1. Achieving excellence and equity to reduce disparities

Cover of first narrative

Papatoetoe North School is a Years 1 to 6 Auckland school. In July 2016, the roll of 821 students included 397 children from different Pacific groups, 231 Asian (mostly Indian), 171 Māori and 14 Pākehā/ European or other ethnic groups. Three hundred children were funded as ESOL (English as a second language) students.

The school’s leaders and teachers had focused on giving the children, who come from a relatively low socioeconomic area, the rich social capital that is their right. They had:

  • investigated research about what works in schools where many of the children are ESOL students
  • implemented a spiral curriculum that built on children’s background and prior knowledge
  • focused deliberately on oral and academic language instruction
  • involved parents and whānau as genuine partners in their children’s learning
  • built a positive school culture where pressure from their peers encouraged children to do well.

These were closely intertwined strategies, each relying on the others for their effectiveness.

Using research to find a new approach

School leaders identified that for many children, progress slowed when they were working at Level 2 of The New Zealand Curriculum. In deciding what actions to take, they were strongly influenced by an article by Goodwin, ‘Don’t wait until 4th grade to address the slump’, which summarises research findings that suggest the achievement slump often occurring for children aged around nine or ten years can be attributed to:

  • early reading difficulties
  • variations in vocabulary knowledge
  • lack of domain-specific prior knowledge
  • the rise of peer influence.

Mazano and Hadaway were further influences. In Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement, Mazano demonstrates that what students already know about something is a strong indicator of how well they will make sense of new, related material. In A Narrow Bridge to Academic Reading, Hadaway explains how focusing on one author or theme in children’s literature can help language learners make the transition into academic reading.

Based on the findings of these researchers (and others), leaders saw the need for a school-wide approach to boosting the vocabulary of younger students, filling their background knowledge gaps, and developing a peer culture that prioritised learning.

Implementing a spiral curriculum that builds on children’s background and prior knowledge

Leaders made sure the teaching programme was structured so all children had maximum opportunity to learn and achieve success. Working with an external facilitator, they developed detailed guidelines that described skills, progressions and strategies across Levels 1 to 3 of The New Zealand Curriculum. These linked the children’s developing skills: personal voice, prior knowledge, questioning, problem solving and solution seeking, decision making and presenting (all based on the key competencies) to the learning areas.

The progressions developed for the learning areas showed what the children were expected to learn at each level. The skills were integrated into the learning areas and skills progressions they created and showed teachers what students should experience through the years. A high level of integration across the learning areas was designed to maximise learning time, depth of learning and transfer of learning across the curriculum. The three teaching teams (syndicates) used the guidelines to collaboratively plan units of work. These gave all children opportunities to engage with the whole curriculum and to focus on the skills they most needed for success.

Towards the end of each term, the children engaged in activities designed to build the knowledge and academic vocabulary they would need for the following unit. Teachers related what the children already knew about these words to their science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) meanings. The pedagogy of vocabulary development was guided by the six-step process described in Mazano and Simm’s Vocabulary for the Common Core and New Science Standards’ webinar.

A child's poster containing photos and words showing their Tongan culture.

Knowing the learner was integral to planning, the team worked to make sure the perspectives of the children’s different cultures were understood and kept in mind. This team included teachers from the different cultural groups. They shared personal experiences, internet links and YouTube clips that explained the kinds of cultural competencies the children and their whānau would bring to the learning. They also led hui, fono and meetings with parents and whānau where they discussed what the term’s topic or theme meant to them. The photos show examples of prior learning completed by three children on the theme of ‘belonging’.

External experts challenged and extended the thinking and practice of both teachers and leaders. They showed them how to use internal evaluations of current and recent teaching to inform their planning of the next unit. This, combined with ‘knowing the learner’ strategies, increased teachers’ understanding of the knowledge children could bring to their learning and how they could build on it in a different context.

The meaning of  BELONGINGS  -created by students at Papatoetoe North School

Meaning of BELONGINGS - created by student at Papatoetoe North School

The inquiry concept chosen for each term provided wide-ranging opportunities for learning in such areas as innovation, wellbeing, sustainability and creativity. The aim was to repeat topics every two years so children could build on their earlier learning and subsequent experiences. Practice was guided by the theory that children need deep knowledge to ask rich questions and use higher-level skills.

We asked a Year 6 child if it seemed repetitive to do the same inquiry topic three times while they were moved through the school. The child said, “No we never do the same things. When we were in Years 1 and 2 we sort of learnt about things that we could talk about and what we were interested in then. In Years 3 and 4 we had to think creatively and try to innovate new ideas. Now, when we are in Year 5 or 6, we do a lot more about technical processes and science and cycles and things like that. When we did innovation this year I liked it because we did science that was more technical and we had to design a new uniform for our school for 2031.”

Teachers recognised collaborative planning was essential for making sure activities and skills became increasingly complex and children were not just repeating things they had already learned. Two provisionally certificated teachers told us how they managed the approach when they first came to the school:

We really like the structure of the curriculum; it is an anchor we use to plan for our children. In Year 6 we can use the children’s prior knowledge from previous studies but take them further out of their world. For example, when we did sustainability, we looked at the garbage patch or managing all the rubbish in some of the Pacific Islands. We also give kids the chance to do more independent work as well as time to work together. The inquiry is a great platform for the children’s writing.”

“When we came here we struggled a bit with the inquiry before we really understood the children, but the collaborative planning helped us. We also like the collaboration between syndicates at staff meetings as we get to see where the children have come from and what they are going to later.”

Focusing on direct oral and academic language instruction

Organisational structures, processes and practices enabled and sustained teachers’ and leaders’ collaborative learning and decision making. Learning outcomes such as using personal voice, using prior knowledge and questioning (from the skills progression), were associated with verbs such as ‘talk’, ‘contribute’, ‘give feedback’, ‘share knowledge’ and ‘generate questions’. These formed the basis of the oral language programme that was tightly integrated into each unit.

At leadership meetings, leaders unpacked the ‘big ideas’ in the focus concept, deciding on the enduring understandings, academic vocabulary and essential questions. Each syndicate then identified the expected learning in selected learning areas. Ongoing discussions took place during the term. Units were reviewed at syndicate level and then school level. These reviews were the starting point for planning when the topic was revisited in subsequent years.

Leaders understood that teachers needed to know what they were teaching and children knew what they were expected to learn. Teachers deliberately boosted vocabulary and responded to gaps in background knowledge. It was expected they would integrate teaching across learning areas, and choose reading and writing activities that related to the focus concept and extended children’s vocabularies. Comprehensive guidelines gave teachers advice about how to do this.                 

The skills progressions were well known and used. When planning for each term, teachers and leaders would discuss them in detail as they decided which concepts and skills they would focus on in their teaching.

Teachers shared the skills progressions and success criteria with their students. This helped the children know what they had to do to achieve success, and gave them the means to assess their own progress.

Involving parents as partners in their children’s learning

Children’s learning at home was actively promoted through the provision of appropriate learning opportunities, resources and support. This focus on teachers and parents working together to improve children’s learning was an outstanding feature of the school. Because teachers and leaders valued parents as their children’s first teachers and as partners, parents were strongly committed to supporting their children’s learning.

To parents

You are your child’s first and best teachers.

You have the skills and knowledge to help your child learn and grow. Your wonderful language and experiences are gifts you can share. Helping your child learn at home has benefited you child, your family and the school.

What your child already knows about the content is one of the strongest indicators of how well they will learn new information and skills.

  Part of one child's home learning on the theme of sustainability
Part of one child's home learning on the theme of sustaianability

As the end of each term approached, learning activities related to the next inquiry unit went home for children and their families to work on during the holidays. These holiday activities, and learning tasks sent home during the term, supported parents to play an important role in building their children’s academic vocabulary and, as a result, their background knowledge.

The three teaching teams created home learning activities. In Years 3 to 6, the focus was on the children exploring with parents what they already knew, necessary vocabulary, and what they wanted to discover more about. As far as academic vocabulary was concerned, the emphasis was on hearing and valuing the family’s perspectives, not on looking up the dictionary or searching the internet for meanings.

Each term parents were invited to the school to collect the home learning pack. Parents who wanted extra support could participate in workshops, where possible motivating strategies would be discussed, or meet with teachers to go through the activities. Meanwhile their children would be supervised in the school hall by teacher aides. Parents were welcome to take home any resources they required.                                 

 A photo below shows a child with a completed home learning task on the theme of ‘belonging’. A lot of the children’s home learning on this theme was displayed in the classroom to help teachers understand what was important in the child’s life.

Child with a completed task on the theme of belonging at PapatoetoeNorthSchool

“We met with a small group of parents to hear their perspectives of the holiday learning. Although they all told us they hadn’t done well at school they confidently shared highly effective teaching practices they had used with their children. In most cases they had worked individually with their children, using different approaches for their different age levels.

“It is straightforward what we have to do. I have one child who is very eager to do it and the other can be resistant. When they were younger they found it harder to write things down so I would get them to tell us and we write down whatever comes out of their mouths.”

“Sometimes there are things in the sheets that we don’t understand so we ask the children to check with the teacher or we check with the teacher ourselves. We have to be careful as sometimes we overthink something as a parent.”

An assembly to celebrate the home learning partnership
An assembly to celebrate the home learning partnership

At the end of the year, parents of well over 600 children, who had completed more than 80 percent of the home learning, came to a special assembly to celebrate what had been achieved. As they entered, each child gave their family the lei they were wearing. Children from each teaching team then shared how they had benefited and what they had learned from their whānau. The home learning partnership strengthened their sense of belonging and connection to school, whānau, friends and community.      

Building a school culture where students experience peer pressure to do well

A genuine partnership with, and respect for parents contributed to the strengthening of care and connectedness (whanaungatanga) because:

  • learners had the right to self determination, where power is shared (mahi tahi)
  • learners’ understandings formed the basis of their identity and learning (whakapapa).

On many occasions, we heard children explain how proud they were of their parents. Negative peer pressure was not visible because of the influence of, and children’s respect for, whānau. Children talked about how they were expected to make the most of their learning time. They understood and valued their teachers’ expectations of them. As many children explained, it was not only acceptable to do well at school, it was expected that you will do well.                        

It is essential to try hard and do well. You are encouraged to do well and extra support is provided in reading, writing and maths, and even from a social worker if it is needed.”

“Everyone is expected to be a good learner. Our teachers encourage us to always try more rather than give up and not give it a go. “

"A lot of us are independent in our work. Our teachers support us to ise the strategies we have been taught."

"We have to get planned before we start (writing) so we don't spend the whole lesson just thinking."

"We like to learn and use our strategies to move up the levels. When it is challenging it helps us to learn. We find we can do it and then we get pushed to go further."

"Our teacher pushes us to be confident and try new things. SHe even pushes us to go in sports teams. She doesn't really like us to be a lazy person."
Year 6 children

The achievement of equity and excellence in ways that reduce disparity was a feature of the school. Equity was foregrounded in the practice of ensuring that children got the curriculum they needed. Teachers supported them with engaging activities in which they taught and/or retaught concepts and skills they needed for success. Teachers didn’t wait for them to achieve everything before moving on. Strengths and gaps were identified and responded through:

  • the use of carefully analysed assessments
  • children sharing specific detail about what they had learned
  • children explaining or justifying their thinking to their peers.

High quality work was evident across the school. Children valued and were able to describe the high expectations teachers had of them to achieve well academically. They were aware of the strategies they had been taught and confidently used them. By the end of Year 6 a high percentage of students were achieving at or above National Standards.

Year 6 students at or above National Standards at end of 2015







The following is a summary of the teacher beliefs that contributed to the children’s success and kept them progressing from year to year.

  1. Powerful learning happens across the curriculum, within all aspects of our learning community. We maximise learning when we truly know our learners through inquiry within a ‘safe, inclusive and vibrant environment where children are supported, encouraged   and challenged to achieve personal academic excellence, and develop their   talents, so they are well prepared to be productive citizens in the twenty-first century.’
  2. All learning is about making meaning and creating meaning. All powerful learning is underpinned by the foundations of literacy learning at Papatoetoe North School.
  3. Teach oral language across the day where it is most relevant and purposeful.
  4.  A range of digital skills, literacies and fluencies are developed across all aspects of learning and our learning community.
  5. Without a rich knowledge base, children don’t have the information to ask questions worth investigating.
  6. It is vital we embrace and relate to students’ voice, their different learning perspectives, and their culture.
  7. By shifting the focus of control from teacher-led learning, we enable students to   independently drive a learning journey that they are truly engaged in.
  8. Rich learning results from investigating and exploring big ideas, overarching essential  questions and enduring understandings through multiple inquiry pathways and   perspectives.
  9. Presentations most effectively create meaning when they incorporate combinations of oral, written or visual language and the arts. Presentation is bigger than just the end presentation, it is the 'whole' package: taking the new information and synthesising it etc., thinking creatively, independently of the teacher.
  10. The range of media used for presentations will spiral and develop across the levels.