In September and October of 2012 a group of 16 schools identified a target cohort of Year 12 students who were at risk of not achieving the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) Level 2 by the end of 2012. This was part of a Ministry of Education focus on the Better Public Services goal of 85 percent of 18- year-olds achieving NCEA Level 2, or an equivalent qualification, by 2017.

Schools were also asked what might be achieved if they focused their efforts on these students. The Ministry did not prescribe strategies which schools should use to help learners achieve, but encouraged schools to find their own, local solutions.

NCEA achievement data collated for each of the target students at the 16 schools indicated that 189 of the 311 target students, or 61 percent, achieved NCEA Level 2 by the end of 2012. Another 31 percent remained at school in 2013. Eight percent did not gain NCEA Level 2 and did not return to school. Approximately 64 percent of the Māori students targeted, and 62 percent of the Pacific students targeted, gained NCEA Level 2 in 2012.

These results are encouraging although it is difficult to judge how many of these students would have achieved NCEA Level 2 regardless of any intervention. It is, however, possible to identify the useful practices that schools have demonstrated in the course of this work. These practices are the focus of this report.

In this evaluation ERO visited 13 of the 16 schools to investigate the nature and the quality of practices schools used. ERO found that, in many cases, the strategies used by these schools align with other examples of responsive schooling identified by ERO.[1] These included:

  • individualised learning and support given to students
  • careful tracking and monitoring of student achievement
  • positive relationships developed with students and their families
  • robust review and improvement of teaching and support initiatives.

To help all schools make the most of these useful practices, this report includes specific examples of good practice along with self-review questions. Schools should use these materials to consider their own responsiveness to students.

Schools made a focused effort for individual students. Whether it was the motivation to achieve a particular school target, or the initiatives taken by some teachers, the attempts by schools to ‘find a way’ for as many individuals in the target cohort as possible shows something of what can be done to improve the achievement of some students, even in the very short term.

Schools identified a number of 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) and a weakening of the idea that failure was the student’s fault
  • greater staff awareness of the issues facing at-risk students and priority learners at their school and the specific challenges students faced in achieving NCEA qualifications
  • more talk among students about gaining credits, including merit and excellence endorsements and the targets they needed to reach
  • students having a better understanding of themselves as successful learners
  • positive changes in some students’ attitudes towards NCEA and school
  • the increased retention of individual students into Year 13.

Following the discussion of the beneficial practices of schools, this report identifies some of the challenges and opportunities presented by the pilot. There are, for example, challenges related to which credits are gained by students. ERO found, at a few of the schools, too great a focus on credit acquisition - potentially at the expense of supporting students’ identified pathways to future education, training and employment.

The 16 schools now have an opportunity to modify and expand the target cohorts they focus on. While the nominal focus was on students aiming to achieve NCEA Level 2, potentially more gains could be made if schools also focus on students who disengage before they have achieved NCEA Level 1, including those in Years 9 and 10.

An ongoing challenge for the schools involved in this initiative, and for other schools who set out to improve their NCEA achievement, is ensuring that the useful practices and achievements gained with a target cohort of students, and typically involving a minority of staff, can be scaled up and implemented more broadly across their schools.