In the first section of the findings, we summarise the national picture. We focus on students, their experience of the activity centres and the progress they make, and then evaluate the systems in place to enable the effective operation of the activity centres. This study does not identify long‑term impacts that attending the activity centres have on students’ educational success.
The second section highlights effective practice, illustrating the positive impact on students. ERO acknowledges that good practices are often centre‑dependent and may not be directly transferrable. Nevertheless, we share them in the hope they will be useful for others to inform improvements in practice within their own contexts. We also share some inconsistencies we found, areas for improvement and recommendations to enhance provision for these vulnerable students.
ERO found the majority4 of activity centres were promoting positive outcomes for their students, effectively transitioning most back into mainstream schooling (a few go on to other training or employment or leave the area). Appendix 2 outlines ERO’s criteria for effective promotion of positive outcomes for students enrolled in activity centres.
The first step to promoting positive outcomes is identifying the students most likely to benefit from this sort of intervention. Almost all activity centres had good guidelines and clear processes that enabled teachers and leaders to select the most appropriate students.
The activity centres work on an early intervention model. Schools identify and refer those students who need support as soon as possible. Consequently the majority of students in the centres come from Years 9 and 10. As per the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), almost all were selected on the basis of behavioural issues that impeded their own and others’ learning. Students had fair and equitable access to individual activity centres.
Students reported that staff were compassionate and actively listened to them, and many felt they had been ‘heard’ for the first time. Students commented that having someone who took time to know them, care for them, and believed in their ability to change was both affirming and motivating. The stability of the relationships between adults and students was an important contributor to students’ improvement. A few activity centres noted that when teachers moved on or links with external agency support ceased students became unsettled and found it difficult to maintain their trust in adults.
The welcoming environment and carefully planned transitions helped students settle quickly into the centres. Students, their parents and whānau all understood the different pathways and options available to the students at the activity centres and how the activity centre could support them to re‑engage with their learning.
In a few centres ERO had concerns about the environment. These were being addressed and improvements were underway.
In the majority of the centres, the curriculum was strong, however it was not always well tailored to the individual’s needs. Teachers made connections to students’ lives, prior understandings, out‑of‑school experiences and real‑world contexts, with the result that most were engaged in their learning. Teachers particularly focused on the development of key competencies (NZC) and students learned to work collaboratively, discussing ideas and reaching conclusions together. Teachers provided timely feedback to students about their progress, particularly relating to achievement in their behavioural characteristics. Feedback usually related to students’ goals, their next steps, and what success looked like. Students responded well to feedback, learning to monitor their own behaviour, work productively with others and take increased responsibility for their own learning.
Students were referred to activity centres primarily for behavioural concerns and these were effectively addressed in the centres. Students generally improved their attendance and ability to self regulate. The majority developed their sense of worth and confidence as a learner, and for some, confidence in their identity, language and culture.
Commonly, students’ academic focus was on lifting their skills in literacy and numeracy. Over half of the centres could demonstrate improvements in students’ literacy and numeracy achievement. Some students worked on and gained National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) credits.
Given the relatively short time students were enrolled in the activity centres, it was difficult to determine if achievement had been accelerated and improvements could be sustained. Most students reported they were more motivated and better able to learn than when they arrived at the centre, and importantly were keen to re‑engage with education in their enrolling schools. Some did have anxiety that a few teachers might not welcome them back or see how they had changed.
We’re concerned that the teachers at school won’t recognise the changes we have made and just treat us like before.
Most activity centres dealt with this through their transition processes. The majority of students successfully returned to school or on to alternative training or education.
The activity centres clearly cater for students who would otherwise most likely be lost from their enrolling schools. Time in the centres gives students an opportunity to reset their social patterns and experience a second chance to engage with their learning. In the short term, activity centres are effective in promoting positive outcomes for most students. Students develop a sense of belonging; of having a place in, and contributing to, a community.
This is family. It’s a place of acceptance.
The activity centre hasn’t given up on us.
Students surprised themselves with what they could achieve when they were not distracted, and many became more confident about their future.
I am actually doing work.
I look forward to Friday’s test where I can see my improvement.
I’ve changed my choice in words to less swearing like I would when I’m not in school.
If I wasn’t here, I’d be on the street.
I’m not prepared to be a statistic.
What makes me happy is that after activity centre I know that I’m still going somewhere rather than not knowing at all.
I’ve never seen him happier to be learning.
We need the activity centres for our children to survive.
These positive experiences were not limited to the students attending the centres but extended to classmates in their enrolling school too. The centres are valued by principals of the cluster schools.
We value the operation of the activity centre and would seek to maintain it even if the funding is withdrawn.
The activity centre is an integral part of responding to the diverse needs of all of our students.
The activity centre operating is a necessary and vital service for the schools. The schools need the programme as it benefits all students.
This letter of appreciation sums up what a difference activity centres can make:
I cannot thank you enough for all your support in helping me pass Level 1. If it wasn’t for you I would have no work done and refused to ask for help in class (which I have no problem doing now) Thank you Thank you Thank you.
ERO determined that four of the activity centres were performing well with only minor shortcomings, which staff knew about and were dealing with. Another six were performing satisfactorily though we identified areas for further development. Three had some poor practices but were clearly on improvement trajectories. Only one activity centre was of concern. We recommend additional support from the Ministry for these four centres to establish and maintain necessary improvements.
The introduction of the Memorandum of Understanding has increased managing schools’ awareness of their responsibilities. However, issues remain regarding consistent and coordinated provision of support to improve the health and wellbeing of students attending activity centres.
Overall, the next steps suggested in ERO’s 2013 report have been addressed. However, there remains a concern about the effectiveness of internal evaluation to inform ongoing improvement. 
The majority of boards of trustees (boards) of managing schools were well informed about their statutory obligations regarding their activity centre and met these. All had a current Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Ministry of Education (the Ministry). The written agreements these boards established with their cluster schools were of high quality, and clearly outlined expectations. However, only some of the boards actually checked if these agreements with enrolling schools were upheld.
Almost all of the most effective activity centres had management committees. There were several different models, but commonly they included representatives from each cluster school. For example, one management committee comprised all the guidance counsellors from cluster schools and they were also the liaison people for students attending the centre. Another committee was made up of principals from each cluster school who took turns to chair the committee. This ensured everyone had a clear understanding and shared responsibility for the activity centre.
While some boards included the management of the activity centre in their principal’s performance agreement, this was not the norm, nor was the inclusion of the activity centre in their school’s strategic planning. Good practice suggests that boards should not treat the centre separately but include it in their school’s provision for professional learning and development (PLD), appraisal and resource allocation.
Generally, reports provided to the board informed decisions about resource allocation but were not of sufficient detail to enable evaluation of the centre’s overall effectiveness or to identify areas for improvement. This is an area for future development.
In 2013, ERO identified pedagogical leadership of activity centres as an area for improvement, and it has certainly strengthened since then. High quality leadership promotes teacher learning and development in the majority of activity centres. Most teachers are well qualified and have relevant curriculum and pedagogical knowledge. The majority of centres have coherent performance management processes, identifying and responding to teachers’ learning and development needs. Leaders provide teachers with appropriate resources and learning opportunities to inform and support their work. Where ERO found issues regarding appraisal or reflective practice, ERO identified these as areas for improvement in the individual centre’s report.
School leaders and activity centre management work closely together to the benefit of students. Leaders have high expectations for student success. They provide activity centre staff with clear guidelines about respectful behaviour management strategies. These guidelines are important, given that a key criterion for referral to activity centres is student behaviour that needs to change to no longer impede but support learning.
Many of the cluster-school principals ERO spoke with commented on the importance of the open and uncompromising nature of communications between activity centres, liaison teachers, enrolling schools, and parents and whānau. The clarity of discussions about students, their needs, strengths and progress helped to realise shared responsibility for each student.
The learning environment was a significant strength in all but a few centres. Interactions within the activity centres were characterised by empathy, relational trust, cooperation and teamwork. Leaders and staff established and managed the environment in ways that supported student participation, engagement and agency in learning. Relationships were respectful and productive; difference and diversity were valued.
Staff in these centres were student-focussed, actively listening to students and reflecting their points of view. The educational environment reflected manaakitanga, whanaungatanga, ako, and mahi tahi.
Consequently, students expressed a sense of security and comfort with being at the centre and generally settled well to their learning.
In most activity centres, staff employed strategies that enhanced students’ social skills and sense of belonging. These ranged from students gardening and cleaning the centre to participating in shared mealtimes, and taking responsibility for preparing and the serving food. Students learnt through these life skills to become part of the centre’s collaborative learning community.
Most activity centres had sound processes for gathering useful information about the students referred to them. Sources of information included enrolling schools, parents and whānau, and agencies who had worked with the students. When they arrived, teachers talked with students about their interests, strengths, what they perceived they needed to work on, and what helped them to learn. Staff in most centres were very good at establishing the specific priorities for students with behavioural challenges, or physical, sensory, psychological, neurological or intellectual impairments. Only half of the activity centres actively identified specific cultural needs or aspirations for Māori or Pacific students. This is an area for future development.
Information gained through these transition processes informed the development of Individual Learning Programmes (ILPs) quite promptly after the student’s arrival at the centre. However, the ILPs were not always of high quality. While half of the activity centres developed ILPs that met the minimum standards set out in the MoU, even these were variable in their usefulness. Certainly most had specific and measurable goals, especially focusing on building self‑esteem and self‑regulation but only some included career planning or a focus on te ao Māori for relevant students.
ILPs are intended to guide the curriculum, tailored to the individual needs of each student, and yet the curriculum in some centres did not align tasks, teaching activities and resources to individual students’ learning priorities. Some centres made good use of external programmes (for example Te Kura 6) to supplement curriculum choices. Typically, these were literacy, numeracy and life skills units of work. One activity centre made use of trade‑related units from a tertiary provider. A few activity centres reported that students found it hard to complete the tasks on their own, and especially so if they were online. While ERO recognises it is challenging to cater for those students who attend the centre only for a relatively short period of time, some centres need to look more closely at the appropriateness of their curriculum design. This is an area for future development.
The majority of teachers and students formally and regularly reviewed progress towards goals in ILPs. This practice helped students become aware of, and take pride in, their achievements and learn to manage their work. Generally, the goals were revised in line with students’ progress and ongoing needs.
Sound transition processes supported students on their return to school. Several strategies were common across the centres. Many carefully planned each student’s transition, working with a liaison teacher in the enrolling school. The liaison teacher worked in turn with teachers in the school, appraising them of the student’s progress and how to best support them on their return to class. Where transitions worked particularly smoothly there had been strong, ongoing connections with the enrolling school, for example, teachers or guidance counsellors visited students in the centre, or the centre sent regular reports of students’ progress to enrolling schools. These schools and centres had a shared responsibility for the student. This was often clearly defined in the written agreements with cluster schools.
Students and adults collaborated to develop good transition plans. These ensured continuity of interagency support as students returned to school and clarity for parents and whānau. A few plans also included career pathways mapped out with students that enhanced their confidence and sense of purpose as they re‑engaged with mainstream schooling.
Some centres kept in touch with students either directly or through the liaison teacher to monitor their progress back in the mainstream school. Occasionally students even returned to the centre for a brief refocusing if they had regressed or needed additional support, sometimes at their own request. The flexibility shown by these activity centres supported students to sustain improvements.
The majority of centres collected valid data about students’ progress appropriately collecting information from parents and whānau, agencies who may have been working with students, teachers and the students themselves. Reports to boards typically included sufficient information for them to identify students’ progress, understand challenges and make informed decisions about resource allocation.
Most centres could demonstrate the achievement of intermediate outcomes for students: improvements in behaviour, re‑engagement with learning and successful transitions back to school, education or further training. This information did not usually extend to achievement of the longer‑term objective for students’ education success after returning to school, nor was it used to inform internal evaluation to improve practice within the centres. Some activity centres and managing schools did have sound evaluation, inquiry and knowledge‑building processes embedded in their practice, and these were well used to review and refine their operations.
The collection of ongoing data about longer‑term educational outcomes of ex‑activity centre students is essential if the Ministry is to gauge the overall effectiveness of the centres. Improving internal evaluation and its use to improve practice is an area for development for most activity centres.
In this section we share examples of effective practices, outlining how they improved outcomes for students or enhanced the operation of the activity centre. Primarily we chose ones that have potential to inform practice in other centres.
We also highlight some inconsistencies we came across and the impacts of those. The Ministry could usefully explore them to consider possible future action to improve provision.
The most effective activity centres have good management systems, and the shared responsibility for students is evident in practice. Transitions, both into and from the centres, are flexible and managed sensitively, with student input on the suitability and timing of their transitions. Some have a trial period after which students, with their parents and whānau, can decide if they think the centre will work for them. The enrolling schools maintain contact with the student and, with involved agencies and parents/whānau, they work with the students to improve their attitude to learning and the acquisition of the knowledge and skills required to achieve educational success.
Most activity centres deliberately nurture students’ sense of belonging to their enrolling school. This plays out in different ways in different centres. Examples include:
Maintaining these links helps students stay connected with the school, reminds them of their goal to return there, and smooths transitions both into and back from the centre.
While most centres have health nurses onsite or at least nurses who visit the centre regularly, there were examples of extensive wrap-around support for students. These included:
Some examples of effective practice that help students engage in their learning are:
Te Ara has several innovative practices that contribute to its overall effectiveness in promoting and producing very positive outcomes for students. Examples chosen here cover management, support for students, curriculum design, community trust, and the use of a dashboard.
Responsibility for management of the centre rotates on a deliberate, three‑yearly cycle that closely involves every school in the cluster in its operation. The principal of the previous managing school, the current principal and principal‑in‑waiting are all members of the governance group, providing strong continuity. Policies and procedures are tailored to the needs of the centre and not merely subsumed under the managing school’s policies. Staff have clearly defined the timetable, routines and expectations for students. This predictability provides security for students and is part of the process that settles them into the centre’s community.
Support services are available on site, when needed, including an Evolve nurse, and a Kotahitanga clinical psychologist. Students also have weekly visits by a music therapist, monthly dental health visits, access to a female Evolve nurse if necessary, a sexual health awareness educator, and their school guidance counsellors and Te Kura liaison teachers who visit regularly. The centre developed a good agreement with the Attendance Service who agreed to keep students on their caseload and provide additional follow up to improve students’ attendance.
Forming positive, trusting relationships with adults is a significant contributor to student success. The Friends of the School are important motivators for students. These local volunteers befriend one or two students, taking a genuine interest in them, sharing skills and knowledge, often helping them with resources and sometimes even long‑term goals.
Teachers use Lucid to identify literacy strengths and needs, enabling close targeting of the student’s ILP to build on strengths and meet needs. ILPs do not just include goals (long‑, medium‑ and short‑term) but the reason why these are important for the student, the interventions to be used, and how named staff and other adults will support learning.
Teachers make extensive use of Te Kura resources, with many learning programmes developed and provided by Te Kura. The key to their success is their long‑term relationship with Te Kura that includes professional development sessions with staff. Te Kura staff, including a Te Kura teacher appointed to a maternity leave position at Te Ara, are very supportive of teachers and students and their institutional and specific subject knowledge facilitates the selection of appropriate pathways for students.
A community trust, separate from the operation of the activity centre, raises considerable funds that support its work, including paying for learning activities, trips and student travel.
The trust also funded the research and development of Thrive, a comprehensive software programme used to monitor students’ academic, social and emotional wellbeing, to identify where their potential is capped and work towards uncapping it through the use of expert strategies. Thrive was a response to the need for a tool to enhance the centre’s capability to improve outcomes for students. It has since been patented and is being trialled overseas.
Staff and students work together, using Thrive, to identify where the student sits in relation to four key areas identified as essential for them to thrive in life: autonomy, deep learning, skilled communication and strong foundation skills.8 Indicator detail within each area enables staff and students to make consistently reliable judgements about the student’s current state, next steps and rate of progress. The programme generates a dashboard that is a graphic display of the outcomes. Staff find the tool very useful, as the dashboard provides the basis of discussion at weekly progress meetings with the student and liaison teacher. The dashboard is also shared with parents and whānau. Students value seeing the progress they are making, being able to identify what they need to do to address barriers, and the ability to discuss all of this with the adults helping them. They are true partners in their own learning. Thrive helps students manage themselves as learners and affirms their progress, helping to build their self-esteem and confidence as learners.
An example of a novel and successful extra in the curriculum is teaching the students to crochet. The garments are donated to Little Sprouts, a charity providing baby packs to families in need. Students, all of them, including the boys, take great pride in their work. They especially appreciate their ability to make a positive contribution to others.
This in turn strengthens their sense of worth and belonging to a wider community.
The staff called the sessions ‘Don’t do drugs, do crochet’!
Leaders in activity centres reported receiving mixed messages about their future. For example, one centre has property development approved for 2018 while another, in the same region, reported they had the impression they would not exist after 2019. This uncertainty about the future has had a negative impact for some centres when trying to recruit staff.
Ministry contact and involvement did not always meet the obligations set out in the MoU. For example, there were centres who reported never having had contact from Ministry personnel (Obligations of the Ministry 4.6 and 4.7). This certainly limits the opportunity for centres and the Ministry to work together effectively to benefit students. It limits the Ministry’s ability to hold centres accountable, or identify or provide support. This may have changed since the time of the reviews.
One managing school reported they have been encouraged by the Ministry to enrol students who would then go directly to the activity centre. These students had not attended the managing school and had no connections with staff there, often being new into the area and coming from difficult circumstances.
While enabling such a student to attend an activity centre is a positive initiative, it can impact negatively on the effectiveness of the activity centre and outcomes for the student. It can limit the information available about the student and so delay the development of an ILP and effectively tailored curriculum. The absence of an established relationship with a liaison teacher can compromise the work with parents and whānau and the ability of the liaison teacher to act as advocate for the student while attending the centre and when later transitioning ‘back’ to school.
The MoU is very clear that “entry criteria must ensure students are referred because their behaviour impedes their own learning outcomes, or that of others.” Qualifying that the MoU states, “further entry criteria are to be developed by the managing school in consultation with the cluster of schools in the area.” 9 This has resulted in some anomalies nationally where students with mental health issues fit the broad entry criteria regarding behaviour and yet some activity centres deliberately exclude them under the further entry criteria developed by the managing school. This conforms to the terms of the MoU, and is understandable where an activity centre may not have the internal capability or sufficient external agency support to make a difference for such students, and enrolling them could also compromise the progress of others. Nevertheless, this raises a question about the alternative support available, and provided, for those students who are unable to attend activity centres.
Five centres reported difficulties getting the external support they needed for students. In particular, difficulties referred to accessing mental health support. This was further compounded by an increase in demand for mental health support services as more students referred had anxiety issues and sometimes high levels of mental health issues. ERO could not investigate this but we are concerned that students’ mental health needs are not being adequately addressed.
Additionally we noted that the services of some external agencies were suspended while students attended the activity centre. Notably this applied to Resource Teacher: Learning and Behaviour (RTLB) services in some centres, but in at least one centre support from Learning Support was also suspended. The risk of breaking the continuity of support is that students can become distrustful of adults, feeling they have been let down, and this can also compromise their transitions back to mainstream schooling.
One centre was given dispensation to accept a Year 8 student. This student is making good progress at the centre. Almost all centre leaders noted the importance of early intervention for students at risk of disengaging from education, hence the predominance of Year 9 and 10 students attending activity centres. This is not an aspect we investigated, however it raises a question about the need for similar provision for younger students nationwide.
There remains a wide disparity in the effective use of Te Kura programmes. Te Ara makes best use of the programmes available, tailoring them well to students’ needs. However, other centres variously report they find the units of work are out of date, insufficiently stimulating to engage students’ interest, and difficult for students if they have to complete online work on their own. 10 Consequently, many centres have opted not to use Te Kura programmes. Even when Te Kura programmes were being used some centre staff did not select the programmes most appropriate for the individual, more often opting for generic literacy, numeracy and life skills programmes. In ERO’s national report Provision for Students in Activity Centres (2013) we suggested Te Kura should review the extent to which its programmes and associated liaison with staff in activity centres is contributing to positive outcomes for students. This remains a valuable next step, together with determining what it is that works so well in Te Ara to see if that can be transferred effectively to other centres.
 In Māori, a mihi is a greeting and the pepeha is introducing yourself, making links to ancestors and places.