Appendix 2: What ERO knows about curriculum design in secondary schools

ERO has reviewed schools’ implementation of The New Zealand Curriculum (NZC) since the draft curriculum was released to schools. In all the evaluations, considerable variability was identified in leaders’ and teachers’ focus and implementation of the curriculum.

Preparing to implement NZC

In 2009, ERO found over half of the secondary schools reviewed were well underway with preparations to implement the NZC. In these schools, teachers and curriculum leaders were engaged in ongoing review of departmental documentation to align the school’s curriculum to the NZC framework. They focused particularly on learning areas, cross-curricular links, and integrating key competencies. 

In the other secondary schools, limited understanding and a lack of ownership of the direction their schools were taking meant some teachers had opted out of development processes. Gaining the commitment of the entire teaching staff was a challenge where pockets of apathy and resistance to curriculum change remained. In other instances, leaders did not know the extent to which teachers were starting to align their practice with NZC. In some cases, leaders had not consulted with teachers about the school’s vision and values and consequently perceived these as imposed on them. A lack of commitment led to an inconsistent quality of teaching evident in schools nationwide. 

Curriculum principles

Later, in 2011 and 2012, when ERO focused on how schools were engaging with the principles outlined in NZC, variability of implementation continued. Where the principles were highly evident, they were described in teaching and learning guidelines and/or in schools’ charters and mission statements. In a small number of schools, a clear alignment between the charter, NZC, teaching and learning guidelines, performance appraisal and PLD was evident.

In many secondary schools the vision, principles, values, and key competencies were treated as an integrated ‘package’ that created a coherent approach to curriculum development. The key competencies, or the vision and values were given greater priority than the curriculum principles. The relatively lesser focus on principles in curriculum development processes related to schools’ perceptions that:

  • their existing values served as a useful proxy for the principles and therefore no further work was required to develop the principles separately 
  • the principles were taken for granted in the curriculum and required little further exploration or unpacking. 

When developing their curriculum many leaders had devoted more time to investigation of the eight learning areas than to the vision, principles, values, and key competencies.

It was disappointing that over a year after the curriculum implementation deadline some schools were only beginning to focus on NZC. Although they were considering the vision, values, and key competencies, exploration and understanding of the curriculum principles was minimal. 

Pathways for students

In 2013, ERO investigated how well 74 secondary schools prepared their students for future education, training and employment. Ten schools were identified as having a school curriculum that was effective for a large majority of the students enrolled. These schools had processes and practices that encouraged the individualisation of student pathways through an extensive range of vocational and academic options. Senior students had a variety of academic, careers and pastoral systems that worked together to support them. Individual course and school-wide initiatives encouraged students to develop leadership and self-management skills. Purposeful partnerships with others in the community also fostered student learning and development.

The remaining schools were less innovative in responding to each student and did not consistently target their individual strengths, needs and interests. Few examples of curriculum innovation for academic learning programmes were found. Schools usually opted for traditional subject disciplines that operated in year-long courses. Few schools attempted to develop academic courses that spanned two or more curriculum areas.

The reasons for such low levels of innovation included challenges in the traditional departmental structure in secondary schools that encouraged a continuation of conventional subject disciplines. These structures made it difficult to develop the sort of inter-disciplinary learning and assessment promoted in the New Zealand Curriculum. The perception in some of the schools was that many parents and students had an expectation that subject disciplines, along with formal summative assessment tasks, are necessary for an academic programme. Another perception was that curriculum innovation, which breaks away from traditional subject silos and teaching approaches, was seen as inferior to academic education. 

One of the noticeable trends across the schools in 2013 was the prevalence of vocational programmes. Gateway, Youth Guarantee, work experience and other school and polytechnic linked programmes diversified what was offered in secondary schools to enable many more students to succeed. However, some schools saw vocational programmes as a way to increase qualifications for Māori and Pacific students, particular for the boys. While many students experience the benefits of these vocational courses, very few schools were developing academic courses specifically to increase the numbers of Māori and Pacific students who are able to enter university. Teachers in some schools needed to raise the expectations for these students to make sure their curriculum and systems enabled all Māori and Pacific students to achieve to their potential. 

Increasing achievement

During 2013 and 2014, ERO reported on secondary schools’ focus on increasing the numbers of students achieving NCEA. Schools had implemented a variety of targeted interventions to support a target cohort of Year 12 students. Close tracking and monitoring of individual students was central to schools identifying and responding to the needs of their students.

Although the developments focused on NCEA gains, rather than on the implementation of NZC, some new practices aligned with aspects of NZC. Most of the schools developed their relationships with their target cohorts by providing a mentor or support teacher who closely monitored student progress. Staff in these mentor roles were more likely to use a ‘problem-solving’ approach with students, rather than a critical or punitive manner. From this basis, staff concentrated on helping students to develop positive attitudes and raise their expectations for achievement.

However, in 2014 when ERO took a broader approach to how secondary schools responded to achievement data, only a quarter of schools in the sample had effectively inquired into achievement information and introduced changes that had made a noticeable difference to student success. The changes made by these schools were mostly based around improvements to their pastoral care and support initiatives. There was less emphasis placed on developing innovations in the curriculum. While some of these schools had effective and/or innovative curriculum initiatives in place, the curriculum modifications most of these schools made were relatively minor.

Students’ wellbeing

In 2015, ERO reported on the wellbeing of students in secondary school, recognising that wellbeing is central to their success as confident lifelong learners. Approximately a sixth of the schools sampled were well placed to promote and respond to student wellbeing through cohesive systems aligned with their school’s values. A further half of the schools had elements of good practice that could be built on and the remaining schools had a range of major challenges that affected the way they promoted and responded to student wellbeing.

In schools that were well placed to promote and respond to student wellbeing, principals had systems to ensure school values, curriculum and responses to wellbeing issues were designed in consultation with the school community. Leaders in many of these schools gave teachers and students opportunities to discuss and develop a shared understanding of the schools’ values. Students were clear about the importance of the values to the quality of their school experiences.

In other schools, teachers did not always have the same beliefs about what the values meant. Their curriculum or care issues and systems often did not match the expressed values. Some students knew the values, but did not consistently experience them. In a few schools, teachers and leaders were unsure what the school values were and so did not know how to promote and embed them.

Some schools were exploring ways they could deliberately support the development and use of the key competencies across learning areas and through academic counselling. One way was by stating explicit key competencies in the planning and reporting for each learning area. However, not all of these schools had aligned key competencies across learning areas, so again it was left to students to make sense of the different messages.

ERO found many students experienced an assessment driven curriculum, which caused them much stress and anxiety. Only a few schools recognised this and were responding to the detrimental effect on student wellbeing, especially in Years 11 to 13. In one school, traumatic incidents for individual students due to assessment anxiety led to a review of school culture and how teachers could reflect desired aspects of wellbeing.

ERO identified students would benefit from more teachers and leaders asking them about their experiences and involving them in decisions about the quality of their school life. Even though schools sought ‘student voice’, its meaning varied from school to school. In some schools, it meant only gathering student views through surveys or focus groups while in other schools it meant setting up structures for students to participate in school decision making. The difference depended on how well the school promoted student leadership and students being in charge of their learning.

The focus on Years 9 and 10

ERO also investigated schools’ approaches for engaging students in Years 9 to 11. About a third of schools used a wide variety of effective curriculum and pastoral initiatives to support student engagement. These schools demonstrated effective teaching, supportive guidance structures and inclusive school cultures. Relationships were good between staff and students and the school communicated well with parents and whānau. The leadership and staff demonstrated high levels of commitment to meeting individual student needs and a flexible approach in supporting each student so they could stay at school and succeed. The NZC was being strongly enacted for students in Years 9 and 10 in these schools.

ERO identified several areas for development to improve the other schools’ engagement of students that included focusing on the inconsistent quality of teaching; student truancy; student engagement in classrooms and increasing student voice in school-wide and classroom programmes.

Careers Information, Advice, Guidance and Education (CIAGE)

ERO’s evaluations of secondary schooling indicate that student success is more likely when curriculum, pastoral and careers systems work together. ERO evaluated the approach of 44 secondary schools to CIAGE, and found four schools with high quality approaches to CIAGE. Their innovative school-wide approaches focused on helping students identify, plan and strive for their aspirations for the future. CIAGE was a central component of both curriculum and pastoral systems. The school-wide focus on student futures at these schools meant that students were motivated to achieve their goals and had frequent opportunities in the curriculum to develop self-awareness, reflect on their goals, explore options and develop career management competencies.

The remaining schools in this evaluation had a more conventional approach to careers that centred on the work of a careers department. While staff understood the need for students to develop career management competencies, this was not a top priority for the school. Students did not have the same day-to-day opportunities to consider their personal developmental and vocational goals, or opportunities to develop career management competencies.


These ERO reviews identify that many secondary schools have work to do to fully focus on the aspirations of the NZC as outlined at the front of NZC document. Generally, too many schools have concentrated almost solely on the learning areas, without much emphasis on the NZC vision, values, key competencies and principles.

ERO publications used in this report

ERO (2009). Readiness to Implement The New Zealand Curriculum. Wellington: Education Review Office.

ERO (2011). Directions for Learning: The New Zealand Curriculum Principles and Teaching as Inquiry. Wellington: Education Review Office.

ERO (2011). Alternative Education: Schools and Providers. Wellington: Education Review Office.

ERO (2012). The New Zealand Curriculum Principles: Foundations for Curriculum Decision-Making. Wellington: Education Review Office.

ERO (2012). Literacy and Mathematics in Years 9 and 10; Using Achievement Information to Promote Success. Wellington: Education Review Office.

ERO (2012). Careers Information, Advice, Guidance and Education (CIAGE) in Secondary Schools. Wellington: Education Review Office.

ERO (2013). Secondary Schools: Pathways for Future Education, Training and Employment. Wellington: Education Review Office.

ERO (2013). Increasing Educational Achievement in Secondary Schools. Wellington: Education Review Office.

ERO (2014). Raising Achievement in Secondary Schools. Wellington: Education Review Office.

ERO (2015). Wellbeing for Young People’s Success at Secondary School. Wellington: Education Review Office.