This section presents what ERO found in relation to the four levels of responsiveness of each school’s curriculum and systems. The section begins by discussing the features of effective practice in the schools identified as having a senior secondary curriculum that responds to the interests, pathways and goals of their students. The features of the schools in the remaining categories are then discussed, summarising their strengths and areas for development. Finally, challenges including system-level issues affecting the overall quality of senior schooling in New Zealand are outlined.

A key responsibility for secondary schools is to ensure that a range of effective processes is in place to provide each student with an individual pathway that enables them to be successful at school and well-prepared for future education, training and employment. ERO found considerable variation in the extent to which the 74 secondary schools developed effective courses, pathways and support structures. Four categories are used below to highlight the degree to which schools’ curriculum and systems responded to the future plans of students. Figure 1 outlines the numbers of schools in each of the four categories.

Figure 1: Schools’ responsiveness to senior students’ future education and employment aspirations

Figure1 outlines the four categories that highlight the degreee to which schools curriculum and systems responded to the future plans of students. The four categories are responsive (10 schools), partially responsive (38 schools), limited reponsiveness (23 schools) and poor (3 schools).

Responsive schools

ERO identified 10 schools with effective systems that contributed to a responsive curriculum, supporting the diverse learning pathways their senior secondary students were taking. These schools generally exhibited many of the features outlined in ERO’s evaluation indicators (Appendix 1). Nine of the schools were middle or high decile, with one low decile school in this category. [7] Eight of the schools were in urban areas with a range of roll sizes from small to large, although there were no very large schools (over 1500 students).

The significant features of these 10 most effective schools included:

  • processes and practices that encouraged the individualisation of student pathways
  • having a school curriculum that was effective for a large majority of the students enrolled at the school
  • senior students having access to a range of academic, careers and pastoral systems that worked together to support them
  • individual course and school-wide initiatives that encouraged students to develop leadership and self-management skills
  • an extensive range of vocational and academic options
  • purposeful partnerships with others in the community to support student learning and development
  • some effective initiatives for Māori and Pacific students
  • some effective self-review systems.

Each of these aspects is discussed in more detail below.

The individualisation of the pathways

The 10 schools in the ‘responsive’ category had pastoral, careers and school curriculum initiatives that supported the interests and goals of individual students. The focus these schools had on individual student pathways was typically linked to the aspirations of students. These schools had effective school-wide processes where students identified their future pathways or directions and these were used to shape the school’s curriculum and related systems.

At one school the staff had developed Individual Achievement Plans for all junior and senior students. These plans were developed in consultation with the student’s family or whānau. The plans were also used for the ongoing monitoring of each student’s progress carried out by deans, and the ‘coaching’ discussions which form teachers undertook with each student. The idea of ‘knowing the student’ was an important theme in developing a programme for each student. In essence, the development of good quality pathways and support was linked to the relationships between staff and students.

In an area school that ERO identified in the responsive category, the staff put extra effort into understanding each student’s pathway. A variety of approaches was used to develop each programme. In some cases students took part in well-managed distance learning options. In 2012, the use of distance learning meant that the 26 students in the school were completing courses across 39 different subjects. The subjects included psychology, building, agriculture, equine, early childhood education, tourism and outdoor education. In addition to the in-school and distance learning options, the school used Secondary Tertiary Alignment Resource (STAR) funding to send students on courses directly related to their future plans.

Other schools used similar initiatives such as academic monitoring and student led development of individual plans. One school used a learning advisor model where each senior student worked with an advisor to help monitor their progress as part of an independent study plan. For students at this school their learning time was evenly split between chosen subjects on the school timetable and the time they spent in independent study, including time with their learning advisor.

Despite their various strengths, these schools still had areas in which they could improve. Some of these areas are discussed as part of this section and others are included in the Challenges section of this report.

Academic, careers and pastoral systems working together

The focus on individual student pathways was complemented by the cohesive way in which curriculum, pastoral care and careers systems supported individual students. Curriculum leaders, careers staff, deans, form teachers, subject teachers and departments worked together in response to student pathways. This emphasis on cooperation was evident in the way schools were led by the board of trustees and school managers and the overall strategy in place to foster such cooperation.

The case study below provides an example of coordination at one of these schools. This low decile school demonstrates how a school can be effective for its Māori students.

A school that is effective for the majority of its Māori students

This school is a Catholic co-educational secondary school in a provincial city with a roll of just over 250 students. Over 40 percent of the students identify as Māori. The college’s mission is to provide a holistic education that seeks to develop the whole person, in line with its special character. The focus on the school’s mission is led by the board of trustees which ensures that the special character of the college permeates every aspect of school life including staffing, curriculum, pastoral care, cultural development, sport and recreation.

One of the board’s stated aims is to work with families to prepare young men and women for their future roles in education, work and life. Trustees are focused on supporting inclusion and diversity. Considerable value is placed on students’ individual differences and the school’s bi-cultural traditions.

The senior management team is a strong driver of the school’s overall direction. It has emphasised self review, introduced key student support programmes, developed systems to monitor student achievement and implemented suitable teacher appraisal and development mechanisms. The He Kakano programme has been significant in supporting the development of teacher practice and cultural understanding. Its implementation has led to improvements in Māori student engagement, attendance and achievement. The school has also built strong links with local hapu and iwi. Frequent whānau hui seek parents’ aspirations for their children and provide an opportunity to report achievement and progress.

A strength in the school is the personal interaction between students and staff. The whānau/family atmosphere provides a platform for most teachers to understand and support student learning and career pathways. An emphasis is placed on restorative practice to underpin this pastoral care approach.

Māori language and tikanga programmes highlight the focus placed on Māori education. All Year 9 and 10 students take part in an introductory course focused on te reo me tikanga Māori. The pastoral team includes a Māori dean and a whānau support worker with strong links to the school’s Māori community. There are four Māori teachers on the staff. Māori success is a priority and highly visible as a focus in annual planning, well-planned actions and ongoing monitoring and review.

As part of the school’s programme, each senior student has a careers interview. All students also complete a careers education programme at Years 10 and 12. Careers NCEA unit standards are offered at Year 12. Each student has an individual development plan, which is maintained by all form teachers. This development plan, along with information about each student’s achievement and attendance, is used in the conferences that occur with each student’s family. Approximately 80-90 percent of parents attend these family days.

The senior school offers students 23 subjects, including te reo Māori, Spanish and visual arts. Some subjects are taught in multi-level classrooms to support the range of academic pathways in subjects where small numbers have enrolled. Tailored learning support programmes are in place for students with special needs. A range of additional programmes available for Māori students include Māori tourism and Māori performing arts courses. Some students take part in STAR courses and the school’s Gateway programme. [8] Students can also enrol in university courses as well as NCEA standards. Students have gained additional qualifications that include a diploma in agriculture, a diploma in business, Te Waharoa national certificate in Māori performing arts, as well as national certificates in te reo, tourism and computing.

The school’s self review supports its goals and targets. A credit monitoring process identifies the students who are in danger of not completing NCEA assessments. Several students have attended ‘catch up’ classes to ensure they have enough credits. The school runs a three-week long summer school for students who need extra support to achieve qualification milestones.

The school has good levels of achievement, especially at NCEA Level 1. Māori students achieve at a similar level as their non-Māori peers. The 2011 NCEA results showed that Māori students achieved a higher pass rate for NCEA Level 1 than the rate for all students nationally. In 2012 roll-based NCEA data showed that 74 percent of year 12 Māori students achieved NCEA Level 2.

Opportunities for students to develop self-management skills

The responsive schools typically had a strong focus on students developing self management and leadership opportunities within, and in addition to, the students’ courses. ERO found that these schools had a range of extra-curricular activities in which senior students could develop leadership. For most of the schools in this group, showing responsibility across sporting, artistic, cultural or spiritual domains (in addition to academic ones) was an important school objective. Schools varied in how this was emphasised, according to their communities, but the essential quality was based on the concept of developing well-rounded citizens.

Opportunities to develop leadership and self management were evident, for example, in the independent study options exercised at the different schools. Similarly, these self‑management qualities were observed in those schools where students took part in distance learning options as part of their study. One school, for example, supported students to develop self-management skills as part of their distance learning by way of a ‘learning contract’. Students managed their own video conferences and study timetable as part of their contracts. Students who struggled to manage their learning in this medium were monitored more closely until they had developed the necessary self-managing skills.

A range of academic and vocational options

The schools in the responsive category had a wide range of academic and vocational options for their senior students. This was evident in the options available to students and the extent to which these reflected the full intent of The New Zealand Curriculum.

While it may be easier for larger schools to have a wide range of in-school programme options, a good range of options was also found in the smaller responsive schools. In the smaller schools several initiatives were used to develop programmes that supported each student’s learning or career pathway. One such approach was the use of ‘multi-level’ classrooms where, for example, Years 12 and 13 students were taught in one class, despite working on both NCEA Level 2 and 3 qualifications. Well-managed, multi-level classrooms were an effective way for a small school to manage their curriculum. This school’s ability to implement a wide range of academic and vocational courses depended on teachers’ emphasis on building students’ self-management skills and teachers’ ability to adapt their teaching.

Academic and vocational programme options were also enhanced, at both the smaller and larger schools, through the use of STAR courses and distance learning options. Distance learning options were effective when suitable monitoring and support structures were in place to ensure that students could consistently achieve the components required to gain the qualifications they needed for future learning and employment.

The range of courses at the responsive secondary schools included ‘alternative’ pathways at Years 11 and 12 in particular. These courses were used to differentiate between those students taking academic programmes to prepare them for university and those needing a different sort of approach to achieve NCEA Level 1 or 2 for further training or employment. Commonly these schools had alternative mathematics, English and science programmes. In one of the 10 schools, robust data analysis meant they recognised the need to specifically improve NCEA Level 1 science results for Māori students. The school developed and introduced a new Year 11 science course to address this.

In developing alternative learning pathways at Years 11 and 12, schools have to ensure students can move through the school’s overall programme without limiting their entry to certain courses in the future. One school had overcome this by developing three curriculum pathways within the school. These reflected a ‘mainstream’, ‘academic/scholarship’ and ‘trades’ focus. The school had introduced a broad range of courses to support these different pathways and students were able to move from one pathway to another. The school emphasised the high level of achievement required within its trades programmes and the importance of not seeing this as a ‘low status’ programme for potentially disengaged students. This flexibility also avoided students becoming blocked in a pathway that ended at NCEA Level 2 without giving them access to Level 3 courses and the opportunity to gain university entrance.

Some of the vocational and academic courses at the responsive schools

Fine wood construction (Level 1)

Applied science (Level 1)

Environmental science (Level 1)

Wellbeing (Level 1)

Fish and game (Level 2-3)

Industrial engineering (Level 2-3)

Early childhood education (Level 2-3)

Māori tourism (Level 2 and 3)

Environmental geography (Level 2-3)

Aviation (Level 2)

Sports studies (Level 2 and 3)

Applied design (Level 2 and 3)

Electronics (Level 2)

Employment skills (Level 1-2)

Automotive engineering (Level 2)

Outdoor recreation (Level 3)

English through contemporary issues (Level 2)

Product and spatial design (Level 2-3)

Audio visual (Level 2-3)

English through contemporary issues (Level 2)

English through film (Level 3)

Indonesian (Level 1-3)

Purposeful learning and development partnerships

Schools in the responsive category had a range of partnerships that supported their students’ learning. The connections these schools had with other educational organisations, employers, iwi and whānau/families demonstrated the degree to which 21st century education in New Zealand goes ‘outside the school gate’.

All the schools maintained good relationships with employers. This happened through the Gateway programmes primarily and, to a lesser extent, through other curriculum programmes. [9] For example, one school had placed 40 students in local early childhood education centres so they could complete practical components of their school’s early childhood education course.

Links with tertiary education providers typically involved students taking part in a variety of tertiary courses while enrolled at school. Across the responsive schools the students took part in courses from Te Aho o Te Kura Pounamu (Te Kura), universities and polytechnics. Some of these courses were established through STAR funding, while some were developed as part of the Youth Guarantee initiative. One school had involved iwi in the development of a performing arts course.

High levels of family involvement were evident across these schools, especially during academic counselling processes or discussing career aspirations. At its best, this involved good connections with the families of priority learners. At one school, for example, a group of refugee students was made the focus of individual career plans for students in the context of ongoing contact with their parents. These refugee students were also provided with taster courses to aid in their understanding of tertiary education in New Zealand.

Some effective initiatives for Māori and Pacific students

The schools in the responsive category generally had fewer Māori and Pacific students than many other New Zealand schools. While these schools were responsive for individual students, ERO identified areas for improvement related to their initiatives to support Māori and Pacific students. Overall, the lower and middle decile responsive schools, which were also those with higher numbers of Māori students, were more likely to have initiatives to specifically improve the achievement of these students.

Initiatives that supported Māori students included schools making strong links with whānau (often through the academic counselling approach of the wider school), the use of pastoral care staff dedicated to work with Māori students, specific careers initiatives for Māori students, and links with iwi groups. One school had a homework centre for Māori students operated by whānau members. Māori students at this school also took part in wananga at tertiary institutions.

Few initiatives were in place in the 10 schools for Pacific students. One of the schools encouraged Pacific students to attend the Pacific Leaders of Tomorrow (PILOT) careers initiative. The school had also encouraged some of its Pacific students to attend a service academy hosted by another school.

Some effective self-review systems

The schools in the responsive category carried out some particularly effective self-review activities. However, most of these schools also had ways in which their overall self review could be improved. All 10 schools used NCEA achievement information to analyse senior student achievement. Some of these schools effectively analysed and used student destination information to reflect on the effectiveness of their careers and transitions programmes. Some had also used the Careers New Zealand benchmarks to review the overall quality of their careers provision. [10]

Effective self review at the responsive schools was often linked to each school’s focus on individual learners. For example, at one school the focus on understanding the learner’s aspirations, along with an emphasis on self review, contributed to improved retention rates and achievement. The review process started with the school gathering information about the students entering the school. The school analysed information provided by its contributing school and had face-to-face meetings with teachers from the intermediate school to discuss each student.

Subject teachers in the junior school subsequently built career competencies into their Years 9 and 10 programmes. Years 9 and 10 students also took part in specific careers activities to develop their self-awareness, decision-making and options for the future. The goals students developed from these exercises were placed on the school database to inform the individual’s subject choices.

Once in the senior school the NCEA data of each student was analysed in combination with what was understood about each learner’s career pathway. This analysis provided a framework for deans and other staff to support each student through school and then on to their destination. School leaders sought information about the destination of each student leaving school and used this information to review their overall provision for senior students.

Across the other schools in the responsive category, the types of self review which ERO identified as needing improvement included destination analysis, departmental reviews, the quality and usefulness of Years 9 and 10 achievement and other information, and Māori and Pacific educational achievement.

Partially responsive schools

Thirty-eight schools were judged to be ‘partially responsive’. Many of these were high decile and large urban schools. Most of the remaining schools in this category were middle decile schools of various sizes. Six were low decile schools that were medium-sized to very large.

In general, these schools had developed curriculum, pastoral systems and careers initiatives that supported a majority of their students. Most of the schools in this category were relatively conventional in their approach to senior students. Most had areas to develop in terms of their overall strategy or coordination of their senior school systems, including their approach to self review. A few schools showed promising levels of innovation with some initiatives in the early stages of development. While some had approaches that specifically supported Māori or Pacific students, almost all needed to improve Māori and/or Pacific students’ retention, attendance or achievement. Māori and Pacific students were over-represented in the small groups of students who did not achieve well at these schools.

Range of academic and vocational subjects

The partially responsive schools had developed a senior curriculum that included conventional academic options and alternative academic pathways for Years 11 and 12 students. Most of these schools had Gateway, and vocational and transition programmes for learners who were not doing academic courses to prepare for university.

These schools focused more on providing a range of programmes rather than the individualisation of each student’s programme. While most of the partially responsive schools had a variety of subjects for students to choose from, their systems for supporting students to make choices related to their career aspirations were less apparent. Partially responsive schools were less likely to tailor a student’s programme to their goals for the future.

Conventional and effective careers departments

ERO found that most of the schools in this category had conventional approaches to careers education with hard-working careers departments supporting students to build suitable pathways. This echoes ERO’s findings in the 2012 evaluation of CIAGE in secondary schools. [11]

Most of these schools had established an introductory careers programmes in Years 9 and 10 which focused on career competencies and, in some cases, informed student’s subject choices for Year 11. Senior students were usually interviewed by careers leaders and/or deans about their career aspirations. Gateway was available and additional support was typically put in place for those intending to leave school before the end of Year 13. Some careers staff noted the uneven focus on careers concepts across the different departments in the school. This hindered school-wide approaches to careers education for some of the schools in this category.

Some of the schools had developed academic counselling models and were starting to build good relationships with parents. Some schools in the North Island were involved in The University of Auckland Starpath project. [12]

School-wide strategy, self review and innovation

The partially responsive schools had positive cultures and developed thoughtful plans to continue to introduce ongoing improvements. However, a common issue in each school’s approach was the minority of learners who did not reach their potential and dropped out of school early. The schools had different perspectives on how to support these learners. Some were actively investigating who these learners were and what they could do to improve the management of their learning or pathways. Some of these schools were in the early stages of developing innovations to support these learners. Others were less focused on either identifying or responding to the individual needs of small, underperforming cohorts of students.

Many of the new initiatives were similar to those in the responsive schools category and were used with individual students. This included mentoring/buddying and intervention and support from a member of the pastoral team. Initiatives to build links with the community occurred through links with large businesses and iwi organisations, through to working with local employers and student’s family and whānau.

A low decile school was working with a youth coordinator, employed by the Ministry of Social Development (MSD), to support 16 and 17 year olds not in education, employment or training (NEET). The youth services provided by the coordinator were complemented by the school’s Gateway and transition programmes with the aim of increasing the number of students in the area who gained qualifications before leaving school.

A high decile school made each teacher more accountable for students at risk of underachievement by making their success part of teachers’ performance appraisal. As part of their performance agreement teachers were expected to develop strategies to accelerate the progress of these students.

These initiatives, like many others across these schools, needed improved self review to determine whether the intended outcomes occurred or reached the students that needed the support. Overall, more effective self review across these schools could have provided useful information about the effectiveness of the school’s programme. For example, better analysis of destination information could also have indicated how exit transitions could be improved. The collection and analysis of student feedback could have helped identify the careers initiatives that were most effective in building student confidence and self awareness.

Māori and Pacific achievement, retention and attendance

Some Māori and Pacific students achieved well at the ‘partially responsive’ schools. The achievement rates of Māori and Pacific students were generally better at the high decile schools. Despite this, Māori and Pacific achievement rates were usually lower than that of other students in the individual schools.

Most of these schools had developed some initiatives in support of Māori and Pacific students. These initiatives were often broad and did not differentiate between the needs of Māori and Pacific students who were succeeding and those who were underperforming. It was difficult to identify any particular initiative that was more effective than others because schools had limited evidence about the effectiveness of specific strategies (sometimes because they were new). Despite this, some evidence indicated that Māori and Pacific students’ achievement, retention and attendance had improved in many of these schools at the same improvement rates as seen for other students.

An example of a specific initiative supporting Māori and Pacific students included the use of mentors at one high decile school. This school had several personnel track the attendance and progress of individual Māori and Pacific students. They then provided or organised additional tutoring and career pathway support, such as connecting students with tertiary and business contacts as part of a student’s career plan.

At a low decile school a Whānau Achievement project was linked with a significant increase in the educational achievement of Māori students. The project, funded by Te Puni Kōkiri, focused on improving the engagement of students and families.


Compared with the responsive schools, most of the partially responsive schools demonstrated less innovation when it came to meeting the diverse interests and pathways of their students. The students at the partially responsive schools had fewer opportunities to take responsibility for planning their learning or to develop self‑management and leadership skills.

Elements of innovation were identified in some of these schools. One high-decile school had introduced two study periods a week at the end of the school day, so that students could more readily access local tertiary courses. The study periods at the end of the day made it easier for students to be off-site without losing time for in-school courses. This school, like some of the responsive schools, had also developed an independent study programme for all Year 13 and some Year 12 students. Two days a week for the first three terms, students could pursue individual mentored study as part of their overall qualifications.

 A middle decile school considerably increased the flexibility of its timetable by creating two whole-day blocks a week for senior secondary students. This structure allowed students to have more substantial amounts of time to work in options such as outdoor education, agriculture, Gateway, art and technology.

Although the partially responsive schools introduced some initiatives and a range of programmes, the schools provided fewer opportunities to have a responsive curriculum and systems that catered for individual students’ strengths and career aspirations.

Schools with limited responsiveness

Twenty-three schools were found to have limited curriculum responsiveness across their senior secondary schools. These schools had difficulty developing a broad curriculum for a relatively small cohort of students with diverse strengths, needs and aspirations. Many of these schools had low levels of student achievement, especially for Māori or Pacific students.

Almost all of these schools had significant numbers of students who did not achieve Level 1 of NCEA. The limited or poor analysis and self review in place reduced the extent to which these schools were able to introduce and maintain programmes and processes they were confident would contribute to ongoing improvements for their students.

In the lower decile schools in this category, the poor achievement of some students was not solely related to the responsibilities of the school. Some schools were attempting to manage low levels of student literacy on entry to secondary school, as well as difficult social contexts including drug use and family welfare dependency.

The middle and higher decile schools in this group tended to have taken narrow approaches to the curriculum. For example, most did not adequately design and implement a school curriculum that responded to their Māori students. Often schools were at the beginning stages of developing a strategy for responding to Māori achievement issues in their school.

Despite the difficulties these schools faced, ERO found evidence of effectiveness and innovation in some contexts. Gateway provision and the careers departments of most of these schools were operating satisfactorily – although there generally needed to be a greater school‑wide focus or strategy linked to transition from school into careers.

Some good initiatives were provided for limited numbers of students. One school, for example, had developed outdoor education courses to respond to student interest and to take advantage to their proximity to wilderness locations. Another school, in partnership with its District Health Board, had developed a health services academy which specifically supported Māori and Pacific students to gain relevant qualifications to enter the professions in the future. [13] In following their interests in areas such as pharmacology and occupational therapy the students achieved high numbers of science NCEA standards. This initiative was one of the few academic options found in this evaluation that was developed specifically for Māori and Pacific students.

Schools with poor quality senior schooling

Three schools were found to have poor quality approaches to designing and implementing a responsive senior school curriculum. All were small low decile schools and two were in rural locations. They each had difficulties developing a broad curriculum for their cohorts and had additional management issues to improve. One school, for instance, had financial issues to solve, while another had a high staff turnover making it difficult to introduce and sustain improvements. Two of the schools also had low student achievement. These schools lacked cohesion in the way their curriculum, careers and pastoral systems worked together to support students’ learning or career pathways.

Challenges facing all secondary schools

Increasingly, schools are developing approaches that help them understand and respond to the individual pathways of their students. Central to this is the work some schools have done to identify the aspirations or direction of senior students. Frequently, effective school-wide processes are in place to build students’ self‑awareness and enable them to explore opportunities and then make decisions about future careers and learning. However, more innovation is needed in many secondary schools to ensure all students achieve meaningful qualifications that enable them to access the future education, training and careers in which they are interested.