Links between schools in lower income areas and high rates of suspensions and stand‑downs1 with poorer academic results2 are evident in New Zealand. In keeping with international data, stand-down and suspension rates drop and achievement rises as the school decile rises.3

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)4 reporting recognises that many New Zealand students achieve well academically. However, there remains considerable disparity between the highest and lowest achievers. A disproportionate number of the lower achievers come from the lower decile schools. While non-school factors contribute to this outcome evidence shows that some education systems and some lower decile New Zealand schools are able to achieve more equitable outcomes for their students. Leaders, board trustees and teachers in those schools acknowledge that for every student in their school to achieve well, firstly they need to be present, engaged and motivated to learn.

This report discusses factors that contribute to students’ engagement and success at secondary school. The Education Review Office (ERO) identified only nine secondary schools of decile 5 or below with more than 200 students that had good student engagement statistics and good levels of student achievement. 5 In Term 4 of 2013, ERO visited seven6 of these nine schools. This report shares good practices in each of those schools.

ERO found that having relationships which focused on the wellbeing of each student, underpinned the school’s success in keeping students at school and engaged. Every school leader emphasised the fundamental importance of having deeply caring relationships to establish the school culture they wanted. They all used restorative practices (based on respect, empowerment, collaboration and, when necessary, healing) as the approach to build those relationships.

The principals’ leadership was pivotal in successfully managing change so that the whole school community worked with a common purpose. It was clearly focused on positive outcomes for every student enrolled at the school. Trustees and school leaders were committed to relentless improvement, developing the desired culture through continually revisiting school direction, values and expectations. They carefully selected professional development and initiatives, which were then tailored to suit the school vision. The allocation of board resources appropriately supported positive outcomes for all students.

Principals ERO visited suggested that developing such a culture takes from three to ten years. Not one principal from the sample schools felt they had ‘arrived’ yet. All were still seeking ongoing improvements for students.

Leaders, teachers and trustees explored alternatives to punitive responses to undesirable behaviour. They recognised that such responses did little to re-engage students in the school community and motivate them to learn. Their vision was to focus on the holistic development of all students as young adults able to succeed, to participate in and contribute to their community. Ceasing the student’s education at their school was rarely seen as an option for dealing with behavioural issues. A board chairman from one of the secondary schools in the sample said ‘With any exclusion, we try to make it a comma, not a full stop.’

Students ERO spoke with were confident young adults who appreciated the supportive relationships they had with their teachers. They had a clear sense of purpose and direction, taking responsibility for themselves and their actions. School leaders valued and sought their opinions, and students took considerable pride in being a member of their school community.

ERO noted that nine other secondary schools (decile five and below) with the highest discipline statistics had excluded or expelled over eight times as many students as the nine schools ERO selected for this sample. Once students are excluded or expelled it is often extremely difficult for them to re-engage with their education, have a sense of self worth, and achieve the skills and qualifications that will help them in the future.

This report shows that schools are able to use a wide variety of approaches to keep every student engaged, motivated to learn, and experience success in education. The success of all students in our education system can be achieved if more schools develop cultures of care and wellbeing for each student in their schools. Such cultures empower trustees, staff, students and whānau/family to work together