Implementation of the New Zealand Curriculum: Synthesis of research and evaluation

Publication Details

The revised New Zealand Curriculum was launched in November 2007, with schools required to give full effect to the curriculum by February 2010. Progress towards this has been monitored using evidence reported by the Education Review Office and research teams commissioned by the Ministry of Education. This report synthesises this evidence.

Author(s): Dr Sandie Schagen

Date Published: March 2011

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Section 2: School's readiness to use the NZ Curriculum to develop a school curriculum


In 2006, NZCER undertook a national survey of secondary schools (Schagen and Hipkins, 2008). This was before the release of the draft version of NZC, but work on it had been widely signalled, and at least some of the principals responding to the survey would have been involved in consultations concerning the new curriculum, via their professional associations.

Just over a quarter of the principals said that their school had already implemented the curriculum key competencies, and a further half said that they were considering doing so (see Table 1). More than a third said that they had already implemented a programme in thinking skills, and 44 percent were considering this; 44 percent said they had adopted an inquiry learning approach, and a third were considering it. Teachers gave a similar response regarding inquiry learning, but were more likely than principals to assert that the key competencies, and thinking skills in particular, were already being implemented. Contrary perhaps to expectations, younger teachers (aged below 40) were much less likely to have introduced the key competencies, and a higher proportion said they had not even considered it.

We do not of course know exactly how 2006 respondents would have understood NZC-related terms. Later evidence indicates that understanding tended to evolve and deepen over time, so it may be that those who said they had already implemented e.g. the key competencies in 2006 later came to realise they had not done so in the full sense required by NZC.

The NZCER survey of primary schools took place in 2007, after the draft version of the revised NZC was released, but before the final document was published. A third of the principals said that their school had implemented the key competencies, and just over a half were considering doing so. Two-thirds said they had already adopted an inquiry learning approach, and 60 percent a thinking skills programme. The fact that primary schools were more 'advanced' than secondary schools in this respect could be due to sector differences, but comparison with data from the previous NZCER national survey (undertaken in 2003) indicated a large increase in attention to complex skills and self-awareness of learning which could be linked to the introduction of NZC. Principals of high-decile schools were more likely to report that they already had thinking skills programmes and inquiry learning approaches.

In comparison with principals, primary school teachers reported more progress with implementing the key competencies; almost half (47 percent) said they had already done so. They also reported more progress on thinking skills (65 percent said they already did this), but less on inquiry learning (58 percent).

Table 1: Curriculum priorities in 2006/07
  1. Source NZCER national surveys.
Curriculum Priorities Secondary (2006) Primary (2007)
Principals Teachers Principals Teachers
Key Competencies:
- Already have 27 39 34 47
- Considering 50 33 52 39
Thinking Skills:
- Already have 38 59 60 65
- Considering 44 27 29 27
Inquiry Learning:
- Already have 44 47 68 58
- Considering 34 32 26 32

Primary school teachers were also asked for their views on the likely impact of the revised NZC. Half thought it would help them to integrate different curriculum areas and skills development, and almost as many (47 percent) thought it would allow them to focus on fewer things. However, 30 percent felt that it would not make much difference to what they were already doing, and 20 percent were unsure.

A quarter of the primary school parents surveyed had heard of NZC (one third of these worked in the education sector) but the majority were unsure about its likely impact (34 percent), or were suspending judgement (31 percent). Twenty-two percent thought it would enrich learning, while seven percent did not see that it would really change things.


Evidence for this period comes from three main sources, MECI, ERO and NZEI/PPTA, in addition to the NZCER 2009 national survey of secondary schools, and the SSS Milestone 3 reports for 2009.

Preparation for implementation

A national evaluation of the implementation of the curriculum was undertaken by the University of Auckland. The project, Monitoring and Evaluating Curriculum Implementation (MECI), comprised four surveys of a random stratified sample of schools, two web-based (August 2008 and November 2009) and two paper-based (November 2008 and November 2009). The number of schools responding in 2008 was 230 for the online (August) survey and 221 for the paper-based (November) survey. In 2009 the number was higher for the online survey (345), but lower for the paper-based survey (176).

In each case principals were asked to complete a leaders' survey and invite colleagues to complete a teacher questionnaire. Questions overlapped, so reported responses are often combined (principals and teachers). However, it is possible to compare responses, and also to compare findings for the two years. The total number of respondents in 2008 was 579 for the online questionnaire and 2,583 for the paper-based survey; in 2009 the figures were 604 and 1,800 respectively. MECI also undertook 26 focus group sessions with 247 participants, yielding more in-depth responses to complement the survey data.

At the same time, ERO was evaluating schools' readiness to implement the curriculum. They published two reports, the first based on reviews in 43 secondary schools and 141 primary schools in the latter half of 2008, the second based on reviews in 31 secondary schools and 265 primary schools in the first half of 2009. A third report, published in 2010, is based on reviews in 245 schools (211 primary/intermediate, 24 secondary, five special schools and five composite schools) in Terms 3 and 4 of 2009.

In June 2008, the NZEI and the PPTA surveyed principals on their perceptions of support and progress with implementation of NZC. The unions used the same questionnaire, although the PPTA added two further questions on a different topic.

The NZEI/ PPTA surveys provide a picture of initial readiness in mid 2008. Principals were asked how ready they felt they would be for implementation of the curriculum in 2010 (see Table 2). Just over half of the secondary principals said they would be able to implement all aspects at least 'to some extent'. Primary principals may appear to be more confident, but a much higher proportion said that they would be far from ready. It should be noted that the primary percentages sum to more than 100, implying that some principals must have responded in more than one category.

Table 2: Schools' preparedness (as at June 2008) for implementing the curriculum in 2010
  1. Source NZCEI/PPTA surveys.
Schools Preparedness Secondary
Will have done in-depth thinking, be able to completely implement all aspects 18 24
Will have done some thinking, be able to implement all aspects to some extent 37 49
Will be ready at surface level, be able to implement to some extent 27 24
Will be far from ready 2 16
No response 17  

Progress from 2008 to 2009

According to MECI, regard for the curriculum, and confidence about implementation, rose between 2008 and 2009 in secondary schools, but by a very small (although statistically significant) amount. There was no change in primary schools, where confidence levels were already higher. There were some very positive individual comments, particularly with reference to its flexibility, the school-based curriculum design aspect, and the pedagogical emphasis. Several welcomed freedom, although some were nervous about the lack of prescription, preferring to have their task more carefully defined. Practices considered important for the implementation of NZC were rated as difficult in 2009 as they had been in 2008 – slightly more so, in fact, possibly because attempts had been made and problems identified.

Principals were asked by MECI whether they had reviewed values, principles, key competencies, learning areas and pedagogy (see Table 3). In 2008, the majority had reviewed the 'front-end' aspects of NZC, and fewer (but still just over half) had reviewed individual learning areas. In 2009, the proportion of principals saying that they had reviewed each of the elements had increased, but the overall pattern was the same. There were clear signs of progress in this respect, but there were still 10-20 percent of schools that had not yet reviewed values, principles or key competencies, 23 percent who had not reviewed pedagogy, and 29 percent who had not reviewed individual learning areas.

Table 3: Schools having reviewed elements of the New Zealand Curriculum
  1. Source MECI surveys.
Element of NZC Reviewed 2008
Values 80 88
Principles 71 80
Key competencies 69 89
Learning areas 52 71
Pedagogy 66 77

Based on evidence from schools reviewed, ERO classified progress on five curriculum elements as not yet begun; begun to review school's curriculum in relation to the NZC; initiating own-school curriculum design; and well advanced with curriculum design. (It should be noted that their five elements were not identical with MECI's; they included vision but not pedagogy.) Each school was then placed on an overall scale of readiness for implementation: not yet preparing, some preparation, well under way and well prepared (ready). In their first report (referring to schools reviewed in the second half of 2008), ERO judged that 44 percent of secondary schools were at least 'well under way' with implementation, compared with 39 percent of primary schools.

In ERO's judgement both primary and secondary schools reviewed in the first half of 2009 were more advanced in terms of readiness to implement the curriculum than those reviewed in 2008. Preparation was at least 'well under way' in 65 percent of 2009 secondary schools, compared with 44 percent in 2008. This indicates considerable progress, after a time interval of only six months.  A similar increase was seen in primary schools (from 39 to 56 percent).

In their third (2010) report, ERO was even more positive. Based on information collected during their reviews, they concluded that 13 percent of the schools were already giving full effect to NZC, and 63 percent had made good progress towards implementation. In other cases, processes were evident in individual classrooms but not formalised school-wide. Very few schools had not yet begun to give effect to NZC. Moreover, ERO noted that 'Apathy and resistance were generally less apparent, and in many schools, curriculum change had gained a momentum that carried staff forward with enthusiasm and commitment' (ERO, 2010, p.17).

It may appear that what ERO found from school reviews was more positive than what teachers and principals reported to MECI. Comparison is difficult however, because of the differences in samples, in questions asked and in method of analysis. ERO provided details of individual curriculum components only in their first report, so it is not possible to make the kind of comparison that is shown in Table 3, based on the MECI data. Between late 2008 and early 2009 they note only overall progress, and report a substantial increase. But MECI also found a substantial increase in the proportion of principals reporting that some curriculum components had been reviewed, and where the increase is smaller it may reflect the fact that a high rating in 2008 meant less scope for improvement.

School Support Services, in their Milestone 3 reports for 2009, reported varying progress in terms of NZC implementation. One region reported 'significant progress', and others listed 'key shifts' in the right direction, such as:

  • reviewing the school's charter and vision
  • more consultation with the community
  • student voice more in evidence
  • recognising the need to build self-review into systems and structures
  • using planning templates that address the key components of NZC.

According to one SSS (2009) report, 'A significant number of schools, primary and secondary, have advanced to the point of producing a draft school curriculum' (p.549). However, concerns were also raised. Some schools were said to have merely 'tweaked' existing policies, and understanding of principles, values and competencies remained vague in many cases. There was concern that the introduction of National Standards would deflect attention from NZC, and one report expressed the fear that 'National Standards could emerge as the de facto curriculum in those primary schools who have not engaged with NZC at any depth' (p.183).

In the national survey of secondary schools undertaken by NZCER in 2009, principals and teachers were asked to rate the importance of changes needed relating to the implementation of NZC. For principals, the main need was to 'change aspects of pedagogy', which was rated as 'very important' by 75 percent and 'somewhat important' by a further 20 percent. The second most frequently selected item was 'rewrite schemes and/or unit plans' (52 percent very important, 36 percent somewhat important). Teachers' response to rewriting schemes was almost identical to principals, but they were much less likely to regard changing pedagogy as very important.


We saw above that schools seemed to be making progress in terms of reviewing elements of NZC. It does not follow, however, that they were making equal progress in putting them into practice. After the November 2009 MECI surveys, three months before the date when the curriculum was to be implemented, the research team concluded that

"…key curriculum elements are not yet strongly evident in practice … While there are certainly pockets of significant progress in particular schools, the general pattern is to have made only surface level shifts, or to have addressed only certain aspects of the new curriculum. Many have been thinking about and considering how practices might shift to more strongly reflect the NZC, but fewer have actually applied those practices." (Sinnema, 2010, p.6).

Based on factor analysis of questionnaire responses, MECI identified seven 'practice factors' related to NZC. Detailed analysis indicated that very limited progress had been made between 2008 and 2009 in these. There were statistically significant but very small differences related to the key competencies and to teaching as inquiry, but none for values, student agency or parental involvement. Understanding of teaching as inquiry was variable, and thinking about values tended to focus on defining, modelling and encouraging, rather than integrating values into learning experiences across the curriculum.

MECI found significant differences between primary and secondary schools: in the extent to which each practice factor was evident, primary schools were further advanced; the difference was particularly marked in terms of parental involvement. MECI also found that principals were more positive than teachers in their assessment of all of the practice factors. The primary/secondary and principal/teacher differences were larger than the differences between the 2008 and 2009 samples.

In a separate question, MECI survey respondents were asked to indicate the extent of change to various aspects of their day-to-day practice. In 2008 the proportion reporting moderate or substantial change ranged from 20 percent (for 'reporting approach') to 34 percent (for both 'planning documentation' and 'approaches/activities used in teaching and learning'). In 2009 the proportion reporting change had increased considerably (it was as high as 60 percent for 'planning documentation'). It should be noted that respondents were asked to indicate the extent of change, not the nature of change, so the changes referred to may not necessarily have been in a direction aligned with NZC intentions. They indicate willingness to change, but do not provide evidence of NZC being put into practice.


  1. Four questionnaires were designed, for principals, teachers, trustees and parents. Responses were received from 194 principals, 818 teachers, 278 trustees and 708 parents.
  2. Responses were received from 196 principals, 912 teachers, 329 trustees and 754 parents.
  3. The report of this survey is as yet unpublished. Figures quoted here are based on preliminary findings presented by researchers at a seminar, or included in a paper on Community Engagement and the New Zealand Curriculum (NZCER, nd).
  4. The Ministry of Education purchases professional development services from six SSS providers. This includes professional development to support NZC implementation. SSS providers submit regular milestone reports to the Ministry.
  5. This is consistent with the NZEI/PPTA survey, which seems to indicate that primary schools were more likely than secondary schools to be in the most and least well-prepared categories (see above).

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