St Clair School

Key points

  • Quality learning throughout the school develops student agency
  • Variety of activities and provision for different kinds of learning drive high levels of engagement
  • A clear, evidence-based purpose for the use of digital technology and the flexible learning space (FLS)
  • Digital technologies are appropriately integrated into the curriculum and facilitate parental involvement in their children’s learning
  • Use of the FLS encourages and necessitates deeper collaboration between teachers.


St Clair School is determined to find the best ways to promote learning for the whole child – socially, culturally, physically and cognitively.

School leaders have an in-depth understanding of a wide range of research material and this has enabled them to develop a clear philosophy of learning and vision. Their focus is on ‘learning that matters and learning that lasts’: authentic, contextualised learning that prepares students for the future. The result is an integrated curriculum that scaffolds students’ development as learners through the school years.

System changes

The streamlining of systems and repurposing of teacher meetings have significantly increased teachers’ focus on learning. The importance of this cannot be underestimated.

Professional learning and development

The school’s pedagogy has changed over the last ten years in line with its developing vision. At every stage change was carefully considered and the rationale worked through with teachers. For example the school did not rush into collaborative teaching. Together, teachers and leaders explored three key questions: What are the benefits for learning? Why should we do it? What are the characteristics our teachers need to be working towards?

External experts provided professional learning and development (PLD), building on learning guided by the principal in previous years. This PLD was tailored to teachers’ readiness to listen, explore implications of change, and adapt practice accordingly. Visiting other schools and seeing effective teaching in action proved a powerful strategy for moving teachers forward. They would return from such visits energised and ready to move from theory to practice.

The visits as a whole team really got us going – excited.

– Teachers

School leaders told us that to maximise the impact of school visits it was important to be clear about their purpose.

The school takes a strategic approach to PLD. It begins with the whole staff looking at the big picture. This ‘big picture’ PLD is then contextualised at syndicate level and strengthened through quality learning circles, where teachers share what it means for their own practice or inquiries. These cross-syndicate quality circles are led by a different teacher each year, which grows leadership capacity at the same time as it promotes school-wide coherence. By keeping the focus on good teaching practice quality circles steer clear of defeatist conversations and people’s ‘war stories’.

Using digital technology in the service of learning

The school was an early adopter of technology and an Apple school, complete with computer suite. When the servers needed replacing, changes in device capability and reliability, and a deal with a local provider, persuaded the school to go with cost-effective, cloud-based Chromebooks. The computer suite was disestablished in 2010. The youngest students now have iPads and the others Chromebooks, with iMacs also available for them to use. The school provides all of these.[18]

Digital technologies have been instrumental in improving the quality of teachers’ discussions about student progress and enhancing collective responsibility. The school uses G Suite as their student management system. This has enabled staff to streamline their keeping of achievement and pastoral data and take a team approach to monitoring student progress, both individual and collective. Teachers say it is user friendly and helps them respond to students’ needs in an appropriate and timely manner.

Digital technology provides the means for parents and whānau to communicate with the school quickly and efficiently. This has reduced administration costs and enabled resources to be redirected to teaching and learning. A Mac mini is now sufficient to manage all administration requirements.

Because parents have access to their children’s Google docs they can engage with their progress and directly insert pictures, play videos and add feedback or they can send material by email. For example, a child contacted her mother for some information relating to work she was engaged in, saying ‘Remember we talked about this. Can you email me the link?’

A well-established school value is caring. By extension students apply this to their devices, with just one loss and very few breakages in the past four years.

St Clair students are confident users of digital technologies and view them as powerful tools in their learning kit.

Curriculum and pedagogy

Teachers are trusted and empowered as professionals. They have sufficient scope to innovate while operating within a clear framework of curriculum expectations. Accountability comes through collaborative working, shared responsibility for learners, and reflective practice.

The school continues to develop its approach to collaborative teaching, aiming to retain the sense of belonging that having one main teacher and classroom gives students while providing an opening for them to learn from others. When in the FLS they readily seek guidance from any teacher present, from other students, and from learning assistants (previously teacher aides).

Teachers in the FLS like the fact that they can draw on their colleagues’ expertise at any time but recognise that, for collaborative teaching to work well, there must be a high degree of consistency in behavioural expectations and pedagogical practice. Increased dialogue, both informal and formal, has been directed at achieving consistency. Teachers at the school know all the students, not just those in their own classrooms; this facilitates shared teaching and discussion about students’ wellbeing and progress.

We spoke to a learning assistant who has seen many positive changes at the school in her time, including some that she found hard to accept at first. For example, she was working with a child with dyspraxia who returned to the same action station ten times. She wanted to intervene and move him to another station, but resisted the impulse. Eventually, after he had finally mastered the task of cutting in a straight line, the student moved himself on. Not only had he had the opportunity to persevere, but also achieving his objective had boosted his confidence as a learner. He was delighted and the learning assistant acknowledged that this would not have happened had she intervened. She had discovered the power of giving students choice.

Using the curriculum and flexible learning spaces to build independence

School leaders redesigned the school learning spaces in ways that enhance curriculum and pedagogy. In this video the previous principal explains some of the thinking behind the redesign. Notice how focused the students are on their learning. We also observed this when we visited.

Teachers carefully plan for students to become increasingly responsible for themselves and their own learning. Teachers have a framework that supports students’ developing independence, ensures that learning is challenging and provides opportunities for them to achieve age-appropriate outcomes.

The school years are conceptualised as three stages, each designed to develop students’ capacity as learners and a disposition for life-long learning. First, they experience ‘action stations’ where they can choose an activity to work on. Next come ‘learning hubs’, and finally, ‘passion projects’. At each successive stage students are supported to go more deeply into their explorations and therefore more deeply into their learning.

Literacy and numeracy are embedded naturally in the curriculum from learning hubs and up. As the students grow in knowledge and confidence they share their new learning with others, which further consolidates their learning.

Learning is fun.

– Students

Students make purposeful use of learning spaces. They choose between different activities and work in groups, individually, in quiet areas, with or without teachers, using whatever tools are appropriate for the task.

[You] can chose to work alone, in own space if you want or need to be really focused.

– Students

Furniture is a tool of agency – forces the children to make choices but the choices must be about learning not friends.

– School leader

This is a photo of children working at various tasks

Most students confidently select and use the best tool for the job. If using a digital device they can explain clearly why and how it helps their learning.

Thanks to St Clair’s open learning space, students see children of all year levels engaged in learning. This makes their within-school transitions easier because they have already learned alongside older students and know what to expect.

School staff understand the importance of parents and whānau knowing what teaching their child is experiencing and what they are learning. Parents are warmly welcomed into the school to see how learning spaces are used and how action stations, learning hubs and passion projects are supporting the development of capable learners. Student-run curriculum assemblies also draw in and inform parents. When they know what is going on, parents become more engaged in their children’s learning.

Till you see it, it’s hard to get a real feel for what it was.

– Parent

Student outcomes

Students at St Clair are trusted and empowered to learn. Careful scaffolding of learning opportunities builds agency and develops in them the skills they need to take responsibility for their own learning. Students recognise that asking for help is a natural and often necessary part of the learning process. Indeed, they were quite surprised when asked if it was embarrassing to be singled out to work one-to-one with an adult.

It’s OK to get help from an adult – we all need help at different times – lots help - including students helping the teacher.

 – Student

With its emphasis on student agency, the school’s innovative learning environment (FLS, teaching and learning, and culture) has supported students to develop persistence, collaborative skills and resilience. Because they are able to make choices about what they do, where they will do it, and for how long, they become actively engaged learners, strongly focused on their work.

We notice the change in the students’ work focus – they are purposeful.

– Parent

We asked the students to tell or show us what helped them learn. They made some very insightful comments, most of which reflected what their school valued.

This is a photo of four different chairs in a circle

The Year 5 students from St Clair School who staged this photograph said

it shows we are all different, have different ways of thinking and can still work really well together, and learn from each other and help each other.

These students clearly demonstrated their understanding of collaboration and its importance for their learning.

A parent reported that her son had settled quickly into secondary school and that she put this down to the dispositions and confidence that he had begun to develop when at St Clair School. She felt that these were at least as important as being good at mathematics.

Ongoing evaluation and improvement

Ongoing evaluation for improvement is a feature of St Clair School. A major new initiative has been the development of MAP, a tool to help students think about their learning goals. MAP stands for Managing self, being Active in your learning, and Persevering.

Leaders told us that students immediately connected MAP with ‘map’, which they saw as a metaphor for learning. Just as a map shows you how to get from where you are to where you want to be, a learning goal can be visualised as a destination and challenges as mountains. Teachers have only just begun embedding the MAP tool across the school but they have already found it can be fruitfully applied to both academic and social goals.

Because they are continually reflecting on the effectiveness of their teaching strategies, teachers are able to respond nimbly to students’ needs. For example, during reflection time, when students would normally be recording their progress and identifying where they would like help, a teacher noticed that one student was having difficulty with writing his ideas down. As a result, the quality of his reflections was very poor. To support him, the teacher assigned him a learning assistant for reflection time. The first time he had the assistant he ‘wrote’ four pages of thoughtful reflection in which he identified areas of difficulty and frustration. One issue was that he had not been able to set his timetable using the classroom model. So the teacher modified the model for him and created a personalised curriculum, eliminating a major source of frustration and making learning more accessible for him. She also worked with him to improve his writing and problem-solving strategies. This teacher’s response is not atypical. If students are not achieving as expected, teachers will always employ alternative strategies to engage them in their learning and enable them to succeed.

When evaluating the extent to which teacher practice is developing student agency, student voice is an important source of evidence. Teachers seek this evidence through surveys, written or oral reflections, and informal discussions. Leaders believe that as student agency increases so does the ability of students to articulate their learning. St Clair School recently entered into a collaboration with another local school and consultant that focuses on student agency. This collaboration, part of a Teacher-led Innovation Fund (TLIF) initiative, will provide ongoing data that will strengthen the two schools’ evidence base and guide future improvement. To reduce the risk of bias, teachers will interview students from the other school.

Innovation is just a sensible part of school life.

– School leader

[18]       Interestingly, the school leaders planned to transition everything to the new system and the Cloud over a period of 18 months. It was completed in just six weeks.