St Thomas of Canterbury College

Key points

  • Intensive investment in staff professional learning and development (PLD)
  • Distributed leadership
  • Transparent and co-constructed planning enabled by teacher use of digital technologies
  • Novel and developing approach to junior curriculum.


Founded on the principles of Edmund Rice, St Thomas of Canterbury College is an integrated Catholic school for boys in Years 7–13. Also a Microsoft Showcase School, it capitalises on the use of digital technologies to transform school-wide practices and personalise learning.

The school currently has one flexible learning space (FLS) with more on the way. The plans for the new spaces incorporate changes that teachers have asked for based on their experience of the first FLS.

Major redevelopments mean that staff and students have had to cope with temporarily cramped conditions, but this has not stopped the school’s drive to improve. Alternative areas have been turned into makeshift teaching spaces and quiet learning nooks.

When the current principal was appointed in 2009 she saw the need for a school culture that was more cohesive and supportive of improvement. She wanted to build a school-based democracy and change fixed mindsets to growth mindsets. She knew she would have to support her teachers to overcome anxiety and resistance to change before they could become the most effective teachers possible. Effective teaching means effective learning, which means better outcomes for students.

To bring about the desired cultural changes, school leaders started with Edmund Rice’s teachings and The New Zealand Curriculum. Following careful research, various improvement initiatives were adapted and adopted, becoming in time part of a unique school culture. The school did not engage in ‘bolt-on’ initiatives, only those that could be fully entrenched as ‘the way we do things around here’. 

The school was particularly drawn to Restorative Practice[17], He Kākano and Microsoft Learning Partners for material. Restorative Practice proved to be very useful, resonating with the tradition of compassion in Edmund Rice’s teachings. School leaders embraced the principles of He Kākano, which challenged them to be more culturally responsive and to personalise learning. Microsoft Partners for Learning material, which was used as PLD, demonstrated how effective teachers make use of technology, especially as a tool to personalise learning.

The school learned valuable lessons from the disruptions caused by the Canterbury earthquakes. Despite a loss of teaching time, achievement increased. After having to adapt creatively to their changed circumstances, staff could see that some time-honoured practices – most notably the five-period timetable – had been barriers to change. Another consequence of the disruptions was that teaching staff became more open to change and more accepting of evolving practices designed to bring about improvement.

System changes

Professional learning and development

The board allocates considerable resources to supporting effective teaching, including PLD targeted at areas of current need. Senior leaders attended in-depth seminars with an internationally renowned change manager. They have developed the skills they need to create an environment of trust, challenge deeply held assumptions, share professional knowledge, and inspire each other to be better leaders and teachers.

Teachers are willing to try new practices because they are supported to improve and know that it is okay to fail. Collaboration is important and when teachers are ready to learn more, they know which of their colleagues has the expertise to help them. Students see that their teachers are learners too, and that they are modelling the key competencies. This enhances student–teacher relationships and students’ own growth as learners.

Teachers are given release time specifically for research, including visits to other schools, that will inform their practice. They have the time to collaborate and the freedom to design their own class curriculum within a broad framework that includes expected outcomes.

The school has recently had a focus on the use of modern learning practices, with almost all teachers undertaking a Post-Graduate Certificate in Applied Practice (Digital & Collaborative Learning) through the Mind Lab. Teachers learn from one another, which creates a positive feedback loop and helps sustain changes in practice.

Growing leadership throughout the school

Change is well staged and evaluated. Teachers from different curriculum areas work together, and practice that is found to be effective in one area is spread to others. For example, one teacher very successfully trialled integrated studies at the senior level so he has now introduced integrated studies for his junior students. As teachers have shared practices that they have successfully trialled, a tipping point has been reached, with other teachers and faculty heads moving to adopt them too.

Senior leaders recognised they could not effect change all by themselves; they needed share the responsibility and nurture in others an understanding of how change is managed. So they established a shadow management team comprised of middle management leaders who participate in a range of senior management meetings. Shadow team members contribute to higher-level decisions, which equips them to be more effective middle managers and gives them greater investment in the school.

So wonderful to be in a school prepared to change, and not just sit in a traditional setting and not look to improve things.

– School leaders

The school culture empowers teachers to be leaders. They are encouraged to be innovative in their practice and freed to take risks. The expectation is that they will quickly evaluate the impact of an innovation, make refinements as necessary, and learn from anything that did not work. 

Don’t be afraid to fail – it’s called learning. Reflect on it, ask why, move forward.

– Principal

All teachers are free to be early adopters of new practices: to try something that sounds worthwhile, model it, and attract others to try it. Teachers at all stages of their careers regularly share what they have learned at whole-staff meetings – when it comes to professional practice, there is no leadership hierarchy. Staff also share what they have learned with other schools.

Other schools come to visit wanting the silver bullet. We don’t have one to offer. The answer is here with the capability of the people on the ground.

You need to capture the heads and hearts of your teachers, then build their confidence. Confidence so they can take risks, debate with each other, be vulnerable and be compassionate professionals.

– Principal

Distributing leadership throughout the school has engaged teachers in the changes being made, and has excited them. This means that change has momentum and is likely to be sustainable. Additionally the principal finds she is in a position to step back, keep an eye on the whole picture, and lead in a different way. 

Curriculum and pedagogy

The school uses digital technologies to promote high levels of student engagement and agency. Lesson planning is co-constructed by teachers and students, using shared Microsoft OneNote documents. The same technology increases the range of ways in which students can engage and contribute in class, which increases their willingness and confidence to contribute. Teachers use Microsoft OneDrive to streamline collaboration, sharing and syncing documents to a single location.

Students appreciate it that teachers, using OneNote, give them clear guidelines for their work and that they can ask for help online at any time and get a timely response. School leaders are realistic and do not expect teachers to respond to students at all hours of the day and night.

The technology aids learning – crosses the boundary of learning, making better connections between subjects.

– Student

The objectives of making progress visible and using digital technologies to help drive engagement come together in a new initiative to gamify the junior curriculum. Gamification is the integrating of game elements into non-game contexts, something that is quite new in New Zealand. To further this initiative the school has made an application to the Teacher-led Innovation Fund (TLIF)

One of the triggers for the gamified curriculum initiative was a marked disparity in achievement between students who entered the school in Year 7 and those who entered later. An analysis in 2016 found that students who had been at the school since Year 7 earned NCEA endorsements (merit and excellence) at twice the rate of students who had joined in Year 9.

This is a photo of 4 children sitting at a table working on laptops

While the exact shape of this initiative is yet to be determined, leaders spoke of giving students points or badges for completing tasks, and structuring learning in levels (not aligned to year levels) through which students could progress at their own pace. School leaders see gamification promoting increased engagement with learning thanks to greater personalisation of the curriculum and regular affirming feedback. They hope this will develop intrinsic motivation in boys who may be losing interest in school learning.

The school will gather baseline data on engagement, and then further data at regular intervals. They will use this information to evaluate the impact of the initiative on engagement and achievement.

Student outcomes

As measures of effectiveness, the school collects and analyses student engagement data, reviews student e-portfolios, and assesses the key competencies.

Development of the key competencies is assessed via a two-part process involving student self‑assessment and teacher observation. School leaders have developed a rubric that underpins both processes and supports students to pinpoint what they need to focus on next. By being involved in self-assessment students gain increasing understanding of themselves as learners.

There are more guidelines and structure to our work, a framework for learning, especially in assignments. We are taught what needs to be found.

We are motivated and discuss the ideas with others – extend each other.

– Students

The school has worked with MUSAC to tailor an innovative, cloud-based student management system, MUSAC Edge, which is used to communicate with students and parents. This seamless data-sharing system gives parents real-time access to their son’s work and reflections, and to assessments and fortnightly reporting. By regularly looking at this information and by leaving online feedback, parents become active partners in their son’s learning. Students from all year groups view this positively.

There’s a higher involvement of parents. We can’t hide. They know and can help with strategies to improve.

­– Students

[17]       St Thomas of Canterbury use the term ‘restorative justice’ because it fits better with their culturally-based belief systems, which emphasise values and relationships, not just practice.