6. Using inquiry in a relentless drive to improve outcomes for all children

Somerfield Te Kura Wairepo is a Years 1 to 6 primary school in Christchurch with a roll approaching 500. While the school has children from a variety of different ethnicities, most are Pākehā/European and about one-sixth are Māori.

The leaders and teachers in this school had high expectations for their own performance and actively sought support to address identified achievement issues. Their view was that the school’s positive achievement trajectory was the result of their inquiry practices and working together to develop and apply consistent expectations, approaches and language. This consistency meant the children were confident about what was expected of them and what they were learning as they moved through the school. The teachers also knew what was expected of them and worked together to enhance outcomes for children by:

  • using robust inquiry processes to decide on any new strategies and evaluate whether they were actually accelerating children’s progress
  • developing leadership capability across the school to share and improve teaching practices
  • maintaining open working relationships with the board and others so that strategic resourcing for ongoing improvement can be secured.

First, we discuss each of the above three strategies, and then we share strategies adopted specifically to improve outcomes for Māori students and writing and mathematics achievement for all students.

Using robust inquiry processes

A culture of inquiry was evident at all levels across the school. Leaders developed a planning, inquiry and coaching cycle (see diagram) that linked structures and systems to priorities and goals. Inquiry cycles, appraisal, coaching and professional learning were all tools for improving student outcomes. 

Leaders and teachers used data as a compass. They systematically gathered and analysed information relating to achievement and data obtained using the NZCER’s Wellbeing@School survey tool. With the focus on student outcomes, they engaged in leadership inquiries, team inquiries, teacher inquiries, research-based inquiry, and action learning. These inquiries resulted in interventions tailored specifically to the needs of individual children and groups. Given the urgency of the need to accelerate progress for children achieving below the expected level, the aim was to quickly implement agreed strategies and evaluate their impact on student outcomes. 

A culture of sharing and critiquing was well established in teaching teams, where the focus was on strategies rather than teacher beliefs. A common inquiry framework ensured that data and research-informed teaching was the norm. Every teacher expected to be challenged if the students were not progressing as expected.

Planning - Inquiry - Coaching Cycle

“If you are not performing we are going to do something about it. We have no tolerance for poor performance. We don’t promote dependency as we help teachers to unpack what is happening and are solution orientated. We give people space to do the work and support to do what we have agreed to do. Teachers now put pressure on themselves, as they have increased expectations for their performance.”


Reading, writing and mathematics tracking and monitoring sheets clearly highlighted children’s strengths and needs for teachers and teams. Teams used these collaboratively to review progress and consider alternative practices that might be more effective.

The tracking sheets used by teachers, teams and leaders

The tracking sheets used by teachers, teams and leaders highlight children’s strengths and needs. They also provide a record of actions taken and their impacts.

Developing leadership capability

To develop collaborative inquiry practices and build relational trust it had first been necessary to change the leadership model used by the school. Leaders became leaders of learning, tasked with supporting teachers to improve their practice. Starting in 2008, middle leaders began to focus more on data and student outcomes. They participated in training designed to support them as their job descriptions – and leadership expectations of them – changed significantly. Improving teacher practice within a development model became their core business, for which they were held accountable. They assumed increased responsibility for their own professional learning and development (PLD) budgets and for those of their teams.

An agreed coaching model (below) was adopted, which, linked to teachers’ own inquiries, provided multiple opportunities to explore practices and beliefs and determine the impacts of new strategies.

An agreed coaching model

Relational trust at every level supported collaboration, risk taking and openness to change. Team meetings were facilitated by middle leaders who kept the focus on teacher practice and made sure all voices were heard. The expectation was that all participants would come prepared. At the meetings, they discussed research related to the focus issue, worked collaboratively to identify target students and their needs, and agreed on strategies for accelerating their progress.

Time was made available each week for middle leaders to work as a team and to inquire into their own leadership practice. They looked in depth at their performance in relation to two of the dimensions found in the School Leadership and Student Outcomes Best Evidence Synthesis. They embarked on a comprehensive inquiry to answer the question, ‘How do we lead our teams to explore their own practice and make pedagogical change to improve student outcomes?’

Open working relationships with the board

The board had many opportunities to scrutinise the effectiveness of the school in achieving valued outcomes for its students. Prior to meetings, they received any papers or information senior leaders would be tabling. Each year they participated in a weekend retreat where they engaged in evaluation and strategic planning, their deliberations supported by educational readings.

The board used reports on achievement, progress, and the outcomes of interventions as the basis for allocating additional resources to interventions or funding new programmes. Their policy was to intervene early and make sure interventions were targeted to specific children. When achievement or wellbeing issues were identified, they examined the trends and wanted to know details of actions being planned.
The board had recently provided funding for:

  • trained teachers to run interventions, so children who needed additional support would have the best person working with them
  • a social worker and a youth worker who, among other things, were supporting children with very high behavioural needs in the playground
  • innovative teacher research projects focused on new practice
  • additional teaching (initially part of ALiM PLD) to continue with a small group of children who were making progress
  • significant PLD asked for by the teaching teams and linked to the school’s goals.

The board was also working alongside Ngai Tahu, who, as part of the Christchurch renewal project had gifted the school its Mäori name. The school was moving to place-based education that focused on the history, myths and significant of places in their community. The school names, logo and houses were all being changed to signal its bicultural commitment. This commitment was also underscored by the allocation of additional staffing to provide more advanced te reo Mäori for those wanting it.

Improving outcomes for Māori children

Somerfield School was part of a cluster of seven schools working together to change hearts and minds in the Kahukura Māori Achievement Collaboration (MAC) cluster. Principals and trustees discussed everything from programmes to engaging whänau. Lead teachers met regularly to work on or share major projects, celebrations, ideas and resources.

For Somerfield Te Kura Wairepo, major cultural change began when the board released a teacher to attend the Hōaka Pounamu course at the University of Canterbury. The teacher then developed programmes that were taught hui-style so that other teachers could learn more about the local history and traditions. As the school became more culturally responsive it put in place employment policies designed to ensure continued momentum. The MAC enabled lead teachers of Māori to grow in the role by creating opportunities for them to work together to develop new programmes.

Teachers’ involvement in the MAC project and Hōaka Pounamu PLD encouraged them to learn new ways of connecting with students and getting to know them as individuals. They took time to find out their own histories and learned to express them in hui, mihi and pepeha. This helped them situate units of work and activities in contexts that Mäori children could relate to. Teachers selected video clips and created resources that were shared with whänau and children. They modelled learning together and collaborative pedagogies. They sought to provoke children’s curiosity about their past and give them opportunities to strengthen and express their identities.

“We can participate in extension Kapahaka and Te Reo.”
“There are te reo and tikanga programmes in all class as well.”
“It’s normal to be Māori here – no-one judges you.”
“We have library books in te reo.”
“Kids look up to you.”
“We get to present a mihi that relates to us.”
“We get to learn about Māori history.”
“Parihaka is an important unit to our area.”
“We participate in a cultural festival with other schools in our cluster.”
“Everyone does place-based learning.”
“We have lots of ways to learn.”
“We learn about our culture and what happened.”
“We do a Matariki celebration with our cluster.”
Māori students

Concerned that some Māori children were achieving below the expected level, leaders decided to work on attendance and lateness. Supportive interviews and phone calls to family resulted immediately in greatly improved rates of attendance. The focus was on developing solutions together. By closely monitoring their Māori students, teachers were able to identify their particular strengths and issues with regard to wellbeing and achievement. More students were identifying themselves as Māori and expressing pride in being Māori.

Leaders and teachers worked actively to develop reciprocal, learning-centred partnerships with whānau. Whānau participated in focus groups designed to find out how the school could better support children’s achievement. Whānau worked with leaders, teachers and the board to make the school more culturally responsive and, through the MAC project, to resource increased provision of te reo Māori. Whānau also contributed thinking via the school’s website, where teachers, parents and whānau could access planning for the bicultural curriculum.

Development Plan for 2016
One of the investigations and development of actions to improve outcomes for Māori children

Despite the increased emphasis on Māori language and values and increased involvement with whānau, teachers and leaders recognised that there was more to do:

“Some of our Māori students’ achievement in reading and writing is of concern despite them being targeted in every module. This requires a rethink in our approach in terms of engaging with whänau to improve learning. Kapa haka and te reo Māori is not enough to impact on student achievement.”

Writing strategies

To improve children’s attitudes towards writing, teachers increased their positive talk about writing and looked for opportunities to praise. When children enjoyed noteworthy success, teachers told other teachers so that they also could praise them and boost their self-belief. Teachers had one-to-one conversations with children to motivate them and learn what they would like to write about. Each day they would explicitly model the kind of writing wanted.

“We don’t get in the way of what they want to write about. One boy has been writing about plants versus zombies now for eight weeks and he writes at home. He did his first piece over several days and not a new piece every day. Children are more desperate to continue to write.”

Teachers started using their new authentic curriculum units, which were relevant to the geographical location of the school and the lives of the children. To make writing more individual and purposeful they focused on special trips, events and interests. They used high-interest film clips to spark creativity. Children published their work using SEESAW, in this way sharing it with their parents and whānau. Teachers began allowing children to choose their own topic, medium and writing location within the classroom. Naturally, they wrote about topics that mattered to them. They used images to help them with discussions before writing to extend their ideas and make connections between oral and written language. Children formed their own small teams to create and share ideas. Having choices increased both their engagement and their achievement.

“We saw a child use a strategy called ‘stepping it out’ where, for each new idea, he took a physical step forward. This helped him develop and sequence his ideas. The physical activity also reinforced paragraphing and sentence structure for him.”
ERO evaluator

Teachers were more flexible about the tools and graphic organisers they used. Because spelling was a barrier for some children (they were limiting their writing to words they could spell), they were allowed to do their writing on a device that would check and correct their spelling. The resulting work more accurately reflected their potential, and teachers were in a better position to challenge their word choices and encourage them to use of the vocabulary they had in their heads.

A key teacher goal was to provide more explicit, targeted and relevant teaching at the right time for the right learner. Booster classes helped target children to gain specific skills they needed for their writing. English as a second and other language (ESOL) students were provided with additional support to show them the different steps needed to complete a piece of writing. The board recently supported an inquiry into improving writing in Year 4 by funding time for the teacher concerned to do additional observations and small-group work with a group of reluctant writers. As a result of this initiative, the children were much more ready to scribe and generate ideas.

A Year 6 child showed us her goals, which she sets weekly.
“My goals are there to help me make my writing more interesting by doing things like using different sentence structures and using more interesting vocab. We use our goal setting book each week to reflect on our goals and describe how we went and what went well.”
ERO evaluator

To help children understand the skills they should be applying to their writing, teachers shared the English Language Learning Progressions (ELLP) with them, as well as school exemplars and actual examples of student writing. Formative assessment checklists performed a similar function. Teachers began using modelling books more consistently, along with examples of descriptive writing to help children build more imagery. Writing buddies provided feedback and shared ideas both before and during writing.

Mathematics strategies

As a first step to improving mathematics achievement, teachers reviewed their practice in the light of readings from the Effective Pedagogy in Mathematics/Pāngarau Best Evidence Synthesis. Identifying consistent use of mathematical language as critical for children’s mathematics learning, they explored how they could achieve this, as well as consistent use of approaches and strategies, across the school. As a result, a variety of strategies and approaches were adopted. These had contributed to improved achievement.

The practice of having the children work in fixed ‘ability groups’ was abandoned and replaced by flexible grouping, where groups comprised children who needed to learn or practise a particular concept. The children now moved more quickly from stage to stage because they were no longer having to wait for others, or wait to move on to a new skill before mastering the current skill. During four-week, intensive teaching blocks across three classes, two teachers facilitated targeted workshops while the third worked in the collaborative space supporting children who needed individual help. Children worked together more collaboratively and sought help more independently. 

Teachers made changes to their own practice. They explained the micro steps needed to solve problems and highlighted next learning steps, being more specific and explicit. They improved the quality of their questions, making them more open so children were required to explain their ideas. They were still gaining confidence in this area, as well as the confidence to summarise learning as it was happening and establish what strategies the children were using by getting them to clarify their responses.

Teachers increased the pace and variety of lessons to keep the children engaged and motivated. With less time allocated to each activity, the children wasted less time and understood the need to make progress. During ‘Problem-solving Thursdays’, mixed-ability groups worked together to solve problems. On ‘Discovery Fridays’, the children used practical mathematics to make constructions. Older students were able to learn online, using e-ako maths (a site within the nzmaths website). This encouraged independent learning and gave the teacher more time to work with children who needed extra help.

Inquiry and innovation were key strategies evident in all the different developments. They used evidence to generate improvement solutions, supported teachers to implement agreed practices and rigorously checked that they were having the desired impact on student outcomes.