Section Four: The importance of leadership in influencing student outcomes

ERO has found direct leadership from the principal or senior leaders can strongly influence staff expectations, pedagogical practices and professional culture. Leaders influence decisions about the assessments teachers collect, how often, and how they use them. They are also responsible for reporting on students’ achievement and progress, and play a key role in setting and responding to the school’s charter targets. Leaders have a fundamental role in overall system improvement for New Zealand’s children.

Over the past decade, many of ERO’s national reports have identified how leaders either positively or negatively influence curriculum and assessment decisions. Some of ERO’s national reports highlight the gap between leaders that implement effective assessment and curriculum approaches, and those with a limited understanding of assessment and curriculum design.

Leaders in successful schools are keenly aware of the need to achieve both equity and excellence. Effective educational leaders pursue equitable outcomes. Effective school leaders establish and develop specific and measurable goals, so that progress towards equity and excellence can be shown, monitored and further developed. Goal setting results from acknowledging the discrepancy between current and future states. Goals focus attention, and lead to persistent and unrelenting effort. These leaders were successful in developing relationships, setting clear guidance, and accessing relevant PLD to ensure a common understanding of progress and how to raise achievement.

Extracts from ERO National Reports

Reading and Writing in Years 1 and 2 (ERO, 2009)

In the best schools, leaders understood how to use achievement data for self review. They used their data to inquire into teaching practices, whether these should be modified, and where resources were needed to help children who were not succeeding. Leaders were highly involved in managing their own PLD, hiring capable literacy teachers, and using development and monitoring strategies to support all teachers in the school enhance their literacy content knowledge and skills.

Boards make many significant investment decisions about resourcing personnel and materials for interventions to support the literacy learning needs of Years 1 and 2 children. They need to know how well their investments are working. Where school review processes were not robust, trustees lacked the necessary information to make or approve these decisions. In effective schools, trustees received valuable information to inform their decisions from well‑planned evaluation of interventions so they knew what worked best and whether they needed to look at other options.

Accelerating the Progress of Priority Learners in Primary Schools (ERO, 2013b)

The role of the principal was vital in schools that were successfully accelerating learning. Leaders in these schools communicated a clear vision that all students were able to succeed, and shared with trustees and staff a good understanding of what constitutes accelerated progress. They promoted an inquiry‑based teaching and learning approach. Leaders accessed and facilitated relevant PLD, designed to focus on teaching practices for students not succeeding. These principals coordinated a cohesive approach where boards, leaders and teachers worked together for the benefit of these students.

Leaders in the less successful schools had not developed a coherent team approach to students who were not achieving well. The lack of clear expectations and commitment to priority learners resulted in inconsistency and variability of practice across their schools. School charter targets lacked specific details, and were not directly related to priority learners. Analysed achievement data was rarely used to discern what worked for these students and what should be changed.

Raising Achievement in Primary Schools (ERO, 2014)

In the most effective schools, leaders promoted teamwork and high quality relationships with students, their parents and whānau, and other professionals to support acceleration of progress. Teachers and leaders were able to explain how others could help them, while also being very clear that they were responsible for student achievement. They understood the rationale for targeting resources to accelerate progress for particular groups of students.

Leaders in less effective schools had not developed a coherent plan to improve achievement that included both long‑term preventative and short‑term remedial responses. Instead they often focused on short‑term actions that were not well resourced or evaluated for impact. Often individual teachers, or teacher aides, were expected to be responsible for accelerating progress. Student gains were often not maintained, as supplementary instruction did not complement classroom experiences. In many cases there was no ongoing monitoring of progress.

Raising Student Achievement Trough Targeted Actions (ERO, 2015d)

School leaders played a significant role in creating coherence and alignment in successful schools. Their ability to influence teaching practice, the school culture and its central values lifted outcomes for students. Leaders effectively managed cyclic school processes and action‑planning, ensuring everyone from the board to the parents, whānau and students knew their role in raising achievement.

Educationally Powerful Connections with Parents and Whānau (ERO, 2015b)

The central theme of this evaluation was the vital role of the leader. ERO found the influence of leadership at multiple levels in successful schools. Trustees, school and middle leaders defined a shared achievement challenge for acceleration of target students. Trustees and school leaders strategically resourced key actions required to make a difference. In larger schools, middle leaders led teams of teachers who put the plans into action. Leaders at all levels monitored and evaluated progress, and made adjustments to increase students’ chances of success.

Continuity of Learning Transitions from Early Childhood Services to Schools (ERO, 2015c)

Leaders in schools where children experienced smooth transitions laid the foundation for success by ensuring critical elements were in place. Strong two‑way partnerships between the school and parents supported children in their transitions and their learning. 

Extracts about leaders from ERO national reports about influence in curriculum

Mathematics in Years 4 to 8: Developing a Responsive Curriculum (ERO, 2013a)

School leaders play a critical role in supporting teachers, trustees, students and their parents to use achievement information to improve learning. Leaders establish school‑wide guidelines for how assessment information will be collected and used.

In the schools ERO identified as using achievement information well, leaders created systems and clear expectations so that data was used optimally by teachers, trustees and students. In many of the other schools, teachers collected data but it was not used to its full potential. For example, data was used to identify learners’ achievement, but not to review and develop the school’s mathematics curriculum or to identify the most successful teaching practices. Teachers often invested considerable time and energy into assessment activities. School leaders need to ensure that the information gained from such activities is used to the fullest extent to benefit learners.

Science in The New Zealand Curriculum: Years 5 to 8 (ERO, 2012e)

The quality of leadership was a significant contributor to the quality of science teaching and learning. In schools with effective science teaching and learning, principals actively promoted this learning area. Lead teachers had a strong interest in science and worked proactively, in partnership with the principal, to foster staff knowledge and confidence.


The extracts above highlight how leaders with a high level of understanding of assessment and curriculum positively influence trustees, teachers and students to improve achievement. In some schools with poor quality leadership, trustees, teachers and students often work hard but have poor quality information to influence their decisions. Effective leaders carefully selected assessment likely to provide useful information for students, teachers, trustees and parents. The gap between the most improvement‑focused leaders and those with little capacity to make change appears wider in 2017 than in 2007.

Schools’ Charter Targets

Setting and responding to charter achievement targets is considered a key improvement activity for board trustees, leaders and teachers.

In the most successful schools, ERO found leaders used advanced leadership and relational skills to successfully include all stakeholders that could contribute to setting and achieving targets and goals. These leaders identified students for targeted action and involved their parents, teachers, leaders and trustees in their improvement.

ERO identified that in primary schools where most of the targeted children accelerated their progress, leaders designed, resourced and implemented targeted actions with a focus on improving both student outcomes and the school’s capacity for equity. They did this through a series of cyclical school processes, and inter‑related learning conversations between key parties.  Four key levels of leadership in action were:

  • the stewardship level: trustees embedding a deep commitment to equity and excellence into the school’s actions and culture
  • the pedagogical leadership level: leaders influencing the quality of the curriculum, teaching and learning across the school
  • the middle leadership level: leaders influencing curriculum design across classes, teaching as inquiry in professional learning communities; and promoting responsiveness to learner needs in every classroom
  • the individual teacher level: teachers influencing broader teacher capability, and growth in the confidence and connectedness of learners.

In many successful primary schools, leaders played a key role in linking trustees’ target‑setting with the teamwork of teachers. Actions instigated by school leaders used the expertise of the entire teaching staff to accelerate learning. Teachers fostered school‑wide success by sharing ideas with each other, and involving students and their parents in all key actions. These schools had a vision for the whole year’s progress.

In highly successful schools teachers, leaders and the board centred their inquiries on students identified as at risk of underachieving. Inquiry questions were explored with other teachers and leaders. Systems were sometimes modified to help gather evidence about what was working and what needed to be modified. Boards’ inquiries into teaching effectiveness resulted in well‑targeted resourcing decisions. Trustees asked the critical question: what difference does this intervention make to the child’s learning and wellbeing? ‑ before they agreed to fund it for a second year.

In some schools, leaders had limited capacity to make improvements or include all stakeholders in contributing to change. In these schools, more constraints than conditions for success were evident. The main constraints were: 

  • lack of depth in data gathering and evaluative reasoning
  • inadequate focus on underachievement
  • limited responsiveness in actions for school improvement
  • lack of follow through on planned actions
  • a lack of knowledge of the strategies that would make a difference.

Many leaders at the less successful schools were constrained by limitations in either their data gathering and analysis, or their ability to use evaluative reasoning. In some schools, data analysis did not give a clear understanding of achievement or underachievement. In other schools, leaders and trustees were unsure what the data told them about students’ achievement, so they had little basis on which to plan what to do next to build educational improvement.

This limited leadership reduced opportunities for trustees and other parents to contribute to improvement. Boards at the less successful schools were constrained by the quality of the reports they received and their ability to rigorously scrutinise these reports. They lacked critical information about specific needs when analysing data and setting targets. This reduced their capacity to plan for and resource an appropriate response. Often parents were not aware their child was identified for targeted support, and were therefore not able to contribute to the outcomes.

Classroom teachers in less successful schools were also often not responsive enough to the strengths, needs and interests of students at risk of underachieving. In some instances, teachers did not know whether the students in their class were part of the 85 percent already achieving at the desired levels, or part of the 15 percent yet to achieve. In other schools, actions were taken in classrooms where some data about progress was gathered by teachers. However, leaders and trustees were unaware whether that resulted in acceleration for targeted students. When teachers were not aware of, or involved in, setting or responding to the targets, they were also unable to fully involve students in taking some responsibility for their learning and improvements.