Section One

What were the characteristics of schools that showed a high level of coherence in their senior curriculum?

The schools where coherence of NZC and NCEA in the senior school was most evident shared important characteristics. These characteristics contributed to a curriculum that promoted deeper knowledge and learning for students. The aspects of the schools that were effective in providing a coherent curriculum related to:

  • leadership and moral courage
  • clarity of the school’s vision
  • appropriate curriculum design
  • professional practice
  • relationships for learning.

Leadership and moral courage

“We ask ourselves, what does achievement look like? Is that person a better citizen?”

Principal, Waitakere College

Leadership in schools that provided coherent curriculum set a clear vision for learning and explicit expectations about the desired outcomes for students. These schools were committed to the requirements of NZC as a priority rather than allowing NCEA to drive the curriculum.

In these schools, senior leaders understood NCEA qualifications were important for their students and community, but they also showed a commitment to a broader, agreed definition of successful outcomes for their students that reflected the principles of the NZC.

Principals in these schools shared a sense of urgency to improve outcomes for the students currently in the school as well as working to meet longer-term improvement goals. Several principals spoke to ERO about the ‘moral courage’ required to lead the school in a direction focused on building student learning and deep knowledge, rather than predominantly focusing on attainment of credits.

These principals were not embarrassed or afraid to talk about ‘soft’ skills, or competencies and human values. They showed commitment to keeping the focus on students’ personal qualities and growth. They also understood that high expectations and high quality systems were fundamental to the school’s role in supporting students to achieve their potential, at school and in the future. They did not shrink from requiring high quality teaching practice to achieve this.

Principals strategically articulated and put into practice the actions necessary to build and sustain coherence. Through a distributed leadership approach, other leaders in the school were also active in implementing the agreed strategies.

In all schools, the principal acted as the face of the school in the wider community. The leader’s role was pivotal in establishing and maintaining the trust of the wider community in the school’s approach to curriculum delivery.

In some cases, this proved to be a significant challenge; when a community was not well informed about the place of NCEA with NZC, or when approaches such as integrating the curriculum were not readily accepted by a community that expected a more traditional approach to schooling.

[You need] moral courage to manage change. If you do the right thing you’ll get the right outcome. Schools have lost the moral courage to grow young people.”

Co-principal, Logan Park High School

Clear direction

Where a coherent curriculum was evident, leaders identified compelling reasons for aligning the school’s curriculum to NZC and made changes accordingly. The secondary schools developed vision statements and strategic goals that included reference to NZC and achievement targets. In some schools ERO saw clear alignment between the school’s vision, structures and practices. In these schools, the principles of the NZC, the foundations of curriculum decision making, were clearly evident in practice. Teachers taught according to these key educational principles, to meet the particular needs, interests and circumstances of the school’s students.

Schools’ deliberate reference to the principles, values and competencies of NZC in the curriculum came about for various reasons, such as: recognition of the importance and relevance of NZC; the need to plan new learning spaces; concern about student achievement; change following a network review; or long-term planning for student achievement that was constantly reviewed and improved.

The schools that were most successful had kept the focus on student learning needs and providing interesting, challenging and relevant programmes for students. They maintained a balance between providing appropriate senior pathways and demonstrating achievement through the careful management of assessment for NCEA.

Leaders based their actions on relevant, up-to-date research about education and constant self-evaluation. They addressed issues of wellbeing, timetabling, course access and academic/pastoral guidance for students. Leaders gathered appropriate data to review how successful they were. All practice was aligned to the school’s strategic direction.


The schools that clearly planned in accordance with the requirements of NZC supported students in their identity, language and culture. The focus of the school’s curriculum was on students’ understanding and valuing their own identity and background, their relationship to others in Aotearoa/New Zealand, and how they understood the wider world. These schools benefited from professional learning programmes that gave teachers greater awareness about the need to know their students as culturally located learners, and increased their ability to design relevant learning opportunities for their students.

Teachers were competent in practising culturally responsive teaching. Students told ERO they had noticed and valued this. The schools built strong relationships with their Māori and Pacific communities through genuine conversation and careful listening. Staff developed a collective responsibility for student success, seeing all students as ‘our students’.

The example of Rotorua Girls’ High School shows how a school centred its practice on the cultural responsiveness of its curriculum.

Rotorua Girls’ High School successfully met the NZC requirement to fully acknowledge the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi and the bicultural foundations of Aotearoa/New Zealand. The school referred to Te Marautanga o Aotearoa in establishing the school’s vision of “crafting future leaders.” The school’s goal is to raise achievement, and to embed good practice in teaching that engages all students in meaningful learning as connected, critical thinkers. Their intent to enact the full Treaty partnership guided their vision.

“Our teacher-student relationships are based on culturally responsive and relational pedagogy.”

A unique initiative in the school was the explicit and direct connection from students and teachers to an inspirational Te Arawa woman, Te Ao Kapurangi.

“We looked for a great woman leader and didn’t have far to go to find one. Who is she for us? She gives the school an anchor.”

Te Ao Kapurangi epitomised the qualities the school and community wanted for their students. They wanted to:

      • make the cultural change needed to view education through a Māori lens
      • locate students in the school’s culture so they would be confident to be citizens for the world.

Research about what equity and excellence look like for “Māori succeeding as Māori” informed changes.

From this starting point, the principal, senior leaders and the iwi (Te Arawa) identified seven areas as the focus for development of the curriculum and for teaching and learning: Mana Mokopuna; Mana Tangata; Mana Mātauranga; Mana Tikanga; Mana Reo; Mana Wairua; Mana-a-kura.

The outcomes of these areas were described in the graduate profile. A graduate:

      • is a citizen for this world; is confident in her language, culture and identity
      • puts service before self
      • is humble
      • takes risks to achieve excellence in all her endeavours
      • is strong and proud of her whakapapa to Rotorua Girls High School
      • is resilient, empathetic, respectful and acts with integrity
      • honours mana wahine and mana wairua

Leaders and teachers deliberately embedded practices that provided opportunities for students to fulfil these outcomes that derived directly from the NZC.

Professional practice

“If we hadn’t had a change in pedagogy and relationships we wouldn’t have improved results.”

Principal, Waitakere College

Schools where the curriculum and assessment were most coherent showed evidence of leadership for learning at all levels of the school. Leaders of schools with a coherent curriculum had developed a high trust model of professional practice in the school. This model allowed for innovation, fast failure, collegial discussion and critique, and genuine reflection on teaching practice. Leaders encouraged and made use of expertise at all levels of the school.

Senior managers accessed and planned PLD targeted to the school’s vision and desired outcomes. They set and monitored clear expectations for teachers and offered timely and useful support. Leaders challenged teachers’ prior beliefs and supported them to deepen their understanding of the curriculum, and pedagogical and assessment practices that promote students’ learning.

Appraisal systems, teacher inquiry and self-evaluation focused on students’ development of knowledge and competencies and on the needs of teachers to reflect on and improve the practice that contributed to such development.

Teachers’ working relationships were collegial and respectful. The high level of professional sharing evident in these schools contributed significantly to coherence in the curriculum.

“Teachers are generous with time with each other…share practice…high level of trust.”

Co-principal, Logan Park High School

Relationships for learning

A strong feature that led to coherence was the high quality of learning relationships between teachers and students, students and students, as well as teachers and teachers. Frequent contact with home and opportunities for useful conversations between teachers, students and parents about student progress and learning pathways were a feature of these schools. Community engagement effectively connected with students’ wider lives and engaged support from students’ families. Students confidently reviewed and discussed their own progress.

The following example shows how Logan Park High School developed a cohesive approach to curriculum coherence and students’ success.

The stated purpose of the curriculum, teaching and learning at Logan Park is to make sure: “our students acquire and develop the knowledge, skills, tools and values expected of a well-educated person and life-long learner.” The curriculum is based on the principles of Excellence, Creativity and Community, Heritage, Equity, Integrity and Environment.

The school’s approach to curriculum delivery is student centred, inclusive and flexible. It takes account of the diversity and richness of the school’s community. The development of the curriculum has been ongoing since 2007, and is under constant review.

Shared language and student agency are at the core of the school. Students have a say about their learning and the school. Student feedback about their classes is shared with teachers. Students, teachers and the community have discussed what is special about the school and have identified the values that drive the curriculum.

“NZC is aspirational. We are making it our own. We have grappled with the Key Competencies. We have lots of robust discussions about what success looks like.”


Students said they want to be at school as social beings, to discuss, argue and develop their ideas and knowledge. The main aim in class was to teach students to think critically about what they learnt. Teachers planned courses with the express intention of covering more content than would be assessed, so that “learning becomes the focus”. 

“We want our students to be open, thoughtful and to take risks. Students who trust their own thinking.”

Senior leader

“…assessment becomes transparent but invisible, it is important but in the background.”

Senior leader

In the senior school classes are not streamed, and there are no alternative classes. No NCEA credits are offered in Years 9 and 10. The school offers extension rather than acceleration, showing students and parents the depth of work students are capable of, given the opportunity. Reports on student dispositions and learning habits are sent home weekly and students are awarded a junior diploma that indicates their progress in key competencies. The criteria for this diploma have been refined over time to make the expected behaviours explicit and understood by all.

Heads of department meet frequently to share ideas and strategies for learning. Teachers have shared their understanding about inquiry, to put this into practice in a genuine way. Some teachers work together on inquiries based on student needs. They also collaborate in writing tasks for achievement standards used across subjects. Senior leaders compensated teachers for the extra time they put in by reducing their responsibilities in other areas.

“Teachers are amazingly generous with their time. They assist with assessment, sometime for students in other subjects.”

Senior leader

“[There are] lots of emails and documents where students discuss their learning with teachers.”

Senior leaders value the extra time given by teachers and look for ways to compensate staff with time “to do what is important.”

Students who spoke to ERO recognised and applauded the school’s values:

“Within my first day, after I came from another school, I learned about ‘respectful, motivated, inclusive’ [the school values]. All year levels are together and teachers talk to students without barriers.”

“The vibe of the school is service to others.”

“It can be scary not doing things for credits - what’s the point? But now I’m excited about learning - I love it again.”

“[Here] we fit NCEA into learning rather than fit learning into NCEA.”

Students understand the purpose of the standard they will be assessed against. They use the language of standards and can choose those that are appropriate to their own pathways. Students have been able to cross-credit assignments in subjects such as English and media studies, history and music.

The school has achieved results in New Zealand Scholarship significantly above those of any other school in the region. Senior leaders attribute this success both to the way the school highlights the KCs and how it provides a curriculum that engages students in learning, and develops their capacity for self-motivated learning. Teachers offer tutorials on an opt-in basis for students who wish to attempt scholarship. There are no formal scholarship classes timetabled at junior or senior levels.

“School results prove that our approach works. We have no special scholarship classes…biggest number of scholarship in the province. We see the school values in scholarship: open, thoughtful, taking risks - students who trust their own thinking.” 

Senior leader

Schools that have taken steps towards coherence

Some schools had taken steps towards fulfilling their vision of NZC as the curriculum, and NCEA as the assessment process, but they tended still to be NCEA led. ERO found elements of planning and practice these schools had in common with more successful schools, but other important characteristics were not evident. Coherence was not yet realised for a variety of reasons. These reasons included a lack of:

  • integration of learning
  • community agreement/understanding about the school’s direction
  • clear student pathways
  • understanding of NCEA

Integration of learning

Some schools integrated content and achievement objectives from several learning areas, to provide more engaging and authentic learning activities. Teachers had started this in Years 9 and 10 and they wanted to move integration, including deliberate attention to key competencies, into Year 11 and beyond. They had carried out small trials of inter-subject planning to facilitate deeper learning at junior and senior levels. Some had developed ways to share teaching approaches and information about what worked for individual students.

In most cases, the school had not persisted with integrating learning areas beyond Year 10. In some schools, leaders and teachers were not sure how to proceed with building key competencies into the senior courses and relied on NCEA achievement standards to provide programme content, in conjunction with pastoral time to provide support for key competencies.

Leaders at some schools identified they would like to place more emphasis on integrated curriculum as a way to give greater weight to the requirements of NZC, but were concerned about community perceptions if they did not follow traditional subject choices. They had also not yet dealt with the reluctance of some teachers to reduce the content of their own subject, in order to plan learning based on achievement objectives from across learning areas.

Student pathways

Some schools did not make decisions in response to student choice and planned pathways. ‘Banded’ or ‘streamed’ classes meant students in the lower bands or streams often did not have access to the knowledge required for some senior and tertiary courses. This meant these courses were closed to them. In other schools, the timetable reduced students’ options. This was in stark contrast to schools where timetable flexibility and teachers’ solutions-focused approach catered for every student. A few schools saw University Entrance (UE) as the school-wide measure of success and expected students to take subjects in the senior school that led to UE. In one case, the school did not recognise Vocational Pathways as a valid direction for students, in the belief that attainment of UE was an appropriate target. This not only restricted student choice but also demonstrated a lack of understanding about how Vocational Pathways works.

Understanding about NCEA

In some schools, the focus on gaining excess NCEA credits limited opportunities to fulfil all the NZC requirements. Sometimes students themselves drove credit competition, in spite of the aim of leaders to reduce the numbers of credits available to them, and in spite of teachers’ desire to implement deeper learning programmes. Leaders knew the progress they wanted to make in the school but were not clear, direct and relentless about the focus required to relate NZC and senior curriculum content. In addition, teachers in some schools were not confident about adapting learning tasks to meet the requirements of NCEA achievement standards.