ERO wants this evaluation to contribute to a discourse about the role of activity centres and other forms of interventions aimed at supporting positive outcomes for at‑risk learners. The resources dedicated to activity centres make this intervention one of the most intensive available to New Zealand schools.

As an intervention external to mainstream education, students in activity centres in the past might have be regarded as ‘leaving education’. However, this report identifies key aspects of highly effective activity centres. When activity centres are successful they can respond to vulnerable young people, ensuring these students are not stigmatised or isolated from engagement in broader manifestations of school life such as drama, sport and cultural endeavours, and that they have access to prosocial role models. These key aspects include developing strong positive learning relationships, personalised learning programmes, authentic curriculum, well‑focused pastoral care, and positive behaviour management. We found that in highly effective activity centres students can thrive, when previously they only experienced disengagement from education.  It is critical that all activity centres demonstrate these key aspects if they are to respond effectively to all the students referred to them.

This evaluation raises important questions at a system level and for all activity centres that warrant further investigation.  

What are the long‑term consequences of an activity centre intervention on the future prospects for this group of learners? In this investigation, we have looked at the quality of the programmes operated by the existing centres, but have not assessed whether the impacts made for these learners are sustained once they return to their enrolling school and a regular class programme as intended. An important question that remains is what might the outcomes have been without activity centre intervention? This in itself requires a set of broader measures - broader than NCEA attainment. If we are to assess the effectiveness of activity centres in developing prosocial behaviour, self‑confidence, personal resilience, perseverance and life skills, then longer‑term outcomes must be determined.

Equally, it is difficult to attribute these outcomes solely to the impact of involvement in an activity centre programme. Longer‑term outcomes will clearly be a consequence of the changes effected for the young people while in the activity centre programme, but equally because of comprehensive reengagement back into their enrolling schools, and the associated supports wrapped around them in an ongoing way.

However, not all students return to mainstream schooling. Data from 2014 show that 20 percent of students who attended activity centres also spent time in Alternative Education.11  By 2016, Ministry of Education destination outcomes data show that only 10 percent went to Alternative Education. Fifty‑seven percent of activity centre students returned to school, 15 percent returned to the activity centre, with a further five percent entered a training programme.12 The balance left school, went to a Regional Health School or moved out of the region and their destination data was lost.

Activity centres and enrolling schools need to more actively measure and monitor all of the longer‑term outcomes for those learners who engage in their programmes to better understand their impact and where they might improve their programmes and practice.

Across activity centres, practices vary in terms of the amount of time learners participate in the centre with differences in the nature and intensity of the programmes. Building a better understanding of the success or otherwise of these various approaches will be important to grow and refine the nature of these interventions, and to get stronger agreement across activity centres and schools of what constitutes effective practice.  

As a sector, we need to explore the extent to which the positive elements of the activity centres reviewed here might be replicated in mainstream school settings. This includes those elements that ensure personalised teaching and learning practices, the effective relationships developed with these learners, an engaging curriculum, well‑focused pastoral care, and positive behaviour management. 

Students are referred to activity centres primarily for behavioural issues. Additional referral information gives us some insight into the needs of this group of students:

  • an increasing number of students are exhibiting mental health problems – many school principals and managers of the activity centres noted the difficulty in getting timely support for such students
  • students often present from complex family situations that impact negatively on their ability to engage with learning, and prosocial skills are limited
  • some students, as a consequence of family circumstances, have attended multiple schools, never properly able to establish a sense of belonging and settle in their learning
  • students frequently have low levels of literacy and may have learning difficulties that have not been addressed earlier in their education.

Schools should focus on intervening as early as possible to support students presenting with indicators of risk. This raises important questions about how the system supports leaders and teachers to respond similarly to these vulnerable young people in mainstream settings. Are there sufficient and appropriate opportunities for school-based interventions to provide support for such students before referring them to activity centres or alternative education? However, these young people may present with a plethora of health, family, housing, and learning difficulties that require earlier intervention, and there is an onus not just on schools and activity centres, but also on the wider health and social sector to support these students.

[11] http://www.education.govt.nz/assets/Documents/Ministry/Information-releases/All-for-release.pdf

[12]  Source: Ministry of Education.