The findings section of this report focuses on the good practices of the targeted schools. These practices are consistent with those found by ERO in other evaluations.[6] They are discussed under the following headings:

  • responding to individual students
  • building positive relationships with students and their families
  • tracking and monitoring student progress
  • reviewing and improving teaching and support initiatives.

The report also includes a set of self-review questions that can be used by schools to reflect on and improve their responsiveness to individual students.

The findings section finishes with a discussion of the challenges linked to this work. Key challenges include the importance of schools using student pathways as a basis for improving NCEA outcomes and the need for schools to develop sustainable, whole-school approaches to student achievement.

Good Practice

Responding to individual students

The 13 schools in this evaluation have generally gained a greater sense of urgency in fostering student achievement. ERO found examples of schools developing practice more responsive to the individual academic, pastoral and careers needs of their target cohort. As one school leader said “we’ve suddenly started talking about students”.

The process usually began by each target student having an individual plan of action. The students were interviewed by staff and specific goals were developed about attendance and achievement. In many cases this planning also included the preferred career pathway of the student and the NCEA credits that supported this pathway.

Most of these schools also placed a greater emphasis on the pastoral wellbeing of students. Schools, for example, responded more quickly to issues such as behaviour and attendance. In one school the focus on pastoral wellbeing was extended to some students having transport paid for and resources, such as uniforms and calculators, provided.

In the classrooms, some teachers had modified their normal programmes to better suit the pathways of individual students. In some schools, department heads modified the credits available in particular courses, including offering additional supplementary credits better suited to the students’ needs.

Most of the schools increased the range of additional learning opportunities and support strategies for students. Specific examples of these included:

  • catch-up sessions in the lunch break, evenings, holidays and study break, with food often available
  • immediate attention to students who missed work or fell behind
  • producing templates to support student note-taking
  • opportunities for students to work cooperatively in groups and pairs in preparation for individual assessments
  • a buddy system for peer support in class
  • phone-text reminders to students about examinations.

One school ensured that there was a focus early in the year on literacy and numeracy credits and placed a second teacher in mathematics and English classes to allow for more attention for individual students.

Through their focus on individual students, some schools realised that there were uneven levels of internal assessment through the school year. These schools subsequently identified the need for a more planned approach to internal assessment with more assessment opportunities occurring earlier in the year.

Improving achievement at one urban secondary school

This school had already developed a target cohort when approached by the Ministry in September 2012. During 2011, the school had focused on improving its NCEA Level 1 results, which showed a marked improvement by the end of that year. In 2012, the school focused on 23 students who had achieved Level 1 with the aim of getting each of these students through NCEA Level 2. Results showed that 18 of the 23 students achieved NCEA Level 2, with another two students, who had yet to achieve NCEA Level 2, returning to school in 2013. The improvements shown in the target cohort were also reflected in significant increases in the number of other students achieving NCEA Level 1 and 2.

The focus on this cohort occurred in a school-wide context where several professional development projects improved staff focus on the needs of individual learners. These projects included:

  • He Kākano and the Te Kotahitanga [7] Effective Teaching Profile
  • School-wide PB4L
  • Information communication technology (ICT) professional development project that had assisted teachers to more effectively analyse and use student achievement information.

Direct academic support for the target students included subject teachers establishing evening classes, lunch-time catch-up sessions and immediate individual support for students who had been absent. The school placed additional focus on students achieving literacy and numeracy credits, placing additional staffing into English and mathematics classes. Teachers used exemplars to set clear expectations for what students needed to know and be able to do to achieve NCEA standards, and gave students templates to support their note-taking study skills. School holidays were used to catch students up and only students who had achieved the set number of credits were eligible for study leave later in the year.

Across the school, pastoral support was provided for students through form-group teachers who had small vertical groups of approximately 10 students. These teachers developed good relationships with parents and made contact when pastoral or behavioural issues arose at school, as well as when there was reason to celebrate success. The parents of the target cohort became very involved in their child’s education as they increased their knowledge of NCEA and recognised the efforts of staff. Parents who ERO talked to described significant attitude changes in their adolescent children and the improved focus they developed on achievement.

Over the two years of this work teachers have considerably improved their tracking and monitoring of student achievement. They have spent much more time celebrating student achievement, and making these achievements known to the parents of individual students. Teachers have become more focused on individual student programmes and seen the value in Gateway, the Services’ Academy and connections with tertiary education. The school’s achievement targets have been increased for 2013 as part of an overall strategy of building on the efforts of 2011 and 2012.

Responding to individual students – self-review questions for schools

  • Which students at our school require additional support? Who are these students and what support do they need? Do we currently provide that support?
  • What processes exist at our school to identify and support individual learners who need support? How well do the academic, pastoral and careers aspects of our school work together for each of these students?
  • To what extent do we have systems in place to respond quickly and effectively to students whose attendance, behaviour and/or learning are not on track?

Building positive relationships with students and their families

Many of the schools already had a focus on building positive relationships with students and their families. This was often supported by ongoing participation in initiatives such as He Kākano and PB4L. Many of these schools were also focused on particular cohorts of students and had approaches in place to develop positive, constructive relationships, especially between some staff and students at risk of underachievement.

From this starting point, most of the schools in this evaluation developed their relationships with their target cohorts by providing a mentor or support teacher who closely monitored student progress. Sometimes this role was taken by a dean, while in some schools students were assigned to particular teachers. These teachers assisted students to navigate the New Zealand Qualifications Framework (NZQF) and to develop strategies for achieving their educational and pathway goals. The mentor teachers advocated for students. For example, they worked with subject teachers to extend deadlines, accept resubmitted work, or to provide additional assessment opportunities for students who had been absent. The mentors also brokered extra teaching support from some subject teachers.

Staff in these mentor roles were more likely to use a ‘problem-solving’ approach with students, rather than a critical or punitive manner. The approach was much more about ‘how can we fix this?’ rather than ‘what has gone wrong now?’ From this basis, staff concentrated on helping students to develop positive attitudes and raise their expectations for achievement.

In some of the schools, the strong relationships between staff and students were also reflected in the close liaison between school personnel and the families of students. This meant, for example, that parents were included in a team effort to support student achievement. Parents became more involved by attending meetings about their student’s progress and goals. They were given additional information about NCEA, which helped them to monitor their teenager’s progress. Regular communication with parents was maintained by schools through phone calls, email, Facebook and texting. In one school, teachers visited homes and worked with students in holiday time.

Small school flexibility in meeting individual needs

This example describes the responsive practice of an Area school (Years 1–13) with a small senior secondary cohort. Because of the composite nature of the school, most of the students were very well known to staff. Good relationships between staff and students formed a starting point for good support for individual students.

Each secondary student, from Year 11 onwards has a staff mentor. Students have used this relationship to set goals for their achievement and their future pathways. Students take responsibility for reporting back to teachers and their parents through the regular up-to-date reports on progress towards meeting their goals. A weekly meeting of senior staff discusses any students at risk of underachievement.

Students in the senior school receive one-to-one careers support. A careers unit in Year 10 provides students with the opportunity to explore their future interests and identify possible pathways. Field trips to the nearest university and a local polytechnic have helped students explore their options. At the end of the year each Year 10 student is interviewed to ensure that there is a good alignment between their Year 11 subject choices and their identified pathways. Ongoing contact with the school’s careers advisor and their teacher-mentor means that pathways continue to be a focus through Years 11 to 13.

The school has a flexible, 10-day timetable that accommodates differing student needs. Courses are delivered to small multi-level classes. Teachers tailor the content of the programme to individual students meaning that students can focus on aspects that relate most closely to their pathway.

The school’s curriculum has drawn on external providers to ensure that each student’s programme is relevant to their future. Secondary and tertiary external providers have been used, including Te Aho o Te Kura Pounamu (The Correspondence School). The school has accessed learning materials through video conference as well as online delivery methods. Students have also taken part in the school’s Gateway programme, as well as the local Trades Academy.

Teachers have been generous with their time. They have used non-contact times, weekends and holidays to provide opportunities for students to catch-up on work. A particular feature of the school is the three days per term set aside for all senior students to receive targeted assistance with gaining credits. The timetable is collapsed for this work and staff from inside the school, and from its external partners, work with individual student

Building relationships – self-review questions for schools

  • How effective is our school in actively monitoring the success of students at risk of underachievement? Do our students have access to a staff member who works as a mentor, provides direct support and is able to broker opportunities to gain NCEA credits?
  • To what extent do the parents of our students understand the pathways and goals of their child? What systems do we use to tell parents about their child’s progress and involve them in processes to support student success?

Tracking and monitoring student progress

Close tracking and monitoring of individual students was central to schools identifying and responding to the needs of their students. Some schools made a significant shift in managing student data. In particular, some schools recognised how little use they made of their student management system in monitoring student attendance and achievement. These schools found that they did not have good systems to record internal assessment data. As data was often not recorded in a timely manner, staff could not use their student management systems to accurately identify the number of credits students had achieved.

When accurate and timely data was available to staff, they used it to track attendance and achievement for target students across their different subjects. Such information made it possible to see if students were achieving their academic goals and meant that staff could see, as soon as possible, if a student was struggling.

The importance of accurate data and effective tracking was so valued by one school that the school’s leadership team provided teachers with additional time to carry out their monitoring of students. At another school, a second dean was appointed for Years 11-13 to track student attendance and achievement.

The tracking and monitoring of students – self-review questions for schools

  • To what extent can our teachers easily identify how many NCEA credits have been achieved by a student across each of their subjects and overall?
  • To what extent do our teaching staff follow the school’s systems to enter attendance and achievement data in a timely manner?
  • What processes do we have in place to identify and support students if they fall behind on NCEA assessments?

Reviewing and improving teaching and support initiatives

Most of the staff from the target schools had informally reflected on their efforts in 2012 and considered the implications for school practices in 2013. One school had documented the review of their work with the target cohort. As part of this process, school leaders had interviewed students about what could be done better in 2013.

Schools reviewed aspects, such as the timeliness of data entry and the distribution of assessment activities through the academic year. Individual schools identified the positive aspects of this work and started implementing changes in how they respond to individual students.

In discussions with ERO, school personnel identified the positive impacts of their work in 2012. These included:

  • gains in individual student achievement and NCEA qualifications
  • raising staff and student expectations of what could be achieved (even in a relatively short space of time)
  • the increased retention of individual students into Year 13
  • greater staff awareness of the issues facing at-risk students and priority learners at their school
  • obvious positive changes in some students’ attitudes towards NCEA and school
  • more talk among students about gaining credits, including merit and excellence endorsements
  • students having a better understanding of themselves as successful learners
  • students being more conscious of the credits they had gained and the targets they needed to reach
  • a weakening of the idea that failure was the student’s fault
  • greater appreciation by teachers of the specific challenges students faced in achieving NCEA qualifications.

All but two of the 13 schools showed evidence of continuing or improving on the strategies that were implemented in 2012. Some of these schools saw this as a continuation of their practices to improve NCEA achievement. The aspects schools identified for further development in 2013 included:

  • the earlier identification of students needing support
  • refining of school-data systems
  • the closer monitoring and tracking of all students
  • improving the way students were mentored
  • an emphasis on developing relevant and useful programmes of learning
  • setting stretch targets for 2013
  • professional learning and development (PLD) for staff on effective teaching strategies and constructing individual student development plans.

One school’s journey towards whole-school change

This school had achieved a high level of staff commitment to support the target cohort. It had some strategies already in place, before it was contacted by the Ministry, but its efforts overall were significantly influenced by a Ministry of Education Student Achievement Function Practitioner (SAFP). As the principal of the school stated:

The school created the goals (for this project) with her support. The SAFP facilitated very well. ... She helped us understand how to use the data.

The data for this project had been generated through the school’s involvement in the Starpath project. The target cohort of 40 Year 12 students, who had between 20 and 30 credits at NCEA Level 2, was chosen by the school. Staff estimated that approximately 80 percent of these students would not have achieved NCEA Level 2 in 2012 without additional support.

Students in the target cohort were supported through mentoring by a ‘familiar’ adult. Some students were already involved in a mentoring programme where they chose the adult. Mentors were carefully selected, with most of the matching done by the principal and a deputy principal. Each mentor was responsible for between one and three students.

Individual plans were drawn up with the students and individual profiles were set up in the student management system, including information on credit accumulation. These profiles were accessible to all staff, and were regularly updated and monitored by the principal and other senior leaders.

The students met fortnightly with their mentor who helped them monitor their progress. The mentors were responsible for checking that the courses were appropriate, offered sufficient credits and had the right balance to support their student’s career aspirations. Discussions were held with parents to build a partnership to support students. Mentors and the Year 12 Dean visited the homes of students who had attendance concerns.

Whole-staff expectations were developed and displayed in the staff room. All staff were required to respond to target students’ requests and to record internal NCEA data promptly. A credit scoreboard (without names) was displayed for all staff showing the number of students who had achieved a targeted level of credits. Some staff responded to the school’s urgency for the target group by providing support classes in the end of Term 3 break. All students in the target group attended these additional classes.

The additional support provided to the target cohort has most likely influenced improvements in the school’s overall achievement in NCEA Level 2. The roll-based data for Year 12 students, for example, showed a 21 percent increase on 2011, with an 11 percent increase compared to the 2010 results.

How effective is your school’s self review?

  • How well is our school focused on improving its responsiveness to students across academic, pastoral and careers domains?
  • To what extent has our school used the Career Benchmarks (Careers NZ) to review the effectiveness of its careers provision across the curriculum?
  • How well do our Māori and Pacific students achieve? What is needed to significantly improve the curriculum for individual Māori and Pacific students at our school now? What school-wide strategies might be needed to improve our responsiveness for groups such as Māori students and Pacific students?
  • How well prepared are our school leavers? What information does our school have about the destinations of its leavers? How well prepared were they for their pathways from school? What can our school do to better prepare future school leavers?

Challenges and opportunities

In addition to the good practices identified above, ERO also identified some significant challenges that school personnel should address when attempting to improve the proportion of their students receiving NCEA qualifications. These challenges are discussed under the following headings:

Providing credible pathways for students

A risk of an increased focus on students achieving NCEA qualifications is that credit acquisition becomes a goal in itself without due consideration given to whether the credits gained are relevant to a student’s future. In a few of the schools in this evaluation, students did acquire credits that were not well aligned to their intended career pathways. Some of these students had acquired credits via off-site courses that operated over a weekend or during the term break. These ‘short-term’ opportunities had little relevance to the career goals of these students and did little to facilitate opportunities for more advanced study.

All schools need to ensure that student pathways, and the development of their career management competencies, are central to efforts to improve their achievement. [8] ERO found that in most of the schools in this project, NCEA success was aligned to student pathways. For example, some schools provided students with opportunities to acquire the necessary literacy and numeracy credits within the context of more relevant or favoured subject areas. Other schools provided students with some opportunities to gain credits through off-site courses. This was done within the context of the student’s career aspirations.

Developing a sustainable, whole-school approach

Most of the schools used a small number of staff to provide enhanced support for their target students. At each school, varying numbers of other staff supported these students as part of their role as subject teachers and departmental heads.

A challenge for many of the schools in this evaluation was to increase the number of staff working with students and the number of students who benefit from individualised support. Many senior leaders had identified that getting whole-staff buy-in would be a key challenge in 2013. For some schools this will involve normalising the increased individual attention given to some (if not all) students.

Developing a more whole-school approach, for most schools, will involve some coordinated professional development for teachers, particularly in the timely use of data for earlier tracking and monitoring of students. In some cases this professional development should include staff training on the effective use of student management systems. One school had already identified that improvements in its reporting and appraisal processes were making teachers more accountable for student outcomes.

Extending the range of students targeted

While the Ministry suggested that schools focus on students who were within 20 credits of achieving NCEA Level 2, schools also placed their focus on various other groups of students. Some schools were focused on students who were likely to miss achieving NCEA Level 2 by much more than 20 credits. Some schools were already focused on Year 11 students attempting NCEA Level 1, as they considered this qualification an important gateway to success at higher levels. Some smaller schools saw all senior students as their target group.

Some schools identified that they needed to respond much earlier to student needs and be more proactive in providing relevant learning opportunities. In some cases staff indicated to ERO that working with NCEA Level 2 candidates earlier in the year was important, as was extending a similar approach for students yet to pass NCEA Level 1. One school had concluded that their responsiveness should start for students at Years 9 and 10.

An examination of New Zealand’s NCEA Level 1 achievement data suggests that the issues preventing some students from achieving NCEA Level 2 go much further than their education in Year 12. As the table below shows, there are more students who do not achieve NCEA Level 1 than there are students who achieve NCEA Level 1 but do not go on to achieve NCEA Level 2.

Table 1: The number of school leavers who do not achieve NCEA Level 1 [9]


Total school leavers

Achieved NCEA Level 2

Achieved NCEA Level 1 (but not Level 2)

Did not achieve NCEA Level 1


63 362

45 464

7 651

10 247


63 307

43 458

8 399

11 280


59 901

39 774

8 073

12 054

Such evidence, in combination with other data, [10] underlines how important it is for students to have high quality schooling throughout Years 1 to 10 if they are to succeed in NCEA qualifications. Secondary schools, for example, need to have systems for ‘catching up’ students in Years 9 and 10, as well as those students in 

Involving the Board of Trustees

It was evident, in this evaluation, that trustees were not well informed about school actions to lift NCEA achievement. Boards did not receive student achievement data about this project or self-review reports. Principals should ensure that board members are informed about such efforts and that they consider the implications of this information within their roles as trustees.