachievement, teachers and leaders believed they could only reach a certain proportion of parents and that the lack of involvement of hard-to- reach parents was justified. These schools did not seek ways to improve parental involvement. In a few schools, there was a pervasive view from teachers and leaders that 'teachers know best'. These views prevailed despite professional learning and development (PLD) focused on engaging with parents and whānau.

ERO found that the decision about whether to involve parents and whānau as a key component of a school's approach to underachievement was part of a complex series of decisions schools made about improving outcomes for students. The quality and timing of parental involvement was influenced by teachers' and leaders' assumptions about the nature of students' educational experiences, their potential to learn, and the ability and willingness of parents and whānau to support their children. For example, some school staff assumed that secondary students' educational experiences should not involve parents; or that parents should be involved only when there is a behavioural issue and the school has run out of possibilities.

The teachers and leaders at the schools with educationally powerful connections were persistent in finding ways to support student success and to involve parents and whānau of students at risk of underachieving. The following sections focus on some of the good practice we saw in the schools with educationally powerful connections and relationships. These schools had deliberate two-way relationships with parents of students at risk of underachievement.

What does it look like when the response to underachievement includes educationally powerful connections and relationships?

The trigger for developing or improving relationships with parents and whānau was often recognising that what the school had previously been doing was not enough.

As one primary school principal said:

We recognised that working in partnership with parents would be far more effective than one-way homework systems had been in the past.

For many principals, recognising that the school values around respectful learning relationships extended to parents and whānau was also important. They realised that these relationships needed to go beyond communication about achievement and instead work together to support student success.

These schools had strategic goals around parental engagement that were often supported by PLD for staff.1 The schools provided resources for particular initiatives that focused on named and known students and their parents and whānau. The response was personalised to work best for these students and parents.

These schools involved students at risk of underachieving and their parents and whānau in four key iterative processes. Teachers and leaders were clear about the purpose for each process, as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Mahi Tahi - Educationally powerful connections and relationships in response to underachievement


Purpose of the relationship with parents, families and whānau

Identify learning strengths and needs; language, identity and culture; and interests and aspirations

1. To know who the students is, in the wider context of school and home, in order to develop holistic and authentic learning.

Respond with deliberate actions and innovations that involved parents, families and whānau to improve student outcomes.

2. To extend learning by designing and implementing multiple aligned learning opportunities.

Recognise the impact of the actions that influenced the improved student outcomes.

3. To evaluate the impact and alignment of the multiple opportunities to know what worked for whom, when and why.

Refocus on next actions

4. To be persistent, and:

  • sustain what worked about the relationships for the students involved
  • change and improve what did not work
  • transfer what worked to more students and their parents, families and whānau.

Extending learning by designing and implementing multiple aligned learning opportunities had the greatest positive effect on students at risk of underachieving. When leaders and teachers understood the importance of aligning deliberate actions and innovations across home and school settings, the other processes were strengthened. For example, school evaluation was more likely to include the consideration of all activities and not just those that happened at school.

The following four sections illustrate these purposes of educationally powerful connections and relationships. We give examples of extended learning that led to accelerated progress and improved achievement, and highlight actions that supported the development of educationally powerful connections and relationships. The sections on Year 9 to 13 students and the use of technology highlight aspects of the four processes in these two contexts.

Know who the student is, in the wider context of school and home, in order to develop holistic and authentic learning goals.

Discussions about achievement and progress supported and strengthened reciprocal learning- focused relationships. These conversations involved the student, parents or whānau and teachers. This did not mean teachers and/or students only told parents where students were at with their learning. Instead, the focus was also on developing shared understanding of student interests, strengths and aspirations. There was shared ownership of the goals that were set.

Teachers and parents could describe conversations about preventing underachievement or accelerating progress. In particular, parents described how useful it was to understand their child's progress and where they needed to be, and to understand the language of curriculum, progression and assessment. School language was now familiar and parents could talk with their child and teachers about progress towards goals.

Knowing someone at the school was doing something to improve things for their child was important. Parents and whānau felt listened to and grateful that their contribution was valued. Teachers at a primary school noticed that:

Parents were more ready to share information and support their child at home as a result of the closer relationships formed with teachers - this also led to parents being more confident in what they were doing to support their child and in raising any issues at school.

Teachers and leaders recognised that the conversations they had with parents and whānau of students they were supporting to succeed represented the 'best' of how they wanted to communicate with all parents. One primary school principal said:

The process of teacher-parent conversations aligned well with school values. Teachers learnt the importance of listening to parents in a respectful way and of helping parents discuss children's learning in a non-judgemental way.

Parents found that, because they had more understanding of what their child was experiencing at school and greater confidence to talk with them about what went on at school, they could engage with their child more about their learning. Many said this improved their relationship with their child.

Teachers also found they had more understanding of what each student was experiencing after listening to parents. Communication with students and their parents and whānau increased, and became more focused on successes rather than only on needs, while working towards the students achieving at the expected curriculum level.

In a few examples, it was apparent that parents had initiated the pathway the school took. These included parents of children with special education needs, as well as communities of Maori and Pacific parents requesting support. Parents were concerned about the support, such as cultural support, the school could provide for their child.

Parents led in the areas they knew best. Because of the relationship with the teachers and leaders, parents then initiated conversations about finding ways to help their children at home with reading, writing and mathematics. The example of practice below illustrates this relationship.

Example of good practice: Parents leading conversations about achievement and progress

This example highlights how parents strengthened the school's understanding of their children's home and cultural context. These Pacific parents' actions reflect the Pasifika Education Plan (PEP). They:

  • engaged with the schools in supporting their children's learning
  • supported and championed their children's learning and achievement
  • were better informed, more knowledgeable and demanding consumers of education services.


Example of practice

Key stage

A Tongan teacher analysing National Standards data noticed that Tongan and Samoan students were not progressing and succeeding at the same level as other students. He organised the first Pacific parents’ meeting at his home. Parents talked about their wish to work in a meaningful way with their children, which was more than just celebratory events like Fiafia nights.2


The parents set up a homework club at school that respected the Tongan and Samoan cultures and their Catholic faith. The homework club emphasised the importance of language, culture and identity. Each session had a strong focus on cultural learning as well as academic learning: tutors were engaged to teach dances and songs, parents brought books and other resources to share stories or legends, and parents worked with the children to sew their cultural costumes.

A parent-initiated trigger.

Slowly the parents’ relationship with the school developed and improved. They approached the principal about their wish to be more involved in their children’s learning – they appreciated the suggested steps for their children’s learning in the National Standards reports but wanted more frequent suggestions from teachers:We want a process that will be more meaningful and continuous. We would like a weekly update about how our children are learning. 

After one set of three-way conferences with teachers and children, the parents requested that the school organise Tongan and Samoan mathematics information evenings. They wanted the sessions to have a Tongan and Samoan language component.

Communicationsupported andstrengthenedreciprocallearning centredrelationships.

Hearing the language is important and essential for our families and children.

Adding to family practices.

The principal responded positively to these suggestions and worked with the leaders in the school to make it happen. Learning resource kits to use at home were shared with parents and children at the mathematics information evening.Now I know how to help my child.

Structured suggestions.

At the same time, school class space and resources were used to support the homework club. The resources were used by the class teacher in the mathematics teaching, the homework club and at home.

Extended learning by providing multiple and aligned learning opportunities.

Teachers commented on students’ improved attendance and confidence with mathematics because of their parents’ involvement. These improvements had led to accelerated progress for the students who had been underachieving. Many of these students were now achieving at expected levels as shown by National Standard data. The students are more focused and engaged in learning. It’s great to see them succeeding.

Having success - accelerated progress and improved achievement.

Other groups of parents were invited to mathematics workshops. Reading workshops have been set up for the Tongan and Samoan parents.

Being persistent - sustaining, changing and transferring.

Extend learning by designing and implementing multiple and aligned learning opportunities

In schools with examples of strong, deliberate educationally powerful connections and relationships, teachers worked with parents and students to design and put in place activities to do and practice at home that supplemented and aligned with at-school learning.

Teachers often held workshops for parents to explain curriculum expectations and the assessment tools the school used to determine students' learning strengths and needs. These workshops also focused on specific strategies that could be used at home. Sometimes teachers helped parents re-think their understanding about reading, writing or mathematics and how people become competent.

I now realise that it was very important to help my daughter to read because she can now read and pronounce the words and we are so happy with this reading programme. Now we make a place and time for reading at home.

Parent of a primary school-aged child

Sometimes it meant helping parents to access classes for practical skills such as English language or computer skills, for them to support their child at home.

Student learning at home was actively promoted by providing relevant learning opportunities, resources and support. This did not mean parents were expected to be teachers. Instead, they developed knowledge and skills that could be incorporated into home activities, and teachers developed knowledge of home practices and interests that could be incorporated into school activities, making them more relevant and authentic.

The teacher gave us the tools to help our child get to where he should be. (Parent of a primary school-aged child)

We had been focused on improving spelling with little gain. Knowing what goes on out of school gives us some great contexts for writing. Plus the students now have an audience. Improvements have been really noticeable. (Teacher, primary school)

Teachers and leaders were aware of the urgency associated with accelerating progress and understood the advantage of multiple and aligned learning opportunities.

The shorter timeframes for instruction at school can be followed up with more substantial activity time at home and in weekends - parent collaboration.(Principal, primary school)

Alignment of learning happened for students when:

  • teachers understood what made the relationships with parents and whānau work
  • teachers knew about student strengths, interests, and home activities
  • parents understood school language and learning and how they could help
  • students experienced worthwhile multiple learning opportunities at home and at school.

Teachers and leaders in these schools also focused on student wellbeing, as they recognised that underachievement led to lower self esteem, and was often associated with a feeling of not belonging and negative social behaviours. They also recognised that some parents had not had positive school experiences or, as parents, had only previously heard from teachers when there were problems with their child.

For some schools, involving whānau and students in sporting or cultural activities such as kapa haka was a deliberate strategy to develop a sense of belonging for whānau and their tamariki (children), and for teachers and leaders to develop a holistic view of each student and their whānau. Improved relationships meant conversations about student learning and goals became two-way.

Kapa haka is not a club, it is the student's whakapapa. They put in massive hours. It builds their leadership, it belongs to them. It's the waiata and the history. They can stand on it in the world. The kapa haka group encourages the teachers to believe that they can make a difference, that these students can be successful.

It had taken three years to build this community - we have a long way to go, but we have come a long way. Parents are filled with pride because of their children's success at kapa haka. We now talk about learning goals and we work together to help with reading and mathematics. 3

Teacher, primary school

Deepening relationships based on shared home and school interests resulted in increased parent participation in school activities such as in-class support, out-of-school trips and joining the parent association or board of trustees. Parents engaged in more frequent informal learning focused conversations because of these common experiences with their children and teachers.

Example of good practice: Changing teacher attitudes leading to positive student outcomes

This example highlights the way learning was extended by providing multiple and aligned learning opportunities. The principal used messages in Ka Hikitia to help teachers change their attitude to parental involvement. These parents developed a productive partnership with the school that was focused on educational success.


Example of practice

Key stage

Two groups of siblings achieved National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) Level 2 after a long, tumultuous relationship with their school. In their early years at the secondary school they were disengaged, misbehaving and defiant to authority figures. In their later years, they became engaged in classes and motivated to learn. A small change early in their secondary schooling contributed to their later success and achievement of their qualifications.

Having success - achieving worthwhile NCEA Level 2 for future pathways

The principal, through her engagement with Ka Hikitia, realised that the school’s attitude was not helping all students succeed. Achieving success at school had not been the purpose of conversations with families. There was much deficit thinking. For example, teachers of these boys said:The boys’ parents aren’t doing what they should to help them.

Exploring assumptions about the role of parents, families and whānau to be involved in their child's learning

The principal, through the school’s kaiawhina, 4 invited the boys’ parents to meet with her. The kaiawhina helped the parents express their disappointment and frustration with constantly hearing negative things about their boys. We avoid talking with teachers as they are not on our boys’ side.

The parents explained how they felt helpless and alone in trying to support their sons. A single dad shared how important it was to him that his son had a life different to his own. The parents explained: We want the school to see the good in our boys, and recognise and build on their mana as young Māori men.

Trigger for change.

The principal talked with other school leaders – the deputy principals, deans and kaiawhina – they empathised with the parents and the boys and realised they needed to show the boys and their parents that they cared. They needed to find a way to help the boys succeed.

Leaders understood it was their role to help parents be involved in their child's school learning.

Further discussions between the parents, kaiawhina and school leaders led to an education plan for the boys that built on their strengths and aspirations and would lead to the boys achieving NCEA Level 2. The school leaders explained why NCEA Level 2 was so important for all future pathways.

Parents understood more about the school system and what counts as excellence.

This plan was reviewed and modified as people kept talking to each other and to the boys. The conversations focused on all the positives. They celebrated the smallest successes. These successes were shared with other teachers of the boys.

Responding quickly to student progress information.

The parents thought that if the boys identified with their Māori language and culture, they would be better placed to approach their other learning. Together they devised programmes for the boys based on te reo and tikanga Māori. The boys were able to participate inMāori performing arts classes, a carving class and te reo Māori classes. They were encouraged to be involved in the school kapa haka group.

Extended learning by providing multiple and aligned learning opportunities.

The parents shared that they did not feel able to help their children at home as much as they needed. The kaiawhina and a deputy principal supported the parents to learn the same positive behaviour strategies and ways of communicating with their sons that the schoolwas using.

Structured and specific suggestions.

The parents also became involved in kapa haka as this was something they knew and were confident in. Over time the parents began participating in more aspects of school life, and coming into the school to speak with their children’s teachers. Through their increased participation, they connected with other whānau in their community, which provided additional support for them and their sons.

Adding to family practices.

At the same time the principal was supporting all teachers to look at themselves as part of a wider community. They worked towards a shared goal of improving relations with all families.

All teachers participated in PLD about Te Kotahitanga,31 to develop a shared understanding of a desired school culture. Teachers were expected to get to know students and their families and involve them in school activities.

and maintaining
relationships with
parents, families
and whänau.
A parent said:

We realised the school was with us once they really listened to us. They helped us with our boys as well as helping our boys.

The dean said:
We had wanted these boys to succeed but hadn’t realised the harm we were causing by focusing on the issues all the time. Focusing on the problems we were having with the boys had not been helpful in improving things for the boys. Working together made a difference for everyone.


Mahi tahi; two-way
focused on
learning and

Evaluate the impact and alignment of multiple opportunities to know what worked for whom, when and why

This evaluation highlights the need for improved recognition of the influence of both school and home activities on accelerating progress.

ERO found that many schools only evaluated the impact of school activities and most used Teaching as Inquiry5 as their evaluation framework. If teachers and leaders did not understand the value of aligning home and school learning, the Teaching as Inquiry prompt "What happened as a result of the teaching, and what are the implications for future teaching?” did not guide teachers to review the contribution of others, such as parents. Although teachers and leaders said that parent engagement and strong relationships with parents were critical, parents' actions were not evaluated to know whether or how they had helped improve achievement. Nor did parents contribute to the schools' evaluation.

In a few schools, the focus was wholly on improving home activities, for example in schools that had introduced Reading Together (a Ministry of Education programme that fully involves parents). However, these schools had not reviewed the impact of school activities and how well they aligned with home ones. We recommend that schools include evaluation of the alignment of home and school contributions to student learning, as part of their inquiry frameworks.

Only a few schools recognised the contribution of all opportunities to student success. Teachers and leaders at these schools formally and informally evaluated the alignment of home and school learning opportunities and influence of both on student outcomes. Together with parents and whānau they monitored the impact of home activities. They also reviewed their own actions in supporting families. These evaluations often led to ongoing refinements in the way teachers worked with the parents and whānau of students they were supporting to succeed.

Example of practice: Ongoing evaluation of impact and alignment of activities to support students to be fluent readers

The example of practice below shows how one school systematically reviewed the response to underachievement to improve both the home and school learning experiences for Year 10 students at risk of underachieving. Formal evaluations were linked to a school-wide inquiry about either responding to underachievement or engaging with parents and whānau. Leaders ensured the whole school could learn from the findings and that teachers and leaders stayed focused on relationships with parents and whānau of the students most at risk of underachieving.6

The teachers designed a programme with parental support that provided Year 10 students with multiple and aligned opportunities to read and reflect on their reading behaviours. Parents' feedback ensured home and school learning aligned and that home learning built on family activities rather than trying to copy school activities.


Example of practice

Key stage

The school was involved with a Ministry-funded initiative, a reading fitness programme, 7 to accelerate literacy learning and improve outcomes for Years 9 and 10 students. The initiative expected schools to involve parents. The Head of Department English said:Whatever we do needs to be replicable without the supportand the resource.

Trigger for change.

A group of eight Year 10 students was chosen. After talking with the students and reviewing their work, the teachers designed a multi-layered supplementary response that ensured students had many opportunities to learn. This response had four key ideas:

  • To be successful readers and writers of curriculum/academic texts, students need to read a lot and be aware of their reading behaviours.They need support to understand that reading is not hard.
  • Learning logs8 support students to set goals, understand how they learn, how they are going, and where to next. Students need to be taught to think this way.
  • Students need strategies to ‘attack text’. Not all students are fluent users of effective strategies. Some students need more time to make sense of texts.
  • Reading is closely linked to writing.

Extended learning by providing multiple and aligned learning opportunities.

The students knew why they had been selected, where they needed to get to, and where they were now.

We have to be at a good Level 5 [of the curriculum] if we want to be prepared for NCEA.

They knew the supplementary support was an opportunity to learn, to put in extra work and maybe break some habits. They felt the teachers were on their side and they appreciated the extra support the teachers gave them. The students and the teachers were motivated to accelerate progress.

Student ownership.

The teachers knew they needed to get parents involved in helping the students become readers. A letter sent to parents invited them to support their child in the initiative:

We would like your son/daughter to be part of this project. We have selected students who already have basic reading and vocabulary skills, but who could use an extra lift to prepare them for the literacy demands in all subjects next year. We have also selected students who we think would make good use of this opportunity.


A significant adult for each student accepted the invitation to a meeting where they were given more information about the pilot, such as why the school was focusing on increasing students’ reading and building their confidence to use a range of reading strategies.

The teachers described the reading fitness programme they wanted parents to support as coaches. Students would record how much they read, how hard it was, and how much effort they put into it. Any type of reading would count to help students develop a habitof reading. There was also a focus on developing vocabulary.

Each family discussed what their child was reading at the moment and how they could support their child to increase their reading. They also discussed the reading habits of others at home. Parents were provided with guidelines about being a reading coach.

It was a great meeting: we were given clear information and tools to use.

The teachers gave the students a clear message that we were all there to help them and that there was a partnership between home and school.

The teachers and parents agreed on their first actions, how they would communicate and that after five weeks they would review how things were going.

Structured and specific suggestions.

A short online survey was used for this review. Parents commented that they could actively promote reading at home by reading themselves and discussing what their children were reading, but that they did not enjoy the focus on vocabulary. They also said they would like to know more about the reading required in all curriculum areas.

In response the teachers removed the emphasis on vocabulary in home activities and increased this focus in school activities. Curriculum teachers were asked to link any required reading to the fitness programme by talking with the students about what they were doing.

Ongoing formal and informal evaluation of the impact and alignment of the multiple learning opportunities.

The ongoing communication between parents and teachers through the student log books, emails, phone calls, and surveys meant parents knew teachers valued their input.

At the end of the year, the teachers formally evaluated the impact of the programme. The evaluation included talking with parents and students. All students had accelerated progress and were now achieving at Level 5 of the curriculum and had plans for their holiday reading. Their increased enjoyment of reading and comprehension of what they read was due to both the home and school activities.

R is reading more at home now without us prompting, and doing well at school. We have good relationships with the teachers and feel confient the school will keep us informed next year.

One student said:I got excellence for my writing. I had to take a photo and send it to my Mum. I asked Miss whether she had marked our class easier but she showed me that the same criteria were used for all classes, so I got the same as the A stream class.

Regular and frequent communication.

Through the evaluation, the teachers realised that they did not have enough buy-in from teachers of other curriculum areas. They also realised they needed to review the texts they selected for formal study in Years 9 and 10 English as they now knew more about the reading habits of students at risk of underachieving. A refined reading fitness programme was developed for the next year. These findings were presented to the parents, teachers and to the board as well as to teachers in other schools. The principal said:

We used to focus on remediation programmes. Thinking about acceleration puts a different spin on it. It’s not about fixing something; it’s about being ready for something. That means involving students, teachers and parents.

Being persistent – sustaining, changing and transferring.

Be persistent - sustaining, changing and transferring

Following either formal evaluations or informal reviews, teachers and leaders better understood the contributions of parents and whānau, and fine-tuned decisions about what to do next. They strengthened and maintained aspects of the educationally powerful connections and relationships by:

  • sustaining what worked for particular students
  • changing and improving what did not work.

Teachers and leaders identified the parents and whānau they had not successfully engaged with and, with a sense of urgency, persisted in finding ways to collaborate with them. The example of practice below illustrates this persistence. 9

Example of practice: Persisting after many unsuccessful interventions

This example of practice highlights ongoing improvements to the relationships in response to a formal evaluation. Teachers realised that persisting to find ways to work with parents benefits the whole family. Parents were no longer frustrated with the teachers' support for their children and felt their contribution was valued.


Example of practice

Key stage

After evaluating the impact of a number of interventions the leaders realised they needed to do something different for a small group of boys in Years 4 to 6. These students had been involved in a number of interventions which had not been successful at accelerating their progress. In all of these interventions, parents had been informed about what was going on but had not been involved.

Persistenceand a trigger for involving parents in a different way.

The leaders thought that parental involvement might make the difference. The deputy principal was tasked with developing a programme that involved parents and the school to ensure the boys experienced success. She knew that many of the parents were not comfortable with coming into the school setting, so she organised a room at the local library to meet.

Persistence to involve all parents of the students the school was focusing on.

At the meeting the parents expressed deep sadness, frustration and feelings of hopelessness around their sons’ years of not achieving. The parents felt like they’d run out of ideas, and did not know what to do next. After years of failure, the boys did not see themselves aslearners and they had low self-esteem. Their relationships with other students were also affected by this lack of confidence.

Trigger for change.

Together, the boys, their parents and the deputy principal developed a plan to accelerate the boys’ reading and build their confidence. This included a daily withdrawal group run by the deputy principal, changes to how the boys did tasks in class, and games and activities to support reading and spelling for the boys to do with their parents at home.

Extended learning by providing multiple and aligned learning opportunities.

Workshops were held to help parents understand the curriculum and National Standards. At these workshops parents were introduced to spelling games and ways they could help their child with their reading.

Structured and specific suggestions.

The parents, teachers and the deputy principal closely monitored the boys’ attitudes and engagement in activities, and shared this information with each other, so they could respond if they needed to. They focused on celebrating every little achievement or success, in an attempt to replace the feelings of frustration and failure the boys and their families had grown used to. As they and their sons started to see progress, their motivation increased. Soon parents asked for more ideas and resources to extend their home learning. The boys became much more enthusiastic about school and learning in general, not just the areas they’d been working on specifically.

Frequent and regular conversations.

After four months, the boys had all experienced accelerated progress in reading and the school applied what they learnt from this intervention to a wider group of students, while still supporting the boys to succeed.

A student said:I don’t feel that if I ask for help now everyone will be well ahead of me and laugh.

A parent said:Now I know how I can help my son. We’ve had fun with thesegames.

The deputy principal said:I hadn’t really thought about how wide an impact students’underachievement could have on a family. I just had to find a way of getting everyone on board. We are trying to engage with more families before they get to this stage of frustration with us.

We’ve identified another group of younger students at risk ofunderachieving that we’ll now work closely with their parents.

Being persistent – sustaining, changing and transferring.

The focus and complexity of collaboration changes over time

As young people got older, teachers had to explore their assumptions of when, how, and why to involve parents and whānau. This was because of the changing emphasis in valued outcomes and the increasing desire for independence. The complexity of the educationally powerful connections and relationships looked different for children in their early years compared to those nearer the end of school. The relationship focus changed, as did the number of people involved.

In the early school years, parents worked with teachers to understand and support their child's foundational learning such as literacy and mathematics, and positive social behaviour. The relationship was generally between the classroom teacher and the parents or whānau. In the later school years, parents worked with teachers to understand and support their child's management of learning tasks, aspirations and pathways to further qualifications, and improvement in social competence. More adults were involved, although generally there was one 'go to' person for the student and their parents as the relationship spanned school years. These relationships often included adults working in the community.

Collaborative, learning-centred relationships with parents and whānau of Years 9 to 13 students were more complicated than those for primary- aged children. There was tension between supporting a young person's increasing desire for independence while successfully navigating a pathway that matched their aspirations. What was apparent about these successful relationships was:

  • students owned the response - they wanted things to improve
  • a group of adults, beyond the parents and teachers, was involved
  • a personalised programme/pathway was designed for each student
  • teachers persisted in finding ways to support student success
  • school leaders were actively involved in supporting teachers and/or students.

These relationships led to students experiencing improved wellbeing as well as improved academic achievement.

The culture of schools that had productive relationships with parents of children in Years 9 to 13 who were at risk of underachieving had:

  • a school-wide focus on relationships (often supported by PLD such as Te Kotahitanga, PB4L10 and restorative practices 11)
  • high expectations for student capability signalled through regular academic and pastoral care guidance
  • support for parents to understand the school's way of working
  • support for parents to understand the purpose of NCEA.

Many schools involved parents in responses to issues beyond their adolescent's achievement. ERO found examples of this related to students with a history of underachievement, low self­esteem and disengagement. Risky behaviour and low attendance triggered the school to involve parents. In many cases, the school had a crisis situation (for example, regarding negative student behaviour) and parental involvement was part of the last resort response.

Building parents' confidence in the school was fundamental to the success of these initiatives. In some cases, the school may have prevented the crisis if they had started communicating with parents in a way that supported and strengthened a reciprocal learning-centred relationship earlier. More productive responses occurred when parents were involved earlier in the school's preventative strategies. In these examples, teachers and leaders showed that they were interested in the students and their families at an early stage (Years 9 and 10). They showed they would do all they could to ensure the students succeeded.

Example of practice: Students working with adults to improve their cultural knowledge and engagement in learning

The example of practice below illustrates adults working with young people to prevent underachievement.

An iwi-based leadership programme supported Year 10 students to improve their education outcomes. The example of practice illustrates the partnership between the iwi and school and different roles adults (including parents) played in this focus on identity, language and culture. Students, with the help of adults, led a number of initiatives that helped them become more confident in their learning and prevent underachievement. The students invited their parents and whānau to be involved in these activities. The parents' confidence in the school improved as their young people experienced a culturally responsive curriculum and increased academic success.


Example of practice

Key stage

After discussions with the principal about ‘unleashing’ the leadership potential of Māori students, two kaimahi12 from the local Māori health provider developed the Te Aitanga a Rēhia (leadership) programme for the school. The overall intention of the programme was for rangatahi13 to develop tools to empower their learning and enhance their academic achievement by creating a new generation of leaders, “Our rangatira mo āpōpō.” The school’s focus was to prevent underachievement. The principal saw how this project could support the work teachers were doing in the classroom.

Persisting to find ways for student success.

Most of the group of Year 10 students, some with considerable leadership potential, were chosen to participate as they were at risk of underachieving.

With the support of the school leaders, the programme facilitators worked with the students to collectively set goals of what they wanted to achieve. The students created a Facebook page to tell others who they were, what they were about and to share their activities with the school, their parents and wider community.

A student explained:We set our goals and developed our action plan which we set out to achieve as a whānau.

The students initiated the involvement of their whānau. They invited whānau to a dinner they organised where they shared the initiative’s purpose and their aspirations. Each student also shared their research about their whakapapa at the dinner.

Student ownership.

Students’ whānau were kept informed through phone calls, texts, whānau meetings with the programme facilitators and through the Facebook page and website developed by students.

Communication supporting and strengthening the learning-centred relationship.

By undertaking their whakapapa research there was increased pride in culture, and greater knowledge of te reo and tikanga Māori. This increased the students’ ability to plan and implement cultural events, and increased their participation in learning and in wider-school activities. For each event they invited adults to work with them. For example, they worked with iwi leaders and whānau to organise a ki-o-rahi14 tournament for all the high schools in the local district. They planned a whānau day with school leaders and parents to celebrate the end of school year, the students’ successes and achievements as a group, and to plan for the future. They worked with the art teachers to design and print t-shirts for their group to create a sense of unity and whānau.

A large number of people from school and the community working together.

Students said their growing interest and confidence in their culture, language and identity rekindled the interest and use of te reo in their homes and by their whānau. One student said:I shared my mihi with mum and with nan over the phone. I’ve started teaching the younger ones at home.

Parents talked about:Letting our kids know that we are behind them, supporting them.

For some whānau this has extended to getting involved in the school’s strategic plan for Māori students.

Students’ attendance increased by 10 to 20 percent. All students except one averaged over 90 percent attendance. The students said that belonging to the group enhanced their engagement in learning:I concentrate better, I am trying harder, I feel better about myself, and we are developing our leadership skills that we can use in the future.

Students spoke about themselves been valued as Māori.Makes us feel like we have a place in the school.

Parents spoke of their increased confidence in the school:We know the teachers are on our side now. They want the same things for our boys as we do.

A teacher of one student reported:I’ve seen a vast improvement in his attitude; he’s showngood focus and determination and achieved a good result.His confience has increased.

The principal said that the school would normally see a drop in achievement during the junior years but it was not the case for this group.

By the end of the year, all the students had accelerated progress and only four students were achieving below level 4 in English and mathematics. All the students achieved the school’s junior Diploma of Learning and the goals they set as a group.

Extended learning by providing multiple and aligned learning opportunities.

The whānau partnership benefited all those involved. It resulted in the creation of a whānau support group, establishment of an adult literacy class, financial assistance for resources and activities, and support for the programme facilitators to get their teacher registration.

Adding to family practices.

The school is committed to setting up a new group in the next school year and a tuakana-teina relationship15 between these new students and the older ones. They are also exploring the possibility for senior students to earn credits in culturally relevant areas such as tikanga Māori and Māori performing arts standards. The programme has extended to include students from other schools within the district.

Being persistent – sustaining, changing and transferring.

A focus on the use of technology

Many schools used technology as the bridge between home and school to enhance partnership processes. The technology was used for two purposes - communication and learning opportunities. The way schools used this technology to engage with parents and whānau reflected:

  • whether they were building a one-way or two-way relationship
  • their understanding of the three principles of modern learning.

These three principles of modern learning are: 16

  • Agency: The power to act. Informed, enabled empowered learners. A sense of ownership.
  • Ubiquity: Any time, any place, any pace, any device. Home, school, community, lifelong learning.
  • Connectedness: Having a sense of being part of something that is bigger than one's self. Shared purpose.

Schools developing productive connections with parents and whānau of students at risk of underachieving used technology that invited conversations or sharing of views (such as student blogs, Facebook pages and Google docs). The use of this type of technology reflects the principles of modern learning. In the best examples, teachers helped parents provide feedback to their child through workshops where the technology was also discussed. Students enjoyed sharing their work and achievement with parents, and parents enjoyed seeing the work and commenting on their child's successes.

Technology was also used for learning to enable multiple educationally powerful connections - students with their teachers and parents and whānau, and with other students. In the best situations, teachers helped parents understand how to use particular tools and how they could support their child.

All our community meetings have e-learning on the agenda. We are listening to what the parents' thoughts are, and we're saying where we are in our journey. Some parents did not think devices would help their child's learning, yet we were asking them to trust us. One of the things that we've instigated this year, which came out of the trial in our mobile classrooms, was what we're calling Techie Meetings. These meetings happen on the first Tuesday of a month before school, and at 5 o'clock. So parents can choose to come to those, and they're run by the mobile device teachers, and they just go with one app to show or one tool of what they are using in the classroom or they answer parents' questions. (Principal, primary school)

Loved the parent tech classes. I don't think I would have been able to go through this e-learning journey without the guidance of the school, so it's been really beneficial for me as a parent to be able to come to the classes and learn more about what my daughter is learning about and what I need to learn about. I bring my iPad and fiddle with it so I'm learning too. (Parent)

The following example of practice illustrates a school using technology for learning and supporting parents of children at risk of underachieving to communicate with their children using the same technology.

Example of practice: Using technology to engage with parents and change the learning focus to what mattered for the students

Students, parents and teachers worked together to use technology to improve writing. Parents became better informed and more knowledgeable about their child's education and negotiated with teachers what their child's learning could look like and how they would contribute.


Example of practice

Key stage

Two assistant principals (APs) worked with a group of Year 8 boys achieving below or well below the National Standard for writing. These APs were new to the school. Both had been involved in PLD with a focus on working with parents at their previous schools. They knew this involvement made a difference for student success, therefore they invited the parents of these students to participate in their child’s learning.

Trigger for engaging with parents, families and whānau.

At the initial meeting with each child and their parents or whānau, the APs used an example of writing work that was ‘at’ the National Standard, and a sample of their child’s work to explore. They talked through what was good, and what needed to happen for their child’s work to reach the standard. One parent said:This made it really clear about what was expected.

Parents understood more about the school system and what counts as excellence.

All the boys discussed their lack of enthusiasm for writing. But most parents’ responses were that the boys regularly wrote lengthy messages to their friends, with great enthusiasm, it was only when it came to class writing that they did the bare minimum. The boys explained that their friends were not bothered by spelling, punctuation or grammar as long as they could understand the message. They were disheartened when their writing was covered with corrections, and had no motivation to write when there wasn’t a good reason to.

Sharing of information.

After hearing a similar story each time, the APs set up a workshop with the parents and they agreed that they would let the surface features of the boys’ writing take a back seat, while concentrating on building the boys’ confidence in writing. The boys’ interest in computers and the internet would be used as tools to improve the boys’ writing. The parents developed some clear expectations around how and when the boys should use the computer for learning, and when it could be used for entertainment.

Extended learning by providing multiple and aligned learning opportunities.

One AP set up a group blog for the students to post on and asked the boys to identify key people who could be the audience and help with their learning. For one boy, this was a dad who hadn’t been at the initial meetings. The family and teachers supported the dad to be an active participant in his son’s learning.I hadn’t known how to help my boy or even that he’d want my help until we started doing these workshops.

Adding to family practices.

The APs ran further workshops for parents about commenting and giving feedback to their child about their writing. Parents were asked to comment on the message of the writing, rather than technical aspects of it, like spelling or grammar. One AP supported the parents with tips such as:Use words that your child has used in their writing.A parent said:I now have more to talk about with my boy. They’re goodconversations.

Supportive group activities as well as one-to-onecontact. Structured and specific suggestions.

The APs worked closely with the parents of two students. One parent did not read or write, and the parents of another child were not English speakers. The school provided a translator and other resources to ensure there were no barriers to these parents’ participation in their children’s school learning.As the boys’ enthusiasm for writing grew, the APs introduced the boys to editing skills. The boys were able to edit their own work, and any corrections on it would be their own. Parents helped teachers extend a school task – writing – to contexts that were important at home. The boys now have a purpose for writing. They write about things important to them and their families. Parents talked about sharing this writing with others in the family. The students have all made accelerated progress, and are much more motivated in their learning.

Leaders understood it was their role to help parents be involved in their child’s school learning.

Transferring success from working with parents of students with special education needs

In this evaluation, ERO did not specifically focus on working relationships with parents of children with special education needs. However, leaders in some schools transferred learning from successfully working with parents of children with special education needs to other areas of the school. For example, one school used such collaboration as a model for developing guidelines for teachers when working with all parents. Another used the individual education plan that described outcomes, actions and the future monitoring and discussion points about how things were going as a model for all students they were supporting with extra teaching actions. ERO would like to see all students at risk of underachievement, and their parents and whānau, benefiting from such collaborative and targeted working relationships, 17and to have well articulated plans for their accelerated learning.

What are some of the barriers to educationally powerful connections and relationships with parents, families and whānau of students at risk of underachieving?

In the schools where leaders and teachers didn't do anything extra with parents and whānau of students at risk of underachieving, ERO found that the main barriers were:

  • leaders not understanding the purpose and benefits of involving parents and whānau in reciprocal learning relationships
  • the quality of the communication between school and home
  • teachers focusing only on the quality and impact of school-based learning opportunities
  • PLD not changing school practices to develop improved connections.

These schools often had relationships that were only one-way. Schools communicated information clearly and supported parents to develop strategies to help their child but they did not really listen to parents and develop school activities that reflected home.

Communication was through school portals, texts and emails. The communication could be written and read anytime but was often very short-hand and often did not require a response. It was not invitational. Schools did not know whether particular parents had read the information on school portals, or whether the information in texts and emails had been useful. Using technology alone to communicate had not contributed to a reciprocal learning-centred relationship in these schools.

Although The New Zealand Curriculum Teaching as Inquiry framework was used extensively to guide teaching decisions in schools, teachers and leaders did not think to identify the contribution others could make to students' learning.

Teachers therefore, with all good intent, focused on the learning opportunities they provided for students at risk of underachieving and on developing relationships with parents as discrete activities. There was no coherence between the two actions and therefore no deliberate alignment between home and school learning opportunities for students.

There were two other barriers to schools developing educationally powerful connections and relationships with parents and whānau:

  • Schools' assessment for learning was not embedded in school practice, so setting next learning steps with students and their parents was superficial.
  • Individual teachers had learning-centred relationships with parents and whānau, but engaging with parents was not a school­wide imperative. These schools did not appear to value:
    • engaging with all groups of parents
    • ensuring consistency of teacher practice when engaging with parents.

In some schools the PLD teachers were participating in did not address these issues. There was not enough focus on building educationally powerful connections and the opportunity these reciprocal relationships provided to extend learning for students at risk of underachievement. For example:

  • school-based PLD focused mainly on teaching strategies and data analysis
  • external PLD focused on supporting parents to develop home strategies and activities, without a strong focus on ways to connect the contributions of parents and whānau to learning at school.

Students at risk of underachievement would benefit if teachers and leaders in schools explored their beliefs and practices about developing two-way partnerships with parents and whānau when acceleration of progress is essential for student success.