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 4: Community engagement

Community engagement is one of the principles of NZC. The school 'community' is a term variously used to mean staff, students, parents/whānau, other people connected with the school, people living in the area, or any combination of these. In many New Zealand schools, it would be appropriate to talk specifically about their Māori or Pasifika community. Similarly, 'engagement' can mean anything from giving information, through consultation to full collaboration. An ERO evaluation of schools' engagement with parents, whānau and communities defined engagement as 'a meaningful, respectful partnership between schools and their parents, whānau, and communities that focused on improving the educational experiences and successes for each child.' (ERO, 2008, p.1).

Extrapolating from its principles, the intent of NZC is that students and families, at least, should have a say in the development of the school curriculum. In the NZCER national survey of secondary schools (2009) principals and teachers were asked to rate the importance of giving students a voice in curriculum planning, and seeking input from parents, the Māori community and the community generally. A third of secondary principals (32 percent) thought that student voice was very important, and a further 45 percent thought it was somewhat important. The percentages were almost as high for Māori community input; they were lower for parent and community input, but around 60 percent of principals thought that each was at least somewhat important.

Secondary teachers were much less convinced. Only 15 percent thought that student voice was very important, and 38 percent that it was somewhat important. The proportions were very slightly higher for Māori input, and lower for parent and community input. It should be noted that few teachers or principals thought that these forms of engagement were 'not at all important', but up to 18 percent thought that they were 'not very important', and a substantial proportion (ranging from 17 to 30 percent) were unsure. Ninety-one percent of teachers thought that parents should have opportunities to discuss their child's progress, but only 72 percent felt that they should have opportunities to be involved in decisions about learning in general. Less than half (45 percent) regarded parent input into the curriculum as very or somewhat important.

According to a paper prepared by NZCER (nd), 'Current NZ research about community engagement suggests that most schools are operating nearer the 'inform' end of the continuum.' (p.2). During Terms 1 and 2 2007 ERO included 233 school reviews in its evaluation of schools' engagement with parents, whānau and communities. Nearly three quarters of these schools' ERO reports included recommendations for improving engagement. Of these, about a quarter were about developing or improving learning partnerships with parents (ERO, 2008, p.3). ERO has developed indicators for successful engagement based on what worked well for schools.

In the remainder of this chapter, we consider findings from other research and evaluation projects with reference to student voice, and engagement with parents/whānau, Māori/Pasifika, and the community at large.

Student voice

In the NZCER national survey of secondary schools (2009), teachers were asked about student involvement in a range of learning activities. A substantial minority of secondary teachers said that students were involved quite often or most of the time in activities that related directly to their own individual learning. However, a very small proportion reported student involvement (at least quite often) in learning in general, such as setting of topics to be taught (14 percent) or assessment tasks (five percent). Two-thirds of teachers said that students were never or almost never involved in the latter.

By contrast, involving students in curriculum decisions was a feature of many of the CIES case studies (Cowie et al, 2010, p.41). Students were being actively consulted prior to, or during, staff consideration of the curriculum and its implementation. A number of schools had formed or revitalised school councils, which appeared to be listened to seriously on topics including curriculum change. Some schools had established a student version of a leading learning group to provide a barometer of student opinion. And surveys had often been used to access student ideas about proposed changes and themes or topics that they wished to study. However, the research team noted that student influence on determining directions for classroom learning was not a frequent occurrence (p.21). There is an apparent contradiction between this finding and the one noted above, unless there is a distinction between involvement at school and classroom level.

In the 2009 MECI survey, 55 percent of respondents (principals and teachers, primary and secondary) reported that student participation in decisions about their learning was strongly or very strongly evident, and 34 percent said the same about assessment. The remainder said that it was evident at times, or not at all. Developing student agency in decision making was seen as a big step, or even a risk, by many teachers. Concern was also expressed that students and their parents would not have the expectation of this kind of student involvement, so there was a need for education as well as change.

Nevertheless, the proportion of MECI respondents reporting that students participate in decisions about how they learn and are assessed was much higher than the NZCER survey findings (quoted above) would suggest. There are several possible (not mutually exclusive) explanations for this.

First, the NZCER respondents were secondary school teachers, while the MECI respondents included principals and teachers from both primary and secondary sectors. MECI found that principals were more positive than teachers, and primary schools more positive than secondary, in their assessment of all the practice factors, including student agency (see Section 2.2). This is likely to explain part of the very large differences observed here, but may not be sufficient to account for the whole.

Second, the difference may reflect the wording of the items in the questionnaires. MECI talked about student participation in decisions about how 'they' learn, so the question may have been understood as referring to individual learning and assessment rather than learning and assessment in general. Further, MECI asked how frequently students 'participate in decisions' about what they learn or how they are assessed. NZCER asked if students were 'involved' with the setting of topics and assessment tasks. Participating in decisions could be interpreted as referring to consultation prior to the setting of topics and assessment tasks by the teacher; involvement could suggest a higher level of student agency.

Finally, it should be acknowledged that the terms used could be interpreted in different ways, by different people, or indeed by the same people at different times (perhaps reflecting change in their own understanding). However, as the surveys were undertaken at approximately the same time, and both involved large-scale samples (likely to include respondents at all stages of their NZC 'journey'), there is no reason to suppose that the understanding of one group would be significantly different from the other.

Parents/whānau

The ERO evaluation undertaken in the first half of 2007 included meetings and discussion groups with parents and whānau, including parents of Māori, Pasifika, refugee and migrant children, and children with special needs. A parent questionnaire was completed by 501 parents. ERO found that most parents want to be actively involved in decisions about their children's learning and that it is 'relationships that focus on children's learning and achievement that are most highly valued.' (ERO, 2008, p.2)

The MECI surveys asked about the extent of parent involvement in decisions about teaching and learning. The same pattern emerged in 2008 and 2009: it was common for parents to be informed (57 percent often or always in 2009), less common for them to be consulted (39 percent) and even less common for them to collaborate (20 percent). A third (32 percent) said that parents were never involved in collaboration, and 12 percent said that they were never consulted.

Over a third of the primary schools involved in the first ERO review of readiness to implement the curriculum saw consulting the community as an immediate priority. Consultation typically involved parents and whānau contributing (via surveys or hui) to the formulation of the school's vision and values. The CIES project also found that one of the most common purposes of community involvement was the development of a shared vision and values for the school. Examples of parents being involved in decisions about the curriculum were less common, although the principal of a CIES case-study school expressed the strong belief that parents (and the community) need to understand and support changes in pedagogy, assessment and reporting for those changes to have optimal impact.

One of the SSS regions identified parent/whānau engagement as an area of need, because 'Some schools are still not confident with engaging with their communities through consultation' (SSS, 2009, p.4). The CIES final report notes that schools may need to try a range of strategies before finding those that work with their community. 'Nevertheless, a number of schools have seen large increases in community involvement when they have consulted early and meaningfully.' (Cowie et al, 2010, p.38). A key word here is 'early'; according to CIES, some schools appear to be doing a lot of work internally before 'consulting' the community, which will militate against genuine involvement.

Māori/Pasifika

One of the SSS regional reports described the way of working of one adviser, based on using traditional Māori games and pastimes within physical education. This has been used as an opportunity to unpack the principles of NZC and look for examples of these in practice. It has led to closer relationships with iwi and greater interest and interaction with whānau groups.

As noted in the previous section, consultation with families was often in the area of vision and values. In some of the MECI focus groups, teachers expressed concern about dealing with values in a multicultural context. (An example was given of one school which wanted students to be proud of what they do, but for some Pasifika parents, pride was regarded almost as a sin, and they wanted the children to be taught humility.)

The ERO evaluation (2008) found that some of the most successful practices for engaging families were in schools with very diverse communities. Successful strategies were those that built relationships, enabled barriers to be broken down, and gave parents confidence to become involved in their child's learning.

Given that the principles of NZC include the Treaty of Waitangi, cultural diversity and inclusion, it may be considered surprising that there were few specific mentions of Māori or Pasifika students in the reports synthesised here. It does not follow, of course, that schools had not considered the issue. Their responses would depend on the questions asked, which in turn would depend on what the researchers or reviewers were aiming (or had been commissioned) to explore. It may also be that the first stages of curriculum implementation were at the general level (including discussion of values, in a multicultural context) and the specific issue of how NZC would affect different groups of students came later.

The wider community

According to ERO's second report, a high priority for most primary schools was consultation with different groups involved in the school: not just parents, teachers and students, but also 'the wider community'. This latter is probably the most difficult of all, because the wider community has to be defined in some way before consultation can take place. In the MECI focus groups, those who spoke of community partnerships in teaching and learning usually referred to individual members of the community who were able to contribute their expertise to the school.

Given that the principles of NZC include the Treaty of Waitangi, cultural diversity and inclusion, it may be considered surprising that there were few specific mentions of Māori or Pasifika students in the reports synthesised here. It does not follow, of course, that schools had not considered the issue. Their responses would depend on the questions asked, which in turn would depend on what the researchers or reviewers were aiming (or had been commissioned) to explore. It may also be that the first stages of curriculum implementation were at the general level (including discussion of values, in a multicultural context) and the specific issue of how NZC would affect different groups of students came later.

Footnote

  1. Part of the FACE programme.  Not yet published, but quoted in the paper Community Engagement and the New Zealand Curriculum (NZCER, nd).

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