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. Ministry of Education.

Date Published: March 2011

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This report is available as a download (please refer to the 'Downloads' inset box).  To view the individual chapters please refer to the 'Sections' inset box.  For links to related publications/ information that may be of interest please refer to the 'Where to Find Out More' inset box.

Section 5: The process of implementation

What stages or phases are involved in curriculum implementation? One of the SSS regions reported that, at the time of writing (December 2009), most schools had:

  • created vision and values statements
  • reflected on the key competencies, establishing shared thinking among staff, and sometimes also with students
  • discussed the NZC principles
  • begun to explore the learning areas, and linking the vision, values and key competencies into each.

Other research and evaluation is consistent with this, affirming that schools chose to unpack the 'front end' of NZC, before moving on to the learning areas. This was typical, according to both CIES and MECI. One MECI focus group participant described, for example, how her school had held a whole-school teacher-only day to deal with the front end, followed by staff meetings focusing on the learning areas. According to an SSS (2009) report, 'Professional learning opportunities have largely focused on understanding the front of the NZC with departments translating this into their context in their own professional learning time' (p.101).

We summarise below reports on the work done by schools at different stages of NZC implementation, though there is often insufficient evidence to show how these are linked. Overlaps are inevitable, and we do not mean to imply that all schools have worked through these stages in the order listed. In the NZCER national survey of secondary schools (2009) principals and teachers were asked which aspects of NZC had been explored as a whole staff. Findings will be referred to below, but it is worth noting here that in most cases principals were more likely than teachers to say that an area had been covered.


In their first (January 2009) report ERO observed that between a quarter and a third of secondary schools had prioritised such aspects as establishing an action plan or timeline for curriculum implementation. Those that had done this early in the preparation process had made good progress.

Building on existing work

There are examples of schools deliberately looking for matches between NZC and the work they were already doing. It can be encouraging to realise that implementing NZC need not require wholesale change, because schools are already moving in the direction required. Schools involved in a curriculum conference mainly took the view that 'implementation is an evolutionary process rather than a revolution' (Hipkins et al, 2009, p.45). They were 'capitalising on their existing strengths to take them further'. MECI points out, however, that there is a danger that schools may convince themselves that they are doing everything already, and ignore the opportunities for change, improvement and deeper understanding of the NZC intent.

Vision and values

As noted above, most schools started here. According to principals in the 2009 NZCER survey, 95 percent of secondary schools had explored both the vision statement and values as a whole staff. However, only three-quarters of the secondary teachers surveyed said that they had been involved in such an exercise.

In their first readiness review (January 2009), ERO emphasised the importance of preparatory work on vision, values and key competencies being completed as a school-wide project, rather than (as in some cases) being done at an individual departmental level. Effective consultation usually resulted in a better shared understanding about the key elements of a school's curriculum.

In the same report, ERO looked at how advanced 43 secondary schools were (by the latter half of 2008) in the review and design of their school curriculum in relation to the key components of NZC. They found that 18 of the schools were either initiating or well advanced in curriculum design with reference to vision and values, compared with 14 for the key competencies, nine for the learning areas and six for the principles. The picture for the larger group of primary schools was very similar.

Later (in December 2009), SSS reports confirmed that 'Many schools [are] using vision as starting point in NZC implementation' (p.169). One report observed that 'A number of catholic schools are using values as a key entry point into NZC, and this is leading to some innovative curriculum work focussed around both vision and values' (SSS, 2009, p.114). The same report noted however that much of the initial work on values, principles and key competencies was 'surface' (see Section 3.4); schools were recognising this and were setting up processes to revisit these areas and develop deeper understanding.

Key competencies

Development work on the key competencies was also an early priority for schools. Hipkins et al. observed back in 2007 that 'Some [of the so-called 'early adopter'] schools anticipated the direction of change and have already begun experimenting with their own version of the key competencies' (pamphlet 2, p.1).

According to the NZCER 2009 survey, 91 percent of secondary school principals (and 81 percent of secondary school teachers) said that the competencies had been explored as a whole staff.

ERO found that, in the first half of 2009, the priority for most primary schools was working on the key competencies: 'Many were aiming to complete the process of aligning the competencies to the school vision and values, and integrating them into plans for teaching and learning.' (ERO, 2009b, p.7). The principal and deputy principal of a full primary case-study school expressed the view that key competencies would drive curriculum implementation in their school (Hipkins et al., 2009).

Nevertheless, an SSS report (December 2009) identified teachers' understanding of the key competencies in relation to learning areas and pedagogical content knowledge as an area of need, stating that in some cases their understanding remained quite shallow. This is consistent with the view noted above, that much of the initial work on the key competencies (as well as that on values and principles) was at a surface level only. SSS reports also noted that there was ongoing confusion around assessment of the key competencies, and that some teachers had difficulty with the understanding that key competencies needed to be monitored but not assessed.

By the second half of 2009, according to ERO, 46 percent of schools were well underway, and 50 percent under way, in terms of integrating the key competencies into teaching and learning programmes. ERO reported that in many secondary schools, teachers had benefited from regular NZC-related PD which was often focused on the key competencies: 'understanding them, integrating them into teaching and learning programmes and monitoring them' (ERO, 2010, p.13).

Principles. According to the NZCER survey, 88 percent of secondary school principals, and 73 percent of teachers, said that they had explored the NZC principles as a whole staff. Just over a third of principals and teachers said that they had explored the principles in teams, and a smaller proportion (13 percent of principals, 15 percent of teachers) said they explored them individually. Very few (two percent of principals, six percent of teachers) said they were not yet a focus.

Comments about the principles have been included in some of what has already been said, since they relate also to the vision and values, and/or the key competencies. However, an SSS report (2009, p.5) observed that the principles were 'not generally being recognised as the foundation of curriculum decision making' because they were 'significantly overshadowed' by the key competencies. Schools therefore needed help with understanding the intent of the principles, and how they should underpin all curriculum decision making.


Responding to the NZCER survey, 85 percent of secondary principals, but only 65 percent of teachers, said that effective pedagogy had been explored as a whole staff. CIES talked to school leaders about the means used to encourage pedagogical change; they found that effective leaders adopted very different strategies, 'according to the perceived needs of their staff and the specificities of their school context' (Cowie et al, 2009, p.29). Some schools were considering, or experimenting with, changes to the timetable and/or physical spaces to better accommodate new pedagogical approaches.

CIES case-study school leaders said that, as they began to explore what constitutes effective pedagogy, they needed to go back and review their vision and goals, because their understanding of the scope of these had evolved. (This is consistent with what was said above about the need to revisit values, principles and key competencies for more in-depth exploration.) Principals highlighted 'the centrality of the relationship between the school vision for student learning and achievement and teacher pedagogical practices in support of this' (Cowie et al, 2009, p.18).

Teacher inquiry cycle

CIES found that, over the two years of fieldwork, the use of 'teacher as inquirer' models was starting to become more common in schools. In contrast with the cycle presented in NZC, models often included feedback from the school leadership team, professional development advisers or teacher colleagues (based on mutual observation). However, there was in many cases a lack of understanding about the meaning of the teaching as inquiry process; some staff were confusing this with the inquiry learning approaches they were using with their students. In some schools, where the term 'teacher as inquirer' came to be more commonly used, the misunderstanding was addressed, but in other schools the confusion was still evident. MECI also found a great deal of variation in focus group participants' understanding of teaching as inquiry, and in particular 'a significant degree of confusion' between teaching as inquiry and inquiry learning approaches (Sinnema, 2010, p.17).

An SSS report also talked about the confusion between 'teaching as inquiry' and 'inquiry learning'. Another gave a more positive assessment, but noted that individual support from an adviser had been necessary for some teachers to fully engage with the process. Moreover, 'A few teachers are still resistant and need collegial support' (SSS, 2009, p.101). A third report listed teaching as inquiry among the greatest strengths in current (2009) school practice, although the full wording 'teachers focusing on teaching as inquiry and learning alongside students in their inquiry processes' (p.4) could perhaps tend to foster the confusion already described.

As a result of the confusion surrounding the term, ERO no longer refers to teaching as inquiry in their third (2010) report. Instead, they talk about 'using an evidence-based approach to teaching'. By the second half of 2009, ERO found that all or most teachers in 61 percent of the schools reviewed were using an evidence-based approach, and in only seven percent of the schools was it not being used by any teachers. There was still a difference between sectors, with an evidence-based approach being used by most or all teachers in nearly two-thirds of primary schools but less than half of secondary schools.

Curriculum design and review.

In the NZCER secondary school survey (2009), just under half of the principals (48 percent) and just over a third of the teachers (37 percent) said they had been involved in curriculum design and review.

According to ERO's first report:

"School curriculum design and review involves making decisions about how to give effect to the national curriculum in ways that best address the particular needs, interests, and circumstances of the school's students and community." (ERO, 2009a, p.4).

The second ERO report (August 2009) stressed the importance of curriculum design and review being seen as a cyclic process. Therefore 'A critical driver in successful curriculum design, implementation and delivery is the effectiveness of the school's self review or inquiry process.' (ERO, 2009b, p.1). 'Curriculum design and implementation is informed by ongoing inquiry into what is working and how well it is working for diverse students.' (p.2).

The second round of CIES data collection (end of 2008 or beginning of 2009) revealed a growing understanding from school leaders that 'curriculum implementation involves an iterative adaptive cycle of trialling, reflection and the generation of new possibilities' (Cowie et al, 2009, p.19).

Experimentation was encouraged, because school leaders acknowledged the importance of taking risks and trialling ideas in the classroom (experimenting and risk-taking were described as strengths in one SSS area at the end of 2009). They had come to realise that curriculum implementation 'takes time and requires ongoing change' (Cowie et al, 2009, p.32).

CIES found that the 'iterative process' of engaging with NZC ideas was common in primary schools but less firmly embedded in the intermediate and secondary sectors.


  1. See also Hipkins et al. (2009): "Revisiting and revising existing values and vision statements was a common starting point for undertaking this exploration of the big-picture messages from the front end of NZC"(p.4).

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