This section explores the overall findings, the key characteristics of each group, what made a difference to the extent schools promoted and responded to student wellbeing, and particular concerns about students in Years 7 and 8.

To what extent do schools promote and respond to student wellbeing?

ERO found that nearly half of the primary schools promoted and responded reasonably well to student wellbeing as they had positive school cultures and respectful relationships. Another 18 percent had a slightly better approach and promoted student wellbeing through the curriculum. Eleven percent of primary schools had an extensive approach to student wellbeing, with this woven through all actions.

Particular values and beliefs underpinned the culture of wellbeing, the interactions between the learner, curriculum and effective teaching practices, and the systems and initiatives to support student wellbeing. These were the:

  • beliefs about the nature of students’ education experiences and rights
  • beliefs about the potential of students and their whānau and families
  • values about the way people think, act and interact.

What were the characteristics of each group of schools?

An extensive focus on student wellbeing, with this woven through all actions.

Eleven percent of schools were in this category.

Teachers and leaders in these schools had an unconditional positive regard for students. It was important to them that students had the ability to make and take accountability for their own choices. The school values were evident in actions, interactions and documentation.

These schools were diverse in context but shared the following features:

  • goals for students underpinned all actions
  • wellbeing of all students was actively monitored, with timely responses to meet individual needs
  • the curriculum was designed and monitored for valued goals
  • students had the power to make decisions related to wellbeing
  • students, teachers and leaders clearly understood the school’s relationship with the community.

These features were interconnected and based on shared values about the potential of students to contribute to their own wellbeing and that of others.

Within a high trust culture and stimulating curriculum, teachers and leaders provided opportunities for students to develop leadership abilities and belief in themselves to succeed. They also provided students with opportunities to participate with others and be resourceful.

Strong self review ensured the focus on capability building and improvement would continue.

The school experience for students was deeply rewarding.

Student wellbeing was well promoted through the curriculum and there were good responses to wellbeing issues.

Eighteen percent of the schools evaluated were in this category.

Teachers and leaders in these schools had a strong commitment to student wellbeing. They knew what was needed to promote and respond to it. Some schools had deliberately designed a local curriculum based on students’ strengths and input from the community. Other schools had actively incorporated key competencies and school values into curriculum tasks.

The key differences between this group of schools and the first were the extent to which:

  • the vision reflected Māori and Pacific views of wellbeing
  • students partnered with adults to determine what and how to learn
  • the schools monitored the effectiveness of approaches taken. In particular, they worked to improve the focus on wellbeing and accountability to students who had not been well served, as well as their parents, whānau and families.

Reasonable promotion of and response to student wellbeing as schools had positive cultures and respectful relationships.

Forty-eight percent of the schools evaluated were in this group.

ERO’s initial response was that these schools ‘felt good’ as they had a culture that appeared to be inclusive and caring to most students most of the time. The key differences from the two previous groups were that teachers and leaders:

  • were unsure of the relationship between achievement and wellbeing
  • had separated student care from curriculum in their response to promoting wellbeing.

Students in these schools would benefit from a far more strategic focus on wellbeing. Initially leaders could consider:

  • how school values could be an integral part of the school goals and curriculum
  • how they would monitor the effectiveness of approaches taken so there is a deliberate focus on student wellbeing
  • their interpretation of The New Zealand Curriculum.

Some promotion of and response to student wellbeing by schools but an over-reliance on behaviour management.

Twenty percent of schools evaluated were in this group.

Teachers and leaders in these schools said they cared for students, but it was through a lens of ‘we know best’. Their actions reflected their beliefs that education is to keep students busy, happy and good. The shared features of these schools that made them different to the groups already described were:

  • behaviour management was seen as the main way to promote and respond to wellbeing school
  • school values were important to teachers but not an integral part of the curriculum
  • inconsistent teacher and leader practices.

These schools could easily improve and many had new principals who expressed this intention. But they could just as easily become overwhelmed by particular events; a few leaders did not appear to have the skills to handle issues that they were currently working through with students, teachers or the community.

Leaders needed to work with teachers, students, parents and whānau to develop an understanding of wellbeing.

Overwhelmed by wellbeing issues.

A few schools (three percent) had many issues related to wellbeing, including:

  • a high turnover of teachers, and/or leaders and school trustees
  • low capability by teachers, leaders and trustees to:
    • design and implement curriculum for improvement (there was no strategic planning)
    • bring issues, conflict or a crisis to an acceptable resolution for all parties
  • mixed messages about values, for example, leaders and teachers were not modelling school values – some were described as bullies and others were not trusted, and leaders (including boards of trustees) held negative views of particular groups of parents.
  • an over-reliance on social agencies to provide support for particular students and their families.

School leaders needed external support to build capability about The New Zealand Curriculum, in particular the section The School Curriculum: Design and Review and how to lead improvements.

What made the difference? School goals and their coherence with the strategic plan and subsequent actions

In schools with an extensive approach to wellbeing, goals were used to set the direction of the strategic plan and subsequent actions. These goals had annual targets and included expectations for achievement, Māori success as Māori, Pacific success as Pacific, students’ responsibility to themselves and others, and students’ sense of belonging. These schools’ goals reflected their aspirations for student wellbeing. The relationship between the goals was clearly documented and understood.

All goals and targets had associated actions in curriculum plans, professional learning and development (PLD) plans, appraisal plans, and defined committee responsibilities. Self review focused on improvement and accountability to students. The actions were monitored for effectiveness. Findings were acted on. The boards of these schools expected and received reports about the effectiveness of the approaches on the multiple goals and targets. Teachers and leaders were mindful of the multiple goals and targets at all times. The following examples show this coherence.

The school employed teachers who were able to share its high ideals and aspirations for students. Leaders had used research both from within New Zealand and globally to strengthen the wellbeing of students. Roles in the school were clearly defined through job descriptions and appraisal processes. School trustees were closely involved in strategic planning and review that included wellbeing initiatives and programmes.

A very large, urban full primary school

Each term, the principal’s report to the board of trustees included information about student care, discipline, sport and cultural involvement, and achievement. The data came from the senior team and teaching teams and was discussed and presented to staff, where trends, patterns and further inquiries were identified. The data also informed teaching and learning opportunities for students, interventions that were required for particular groups or individuals, and teachers’ professional learning and next steps.

A large, urban intermediate school


This coherence was not evident in most schools in this evaluation. This meant that self‑review processes associated with wellbeing were weak. Student wellbeing was not deliberately designed for in curriculum; care; student leadership; or relationships with the community. There was no strategic and coherent plan to monitor the effectiveness of any approaches to student wellbeing. The following example was typical of this:

Teacher-student relationships were generally respectful and caring, and students’ wellbeing was clearly important to staff. However, there was no cohesive approach to integrating wellbeing across the school in the curriculum or in classroom programmes. The connections expressed in the strategic plan were not evident in practice.

A small rural full primary school

Instead most schools relied on their positive culture and respectful relationships to promote wellbeing. Reminders about the values and the valued ways of working were evident in classrooms, around the school, in communications sent home and in formal school documentation. These values were reflected in the relationships between and among students and teachers. Many schools celebrated good behaviour through classroom and school award systems. Students were clear about the school’s values and the behaviours they represented.

Many leaders were monitoring achievement and care aspects of schooling through collecting information from surveys such as New Zealand Council of Education Research (NZCER)’s wellbeing surveys, 1 but were not linking the findings back to the school goals. Actions to improve outcomes were therefore piecemeal rather than cohesive.

School values

In some schools, the relationship between values and wellbeing was not deeply understood. This was reflected in the narrow definition of the schools’ health curriculum and the very compliance based way in which the schools had consulted with its students and with the community.

In some schools, teachers and students did not have a shared understanding of the values. In a few cases, the principal or leadership team had developed these values without consulting others and they were not described in the curriculum.

This lack of understanding about the values was also reflected in the way some schools borrowed cultural metaphor. For example, many schools used Māori concepts such as manaakitanga, whanaungatanga, atawhai, tu pono, and mahi ngatahi in an attempt to be inclusive, but had not spent enough time exploring what they really meant. Some Māori students understood the concepts for what they should be, but other students did not.

Promotion of wellbeing in the school curriculum

In schools with an extensive approach to wellbeing, the curriculum had a clear and shared understanding about learning that reflected school values about student wellbeing. Teachers described a learning experience as being about:

  • what is learnt
  • how it is experienced, for example, through the use of key competencies, inquiry-based learning, teaching as inquiry 2, and particular teaching strategies that supported collaborative learning
  • students’ roles in the experience.

Teachers and leaders understood that curriculum included both inside and outside classroom experiences. They designed and implemented a curriculum that focused on students, their families and whānau interests and aspirations and the:

  • strengths of students, for example, actively used students’ first languages
  • strengths of the community, for example, about the environment, and local and social issues.

This meant that students experienced a curriculum that was relevant, engaging and stimulating.

Teachers had a deep understanding of health teaching and learning. This was reflected in the community consultation and careful use of community expertise for particular health topics. Students explored many health topics relevant to their wellbeing, such as why some people have too much food and others not enough in the same small community.

A curriculum focused on multiple goals

In schools with an extensive approach to wellbeing, teachers and leaders understood the inter-relationship between the multiple goals. Success included success in reading, writing and mathematics, learning, sports, culture and getting along with others. Success reflected the value these schools placed on students becoming well rounded. Schools in the other groups had a similar goal of well rounded students but did not deliberately design and monitor their curriculum to achieve this for all students.

Feedback was sought from students, parents, families and whānau about their experiences. This was used, along with achievement data, to monitor the effectiveness of approaches taken. Teachers worked together to notice any contradictions between the school’s values and students’ experiences. Theyincorporated their findings into a range of coordinated approaches to improve outcomes for more students. For instance, the range of topics students could choose from reflected the range of interests in a class.

In most schools, academic achievement was the over-riding goal monitored. Classroom strategies such as cooperative group work and circle time may have been used to help students work in ways that reflected the school values. A challenge for leaders was to be more mindful about promoting student wellbeing in ways that go beyond this.

There were very few examples of curriculum activities that incorporated school values and key competencies that were culturally responsive and used community strengths and aspirations. In discussion with teachers, parents, families, whānau, iwi and community, leaders could explore the aspirations for student wellbeing and success for Māori and Pacific students. These aspirations could be translated into school goals, targets and learning opportunities.

Teacher practices

In some schools teaching practices were inconsistent, with little documentation to support a shared understanding of curriculum. Teachers often did not interpret the curriculum in a way that deliberately promoted student wellbeing. Often, the leaders did not know what current classroom practice looked like, what effective practice should look like, or how to support all teachers to be effective. These leaders would benefit from external support to develop a school curriculum that promoted wellbeing.

Student leadership and say in their educational experiences

In schools that were less effective in ensuring student wellbeing, students had the power to make decisions that affected their wellbeing. Teachers and students made decisions together. Students contributed to many daily decisions, such as what and how they learnt, who they interacted with and how they engaged. Students were expected to develop and use skills in leadership. They were seen as inherently capable, despite any barriers or challenges they faced. Students were in control of many of their school experiences.

In some of these schools students had worked with teachers to develop clear visions about what this leadership looked like, along with statements about what students should expect from teachers to support this vision. A wall display in one school stated:

Leaders are organised and confident.Leaders who make good decisions know their strengths.Leaders who notice and utilise others’ strengths enhance others to build their own capacity.Teachers build student leadership capacity, show empathy and role model empathy toward others.Teachers respect students in their care, they listen and take time to talk with children, before, during and after school.Teachers give praise and positive and honest feedback/feed forward.

A large, urban full primary school

Student leadership contribution to classroom decisions about learning

Teachers provided opportunities for students to be aware of, and respond to, their own learning strengths and needs. The use of:

  • assessment practices to improve learning 3 ensured students had clarity about their personal learning, that is, they knew what they were learning and why, how they were going, and how they could improve
  • inquiry-based learning ensured students had a voice in what was important to learn and how – that is, the classroom curriculum was based on student strengths, needs and interests
  • studying local, social and environmental issues ensured students had opportunities to make change and develop clarity around personal values and respect for others.

Student leadership contribution to school life

Student leadership was valued in the schools with an extensive approach to wellbeing. Students were expected to work with adults and contribute to solutions. The use of:

  • surveys, focus groups and classroom representatives meant students’ opinions about a range of issues were heard and acted on
  • opportunities to learn about and experience leadership through particular roles was often associated with the wellbeing of other students – such as leading sports teams, kapa haka and other cultural groups – this meant that most students saw how leadership qualities were acknowledged and others had the opportunity to practise leadership
  • buddying structures and the expectation for students to model the school values and support others to enact it meant all students looked out for each other.

One school realised they no longer had a need for peer support roles. These decisions were made with the students.

A senior student had suggested to the principal that playground activity leaders would be more useful than peer mediators. This led to the school abolishing the peer mediator roles. Now students are well occupied with the variety of activities senior leaders created, and there has been a decrease in playground ‘incidents’.

A large urban full primary school

Most schools had not thought as much about student leadership. Instead, teachers in these schools understood that student leadership was important in two ways – as an opportunity for some students to experience and practise what it means to be a leader, and by providing role models for other students. Students with these leadership roles influenced school decisions and culture but only a few students had these opportunities.

Other roles were allocated to older students and involved the active care of peers. These roles influenced school culture, for example, peer mentor, playground mediators, kapa haka manukura wahine and manukura tane roles, 4 and the tuakana in a tuakana teina relationship. 5 In many schools, older students expressed delight in having this responsibility. Students of all ages talked with ERO about their sense of belonging and being cared for.

The tuakana teina approach was school wide and older students learnt tolerance and patience, while the younger students learnt to appreciate and aspire to be like their older peers... There was respectful and peaceful engagement within this school community with everyone at all levels.

A very large urban full primary school

In a few schools, older students cared for some aspects of the younger students’ learning – for example, some tuakana teina relationships and buddy systems. Positive interactions between younger and older students meant learning was supported by people other than the teacher.

Some schools had started to focus on assessment for learning 6 and inquiry-based learning to support students to develop leadership competencies, as described in the following examples.

The school had begun to include students in planning the classroom curriculum. The introduction and embedding of teaching as inquiry and inquiry-based learning gave students opportunities to consider what would help their learning.

A medium-sized, urban contributing primary school

Teachers had recently started to provide more opportunities for students to lead their own learning by choosing topics and using inquiry-based learning. These opportunities were especially strong in the shared rooms.

A large urban contributing primary school

In a few schools students were expected to support school culture through leadership tasks related to behaviour management, but were not asked to contribute to curriculum related decisions. Students said they would like to be asked their opinions more and be able to have a say.

What do we mean by student voice?

In many schools teachers and leaders discussed collecting student (and parent) voice. They had not explored what they meant by this or how they intended to promote and respond to it. Student voice can mean different things. 7

If the purpose was to hear students’ views, then a survey may be useful. This was what most schools did. Other schools used small focus groups to hear student views. Neither method ensures all students have a say. Some schools had summarised the information collected and used it to inform their actions. Only a very few schools reported back to students on how the teachers and leaders used their opinions. A few schools had asked students to complete a survey but had then done nothing with the information.

If the purpose was to involve students in decisions about wellbeing, the education environment and learning experiences, mechanisms beyond a survey are needed. For instance, in some schools students helped analyse the survey information, reported to their peers, parents and teachers and developed next steps with these groups. The teachers and leaders in these schools understood and valued the unique knowledge and perspectives about their school that students have.

If the purpose was to increase students’ self awareness about their views, competencies and knowledge, classroom discussions can enable teachers to respond with learning opportunities that build on these strengths. Teachers in schools that had an extensive approach to wellbeing, tended to use assessment practices to improve learning 8 to support inquiry-based learning.

If the purpose was to have teams of students in a leadership role contribute to the design of learning experiences that affect their wellbeing, teachers and leaders need to provide the time and space for this. In a few schools, groups of students had set up their own groups to advise the principal and teachers about lunchtime activities and road safety.

All these voices can contribute to student wellbeing. The most effective schools promoted and responded to all these examples of student voice and provided students with opportunities to develop confidence in their contribution to school life and in their identity.

Monitoring and responding to student wellbeing

Circumstances can change very quickly even in the many schools working with students to enhance their wellbeing. Traumatic incidents, bullying, and mental and physical health problems still occurred for students or for important members of their family or whānau, and affected these individuals regardless of how focused a school was on student wellbeing. Some schools were prepared for such events – and this was reflected in the school culture, curriculum and approaches. Other schools were not prepared. Leaders did not have the capability to support students and teachers during or after the event. These schools were experiencing a rapid decline in their wellbeing focus as they were overwhelmed by the event.

In schools with an extensive approach to wellbeing, the beliefs and values that underpinned curriculum also underpinned care decisions. All students were actively monitored and schools ensured timely responses to meet individual wellbeing needs. Examples of the formal monitoring of all students included noticing peaks, trends and patterns in registers of achievement, attendance, playground incidents, student care and sick bay use. One school used sociograms 9 to explore interactions amongst students. Teachers and leaders talked with students and their parents and used surveys at particular times to determine whether there were any issues. They were vigilant in noticing student wellbeing and were able to respond in ways that supported students.

Leaders had good relationships with a variety of health and wellbeing organisations. This meant they had easy access to support, such as health nurses, social workers, sports groups, city and regional council officers, church groups, Resource Teachers Learning and Behaviour (RTLBs), and neighbourhood police.

These schools had clear roles for students, teachers, leaders, teaching teams and committees. Students trusted other students, adults and the system to support them. Those who spoke to ERO felt safe at school and also knew who to go to and what to do if an issue arose. Examples of clarity were seen in the care the schools had taken with establishing agreed school guidelines, roles and responsibilities and behaviours.

There were clear guidelines about access to guidance and support, including knowing who needed to be informed of and who needed to respond to particular information. In schools where community wellbeing was at risk, leaders allocated time for a leadership role responsible for student care. In one school:

The board allocated care responsibility to a senior leader. This 0.8 FTE position included responding to teachers’ requests for help with students, mentoring students, visits or catch ups with students who have been identified as a concern by parents and teachers, as well as liaison with parents and contact with external agencies, such as Child, Youth and Family (CYF) and Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services.

A large urban full primary school

Individuals on particular teams, such as committees responsible for care, behaviour and safety, understood the team’s responsibilities, consultation expectations and reporting mechanisms. The students on these committees also understood their roles.

Teachers and students had clear codes of conduct. A well‑understood restorative approach was used to mediate the few examples of bullying and other forms of antisocial activity in these schools. Teachers and leaders had the knowledge and skills to work with students from cultures other than their own.

In some schools behaviour management was seen as the main way to promote and respond to wellbeing. The expected behaviour was often described in negative terms, such as “no bullying”. Generally, the expected behaviour linked back to a school’s values. Some schools had introduced peer mediators, especially for the playground, and house systems to monitor and promote the expected behaviours. Many schools had a consequence plan similar to the following example.

Each class developed a classroom code of conduct based on the school values. If this code was broken, five steps were followed before the issue would be taken to the principal or deputy principal. There was a code of conduct to guide ‘break time fun’ and there were clear consequences for inappropriate behaviour. Teachers also had a code of conduct.

A medium‑sized, urban full primary school

These behaviour management plans had been developed in response to behavioural issues. School leaders thought the positive school culture and respectful relationships were due to the very clear guidelines of consequences, which motivated students (and teachers) to adhere to expected behaviours. They said there were now fewer playground incidents, stand-downs and suspensions than before the plan had been introduced. In most schools students said they felt safe. Students said they knew the consequences, what to do and who to go to if an issue arose.

This was not always the case. In some schools, consequences were not consistently followed or not well expressed. Although were confused about some aspects, they did know who to go to if an issue arose.

The school’s relationship with the community

Students, teachers and leaders were clear about the school’s relationship with the community in schools with an extensive approach to wellbeing. Leaders and teachers understood the two-way nature of influences on a student’s wellbeing and the extent of these influences. They recognised the influence of family and whānau, for example, the affect on a child if an important adult was sick. They also recognised how the student can influence their family, for instance, the effect on parents if their child’s peer relationships were not good. Teachers and leaders knew what was happening for students and what was important to them both within school and in their wider family and social circles.

Families were seen as inherently capable. They actively contributed to many aspects of schooling and the schools actively contributed to their lives. This is shown in the following example.

Parents spoke enthusiastically about the support the school provides for their children and the community. There was a strong emphasis in their conversations that the school belongs to the community and that whānau belong to the school. This affirmation for the school was clearly seen through parent participation in school‑led teaching initiatives for parents. For instance, the school has just presented a Google Competence Certificate to its 500th parent to complete a digital course. Parents were also very enthusiastic about the success of their sports teams and the cultural events happening in the school.

A very large urban full primary school

Leaders in these schools gave priority to developing working relationships with a wide variety of people and community organisations. These relationships were not just used for moments of crisis but were also important for the day-to-day wellbeing of students. The community contributed to the curriculum. Examples included students working with local iwi to restore a wetlands or develop resources about local history, and working with students from other schools to solve local transport issues. Some school leaders had developed a shared set of values for students so that when students transitioned from one school to the next they were working to the same set of values.

School leaders frequently invited the wider community to participate in school activities. These were often annual cultural events, such as school fairs, shows or open days. These events were major features on the community’s calendar.

In other schools leaders had not explored the meaning of working relationships with parents, family and whānau when designing, implementing and reviewing their wellbeing focus. In many schools the relationships with Māori and Pacific communities were not as strong as those with other groups of parents.

Many schools relied on surveys as the main tool for engaging with students and their parents, families and whānau. Conversations with these groups about their aspirations and views on wellbeing may be more enlightening.

A few schools had negative views about particular students and their families, especially Māori, Pacific and immigrants, which affected their relationships with these students and their families. Some of these schools had high numbers of Māori and Pacific students but did not consistently promote their wellbeing and success. ERO observed:

  • the relatively low levels of Māori and Pacific student achievement compared with other students
  • the lack of understanding about a culturally responsive curriculum and culturally responsive teaching. For example, they had not explored Ka Hikitia, 10 Tātaiako 11 or the Pasifika Education Plan (PEP) 12 whānau and families were reluctant to engage with these schools.

Why do students in Years 7 and 8 need more support?

Year 7 and 8 students in many schools were not experiencing the desired outcomes for student wellbeing. Full primary schools (years 1 to 8) were over-represented in the lower three groups of schools. 13 More Year 7 and 8 students were not achieving at or above National Standards and nationally more had been suspended or stood down compared to Years 1 to 6. Some were no longer physically active. These outcomes are the cumulative effect of schools not promoting and responding to achievement and wellbeing needs in the earlier years.

The Youth Mental Health Project focuses on young people aged 12 to 19. Although not all Year 7 and 8 students are in this age range, primary-aged young people’s experiences influence the level of wellbeing they experience as adolescents. Considering deliberate actions that are focused on ensuring all students succeed academically, enjoy participating in sport and cultural activities, and have leadership roles so they build confidence and feel in control of their school lives, would better prepare them for adolescence. Some schools also needed to initiate remedial actions for individual students at Years 7 and 8 that go beyond a punitive behaviour management response.