ERO found that leaders of the 12 schools we visited were all continually looking for ways to improve outcomes for their students and to make learning relevant for the future. They were striving to develop students who were both academically successful, in relation to New Zealand education standards and qualifications, as well as confident, connected and actively involved learners. Fullan’s ‘right drivers’ were clearly in evidence in the effective schools that we visited.

Schools meeting the needs of modern learners

Each of the schools in this evaluation was on a journey. These journeys started at different points, followed different routes, and had distinctly different emphases. It was clear however that the schools that were most effective shared key characteristics that had contributed to their success so far (none believed their journey was at an end). These characteristics align closely to the Building Learning Power model proposed by Claxton.

The schools were characterised by:

  • clear purpose and focus (they knew what they wanted for their students)
  • strong and distributed leadership – effectively managing change
  • a trusting, values-based culture
  • a growth mindset
  • coherence and alignment of vision, values and systems 
  • purposeful teaching and learning
  • powerful learning connections across the school community.

Collectively, these characteristics supported teachers to be innovative in their practice, take calculated risks with the curriculum, and evaluate the impact of their actions on student outcomes. Teachers and leaders collected useful data, both qualitative and quantitative, to inform their practice. They continually reflected on and adapted their practice using research and evidence to inform their decision making.

When developing innovative learning environments (ILEs)[10], effective schools took into account not only the teaching and learning but also the physical and social environments. For example, they understood the need for good acoustics and the need to establish clear expectations for behaviour and noise level. Schools that had refurbished older buildings sometimes found the acoustic properties less than ideal; for them, it was even more important to have the social parameters well established. Learning environments were orderly, with the students working purposefully. We noted that students were not distracted by each other or by visitors in their learning space. They found places where they could work well collaboratively, or quietly, apart from others.

Flexible learning spaces do not in themselves change teaching and learning in ways that translate into improved student outcomes. 

What has a positive impact is the thoughtfully planned use of the FLS: with the right teaching strategies, an FLS enables learning.

Similarly, introducing digital devices into the classroom does not of itself raise student achievement. Certainly the devices can keep students occupied, but it is the planned curriculum and the skill of the teacher that engages them in deep learning. Used well, digital devices extend and enhance learning.

Each of the schools took seriously equity issues relating to the use of digital devices, ensuring that students had equitable access and opportunities to demonstrate their learning. To make digital devices available to all, leaders entered into partnerships with local providers, obtained assistance from community trusts, or used funds generated by international student fees. Several also made their school wi-fi available to the wider school community to support the development of learning-focused partnerships with parents and whānau.

ERO found that when students were engaged in purposeful learning and the learning space was sufficiently flexible for them to have choice, this impacted positively on their behaviour.

On their improvement journeys, schools learned it was important to ensure that:

  • the school community[11] was involved in developing, and therefore understanding and buying into, the vision
  • necessary changes were managed carefully in ways that involved the school community and kept them on board
  • strategies, programmes or initiatives were adapted as necessary so they could be fully integrated into everyday school life
  • staff appointed were a good fit with the vision
  • data from ongoing evaluation of innovations was made available promptly so that necessary refinements could be implemented without delay.

In schools with students up to Year 8, leaders recognised the importance of meeting or exceeding national achievement expectations. Effective schools were quick to identify students at risk and targeted them with the aim of getting their achievement up to the national expectation: ‘making progress’ would not do; those behind must catch up. The strategies teachers used to motivate students to learn supported this acceleration. These strategies were the same ones used to sustain the progress made.

Leaders in secondary schools had a similar focus on academic achievement, but, especially in Years 9 and 10, they also focused on extending their students as learners. This intentional equipping of students for the future is what set these schools apart from those who focused only on academic achievement.

Students in these schools knew themselves as learners. They were able to describe how they learned, their strengths as learners and the skills they used. They knew which aspects of their development they needed to focus on and how to manage choices. They were self-assured when receiving assistance and guidance, and had the confidence to seek help when needed. 

In the most effective schools, students took responsibility for their own learning. They were taught how to learn; they were aware of their strengths and of areas that required further work; they could say why they were learning what they were learning and knew how to go about it; they managed themselves well, maintained focus, and clearly enjoyed their learning.

For example, Ormiston Senior College has an effective way of focusing students on their learning skills, referred to as ‘norms of behaviour and learning’ for effective lifelong learners. They apply equally to staff and students and are mapped onto the key competencies of The New Zealand Curriculum. The norms are based on the Effective Lifelong Learning Inventory (ELLI) work by Broadfoot, Claxton and Deakin-Crick at the University of Bristol.

Teachers have material that supports the integration of the norms into learning programmes. The Tools for the Teacher identify the types of task that relate to each norm and the learning processes students focus on when completing the task as in the following example:



This is a drawing of a small moth

"I approach all experiences with an open mind because every experience is an opportunity to learn and grow"

Like all butterflies and moths the Mokoroa (Puriri Moth) goes through a great period of changing and learning. It is the largest moth in New Zealand and is only found in the North Island

Type of Task

Any task that requires the student to reflect on their own learning, take part in self assessment plan or set goals.

Could include tasks such as:

  • Journal entries
  • Reflection tasks
  • Blogging 
  • Acknowledging a growth in learning 
  • Self review
  • Task creation

During LA [Learning Advisor] time the LA prints off sheets to focus on different Norms. We reflect on how far we have come related to that Norm. It makes you think as a rounded person and grow as a person. You set your goals from that.

Kea is my Norm – critical curiosity.

I need to work on Harekeke – my relationships with others in a group.

- Students, Ormiston Senior College

Students appreciate the freedom to manage themselves:

The emphasis on self motivation and learning helps prepare you for beyond school.

Flexibility is really good. Allows you to push yourself. Opportunities to build yourself.

For most people it works well. If not working – you’re monitored. Teachers are there to support and help you. 

– Students, Ormiston Senior College

The characteristics of effective schools

Schools have an ecological structure consisting of the aims to which they are committed, the structure from which they are organized, the curriculum that they employ, the teaching through which curricula are mediated and the evaluation practices used to assess its effects. The improvement of schooling, and hence the improvement of the educational experiences students have in school, require attention to all of these factors. If intentions are shallow, programmes and practice are likely to be shallow also. If school structure inhibits teachers from learning from each other, the quality of teaching is likely to be unremarkable. If pedagogy is unremarkable, interest by students in what they study is likely to be meagre and if evaluation practices belie deeper aspirations, both teachers and students will attend to evaluation practices and neglect those aspirations. Developing effective schools requires attention to the configuration among these dimensions. It requires an orchestration of these aspects of schooling. 

– Eisner (2000)

None of the seven characteristics identified in the previous section can exist by itself. For example, it would be difficult to distribute leadership or be innovative in a school that did not have a culture of trust. In a few of the case-study schools not all of the characteristics were well established, and each of these schools had experienced problems with managing or sustaining change.

We now look at each of the characteristics in more detail, identifying best practice and describing what it looked like in the case-study schools. 

Clear purpose and focus

Best practice

The school has:

  • high expectations of success – success that includes both academic achievement and development as a learner
  • clear expectations for practice that nevertheless allow flexibility in implementation.

Leaders influence student outcomes through the development of a shared vision and by ensuring that teaching and learning supports that vision.

The school’s vision looks to the future, is contextualised, and is in keeping with the principles, values and key competencies of The New Zealand Curriculum.

Leaders, teachers, students, parents and whānau all believe in and strive for success for all. The school consciously rejects deficit thinking and the practice of making excuses for poor achievement. If particular students are not achieving, teachers and leaders take this as a signal that they have not yet found a way to help them and try different approaches until they find one that works.

The school has a strong guiding framework that informs practice and instils confidence that bottom-line expectations are being met. This framework is however sufficiently flexible to allow for professional interpretation (Thompson & Wiliam, 2008) and for practice to be tailored to the needs, interests and strengths of students and teachers.

Developing the vision

Various triggers – often the appointment of a new principal or changes in the senior management team – prompted leaders and boards of trustees to take a fresh look at whether what they were achieving for their students was good enough.

Special attention was paid to reaching agreement on purpose and expectations. Engaging with the school community, leaders developed an aspirational vision that described what they all wanted for their young people. The school community committed to this vision.

Leaders then evaluated the effectiveness of all parts of the school system, using well-grounded research findings to inform their evaluation. They checked that everything aligned with the vision and identified what needed to improve to get better outcomes for students.

School leaders managed all change, focusing particularly on teaching and learning, with the aim of ensuring that students were supported to achieve valued outcomes and that the school was actively pursuing its vision. As partners in their children’s learning the community also had a continuing and important role to play in realising the vision.

Vision and valued student outcomes

Establishing a vision serves to clarify a school’s purpose in broad terms. In their vision statements, most of the case-study schools incorporated citizenship, development of values and competencies, and the importance of looking to the future.

School culture and shared values play a critical role in the way the school operates.

–Principal, St Clair School

These two vision statements emphasise preparation for the future:

Play for the long game in the world as it is today so kids don’t miss out on the future.

– Mountview School

Pakuranga College will provide an exceptional and innovative learning community that challenges, and supports students to excel and develop the skills, attitudes and values they need to succeed now and in the future. 

– Pakuranga College

These vision statements emphasise building students’ capacity as learners.

Every vision has detail sitting beneath it that clarifies what it means in terms of valued outcomes. In many of the case-study schools, these outcomes included students enjoying their learning, recognising its importance for their wellbeing, and being motivated to learn.

None of the vision statements that we saw had been plucked out of someone’s head; they had all been carefully crafted. Their power lay in how they were developed and then brought to life in the school.

Strong and distributed leadership

Best practice

Effective leaders achieve distributed leadership through:

  • recognising and capitalising on strengths across the school
  • promoting collaborative practice
  • inquiring into practice.

Sharing leadership responsibility not only grows teacher capacity, it also reinforces school-wide commitment to the vision. Leaders who share responsibility recognise strengths in other staff and make good use of them. Young teachers are given responsibility for specific developments together with the space and support they need to exercise leadership.

Leaders and teachers collect both quantitative and qualitative data to evaluate the effectiveness of initiatives and resourcing, identify students requiring additional attention, and monitor progress. The information they collect is analysed and responded to promptly.

Teachers collaboratively plan the curriculum and share responsibility for student success.

Leaders used staff meetings, often led by a staff member with relevant expertise, as forums for professional discussion. Most schools used cloud-based applications such as Google Docs or Microsoft OneNote to facilitate collaborative planning, discussion of readings, and sharing suggestions on how to accelerate or extend students. These activities provided valuable opportunities for teachers to participate as members of professional teams.

Teachers worked collaboratively, discussing student data, identifying progress and planning next learning steps, often guided by students’ own ideas about what they needed to work on.

In most schools the learning of each student was the responsibility of more than one teacher. This was especially the case where teachers were working in FLSs. Students, particularly those at risk, benefitted from having more than one set of eyes watching out for them. Students we spoke to told us that they felt supported and had at least one adult in the school with whom they could discuss any difficulties they might be having.

Leaders effectively manage change

Best practice

Leaders work to establish conditions that will support implementation of changes that are necessary to realise the school’s vision.

Leaders are accomplished managers of change. They are familiar with and use current research and evidence to inform school decision making. Leaders actively promote a trusting culture, a growth mindset in staff, alignment of systems to the vision, and teaching and learning that is innovative and strongly improvement focused. They ensure that the school community shares the vision and understands its implications, particularly for change.

Teachers are supported to continually improve their professional practice in keeping with the school vision.

Change takes time, and the rate at which it is pushed through is very important. If you move too fast and fail to take teachers and community with you, you will create unnecessary resistance and obstacles. If you move too slowly you will lose the impetus for change. Also, you must allow time for change to become embedded.

There are two theories of change in schools: slow and incremental, or fast and rapid. Both evident in this school.

At times you need to be disruptive, to push the boundaries – more outside the comfort zones. At times rapid and disruptive is necessary to effect change.

Sometimes too fast, which can be painful and challenging. Feel guilty and apologetic. Not so much now, [we are] at a time of consolidation.

– Principal, Wakefield School

School leaders explained that managing change requires different approaches depending on whether it is first- or second-order change. First-order changes are relatively easy to make, involving only a technical shift for teachers and leaving their belief systems and ways of working largely intact. Second-order changes (adaptive changes) involve a paradigm shift. They take teachers out of their comfort zones, and, for this reason, are usually more emotionally challenging and difficult to make.[12]

School leaders had found John Fisher’s Process of Transition useful when guiding their staff through change. By referring to the curve they were able to identify where a particular teacher was at and adjust their approach to suit. What was a first-order change for one might be a second-order change for another. Leaders knew it was important to tailor their support and encouragement accordingly. In the most effective schools principals would get alongside their staff, hear and discuss their misgivings, reiterate the reasons for change, and instil in them the confidence to move forward. 

It’s okay to be the rock in the river, to think before you jump into the flow. It gives you time to reflect on the rationale behind the change, embrace it and shift – so you are no longer a rock.

– Principal, St Clair School

Holding fast to the vision and communicating effectively were seen as crucial at all stages of the change process.

A trusting, values-based culture

Best practice

The school is exemplified by:

  • a supportive culture, safe learning environments
  • high levels of relational trust
  • adults who consistently model expected behaviour[13]
  • leaders who challenge and support teachers to take risks
  • teachers having professional integrity.

Innovation is encouraged. When an initiative does not have the desired impact on student outcomes teachers and leaders learn from it and either refine it or move on and try something new. Mistakes are viewed as learning opportunities.

The prevailing attitude is ‘fail fast and fail forward’, always keeping the school vision in mind. Teachers model themselves as learners.

Students are not afraid to try new things or view their work as work-in-progress. They respond positively to feedback and use it to improve their work. For many the journey is important, not just the finished product.

Leaders and teachers who were well informed, open to change and trusting of each other were most likely to succeed in shifting teaching and learning in their schools.

For the leaders in some schools, their number one priority was to establish amongst staff a culture in which these attributes were the norm.

This images is a poster from Growing Firsties. It has a rainbow flag banner across the top and reads This classroom is a Mistake making, laughter sharing, independence-building, brain stretching, sort of place! Everyone matters.

In the most effective schools, adults modelled the behaviours expected of students.

Teachers meet and plan in areas that are visible to the students – there is real transparency about their work.

– Principal, Auckland Normal Intermediate

A growth mindset[14]

Best practice

Within the school:

  • adults are open to innovations
  • leaders build teacher capacity through carefully targeted professional learning and development (PLD)
  • the impact of innovations is evaluated and refinements made to secure improved outcomes for students.

To know about and understand current best practice, school leaders read widely and make full use of professional learning opportunities. Their thinking (for example, about how to work with the school community or develop a shared vision) is informed by research findings. They know what PLD their staff most need and when it should be provided.

Teacher inquiries into practice, whether individual or collaborative, are routine. With a focus on improving teaching and learning these inquiries support the achievement of valued student outcomes and realisation of the school’s vision.

Just as curriculum was tailored to the needs of students, PLD was carefully aligned to where teachers were at and targeted at the point of curiosity. Schools used a mix of external and internal expertise, whole-staff meetings, syndicate or departmental meetings, professional learning groups and individualised PLD to increase teacher capacity. Many schools used Ministry programmes to change aspects of school culture, adapting the programmes as necessary to embed the changes in the school.

Teachers told us of the enjoyment they had gained from working on collaborative inquiries. They also spoke about an increased sense of purpose and of belonging to a professional team, the reward of seeing students really engaged in their learning, a reduction in behavioural issues, and an increased ability to focus on their own professional growth.

Teachers’ professional practice

Expectations about professional practice were driven by valued student outcomes. For many teachers, growing 21st century learners involved a paradigm shift. They had to find ways of teaching that would support students to learn in greater breadth and depth, as well as developing their agency. Appropriate PLD supported teachers to make the required changes.

In almost all cases, changes in professional practice involved deprivatisation of practice as teachers worked collaboratively with other staff and assumed collective responsibility for delivering a fit-for-purpose curriculum. The introduction of FLSs and digital technologies were often catalysts for change and facilitated change. Both necessitated careful planning to extend and enhance learning and required teachers to collaborate over the use of space and resources,. Teachers had to work as a team and open up their practice to the scrutiny and support of the colleagues.

Teachers knew their students well. They collected data, both qualitative and quantitative, worked together to understand what it was telling them, decided how they would respond to identified student needs, and then planned the curriculum accordingly. Teachers inquired into own practice, identifying what was and was not promoting student learning, and were always striving to be more effective.

Coherence and alignment of vision, values and systems

Best practice

The school has:

  • streamlined administrative systems
  • strength and congruence across the six domains that have a significant influence on school effectiveness and improvement.

Given that teaching and learning is the core business of the school, leaders prune administrative demands back to what is deemed essential so that teachers can focus on the core business. For example, no unnecessary assessment takes place, and data that is collected is well used.

Leaders and teachers use technology to improve the flow of information between school and parents. This strengthens the involvement of parents and whānau in their children’s learning.

The vision and valued student outcomes are always at the forefront and drive everything that happens in the school: systems, allocation of resources, PLD provision, and appraisal are all tied back to the desired outcomes.

As schools embarked on their improvement journeys they oriented their endeavours towards the primary focus, the driver for change. Although the focus was different in each case depending on context and needs, what was consistent across the schools was that they realigned their systems and processes to facilitate the desired change. For some, this realignment was planned for at the outset, while for others, the flow-on effect of changes in one area became the catalyst for a broader review of how systems were hindering or supporting change.

Adults in the school community understood and owned the vision and consistently reiterated the same message. For every decision, system and action there had to be a convincing answer to the question ‘How will this help us to achieve our vision and desired student outcomes?’

By refining and streamlining school systems leaders made it possible for teachers to focus on teaching and learning instead of spending undue time on administration.

Diminish the clutter - we’re not spending so much time on the stuff that doesn’t make a difference to learning – so more finite energy can go on what does make a difference.

– Principal, St Clair School

This school is very different. The difference is the focus and emphasis on learning. Syndicate meetings at other schools were high on admin content – here it’s learning.

– Teacher, St Clair School

In one school, school leaders recognised the need to provide teachers with time to work collaboratively so they rearranged the timetable to make it happen. Another school found that the move to FLSs triggered changes in curriculum design, how teachers taught and students learned, professional learning requirements and appraisal processes. The vignettes in the next section (School stories, page 26) describe some of the changes that school leaders made to bring systems into alignment with their vision and desired outcomes.

Some leaders developed close professional links with neighbouring schools, and some but not all were in Communities of Learning | Kāhui Ako (CoLs). Leaders in CoLs had similar visions for their students, and teachers shared their teaching practice. By collaborating professionally, leaders and teachers were able to ensure for students a greater measure of continuity in the learning experience and more similar expectations regarding agency.

Purposeful teaching and learning

Best practice

Teaching and learning:

  • engages and stretches the students
  • develops in students increased responsibility for their own achievement and growth as learners
  • develops resilience in teachers and students.

Teachers situate learning in relevant contexts and deliberately develop in students the attributes and competencies of learners.

Most teachers also plan for students to have a say in what and how they learn. Having a say involves more than choosing between two alternatives; it means that, while the teacher continues to specify the learning outcomes, students are increasingly able to determine how they work towards those outcomes. As a prerequisite, teachers first build their students’ capacity to manage themselves. They provide prompt and constructive feedback and coach the students to do the same for each other. Teachers are skilful in identifying how much support each student needs to achieve the specified outcomes and then providing just the right amount.

Students are focused on their learning. They have a sense of purpose; they talk about what they are learning, how they are learning, and the ‘what and why’ of next steps. Relationships between teachers and students are respectful and there is no stigma in asking for or receiving help. Teachers acknowledge that they too are learning, often from their students. This is a realisation of ako – reciprocal learning.

ERO saw that teachers deliberately planned to develop their students’ capacity as learners. Valued student outcomes – part of the vision – were well promoted in learning spaces and integrated into the curriculum and school systems. Teachers referred students to visual prompts on the walls and students often kept journals in which they reflected on how they were measuring up against the valued outcomes.

After five years at college you have the values embedded in your character to do the right thing, building up self-discipline.

We know them off by heart. Always promoted at assemblies. It makes it [sic] our behaviours. They are implicit. We don’t think about them anymore, we just do them.

Teachers let you be more autonomous, develop the way you learn, develop our own solutions to the problems. They enable you to do that. It’s a gradual release from Year 9–11, developing the skills to do it by Year 13, you have the freedom to do it your own way.

– Students, Pakuranga College

Most of the schools started early to build their students’ capacity to reflect on their learning and manage themselves. Some had rubrics that students used to identify where they were in relation to a task, and this helped motivate them. The rubric might be displayed as a wall chart, in which case students could see how they were tracking on the timeline relative to their peers, and which of their peers could be asked for help or might value help. Students were discerning when asking for assistance.

I know the home room teacher the best – great relationship. They [the teachers] have different strengths – writing with one, another teacher for maths and reading.

Can go to anyone if you need help: teachers, students, workshops. 1:1 devices are a great tool with our learning – more organised now – timetable on it. I can organise what suits me, also set the tasks I have to do

– Year 5 students, Ngatea Primary School

In some schools students established their own timetables for learning. These typically included set core activities, independent or collaborative project work and participation in workshops as needed.

Many students were able to clearly describe what learning meant to them and how to achieve as learners. In some cases they engaged actively with their teacher in the assessment of their own work.

The purpose of school is to set us up with the knowledge and skills to further our own education, so people need to be taught skills like Growth Mindset, time management, learner agency – not just reading, writing and maths.

– Year 5 student, Ngatea Primary School

I think hard. I know when I get challenged I learn new things. You understand how you learn.

We need to be able to think things.

– Year 6 students, St Clair School

We have success criteria – know what you have to do to achieve.

We have a rubric, self-rank. Teachers talk with us and we explain where we are at.

Learning fits to interest. [We have] success pathways in different ways, different to normal schools where it’s ‘do this to pass the test’.

Teachers help us talk about this learning. It comes naturally to us. We’re not meaning to be smart and we’re not putting it on for you! It’s part of our everyday language.

– Year 8 students, Auckland Normal Intermediate

It is important to note that achievement was not compromised as a result of giving students greater responsibility for their own learning. At the same time as they were developing their students’ learning competencies, leaders were also keeping a close eye on achievement.

Agentic learning is great, but we always come back to the data.

– Leaders, St Clair School

Powerful learning connections across the community

Best practice

School leaders work so that:

  • the school community helps to develop the vision for their young people
  • parents understand how learning takes place in the school and are able to talk the language of learning and support their children.

The school engages with its community to help members understand the changes that are taking place in teaching and learning. Relationships between students, parents, whānau and teachers are strong and respectful. Parents regard teachers as trusted professionals and are clear about and support the school’s vision.

Effective schools used a variety of strategies to actively engage parents, discuss the different teaching and learning their children were experiencing, and reassure parents that these changes would raise achievement and help their children develop as learners. Several leaders said that the most useful strategy was to invite parents into the school to see what was actually happening in classrooms, explain the rationale behind the changes, and show parents how they could support learning at home. Several schools provided parents with the web address of the Ministry’s parents’ portal, which has useful suggestions on how to support their children’s learning.

[10]       An ILE is the whole context in which learning is intended to take place. It encompasses the physical space (the FLS), the social aspects and the pedagogy.

[11]       The school community refers to the board of trustees (including proprietors’ representatives, if any), leaders, teachers, students, parents and whānau.

[12]       An informative PowerPoint presentation by the West Virginia Department of Education (Postelwait), The 21st century leadership challenge: Leading second-order change, is largely based on Marzano’s work.

[13]       This consistency is a feature documented in Lucas et al. Lucas, B., Claxton, G. and Spencer, E. (2013) Expansive education: teaching learners for the real world. Camberwell: Vic ACER Press.

[14]       Dweck (2006)