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 6: Factors influencing implementation

Both ERO and MECI attempt to identify the factors which may help or hinder effective curriculum implementation. Although their lists are not identical, there is substantial overlap, and a large measure of consistency with the CIES themes. The main points are summarised below.

Factors supporting implementation

A good starting-point

It was helpful if schools were already heading in the right direction, particularly if NZC ideas could be linked to some form of existing practice or recent professional learning. According to CIES, "many schools had already been engaged in ongoing review prior to the arrival of NZC and had processes in place for staff to work collaboratively to explore new ideas or practices" (Cowie et al, 2009, p.23). Recognising congruencies could help foster readiness for implementation, and could be particularly encouraging for new or inexperienced leaders.

Effective leadership

ERO, CIES and MECI (focus groups) all agreed that committed professional leadership, with capacity for change management, was crucial to effective implementation of NZC. In their first (January 2009) report, ERO observed:

"The principal, although not always intimately involved in the detail, played a key role in managing the transition process through well-understood and communicated lines of delegation, and by ensuring that those who needed to be informed and involved knew what was expected of them." (ERO, 2009a, p.17).

The importance of school leadership, 'and in particular leaders' capability to lead others' curriculum learning' was mentioned by many of the MECI focus group participants (Sinnema, 2010, p.35). SSS advisers also found 'a growing recognition of the importance of the school leader in growing and sustaining professional learning' (SSS, 2009, p.3). Teachers from schools that were 'early adopters' of ideas and practices related to the key competencies often commented that their principal or deputy principal was an essential driver and supporter of teachers' professional growth. Interestingly, CIES identified that, while principal leadership was a necessary prerequisite for curriculum reform, distributed leadership was essential for sustained change.

One SSS region reported that there was a distributed leadership style in the schools which were most effectively engaging with NZC. On the other hand, there were examples of schools led by principals who took control and offered limited scope for staff involvement, and a school where the principal gave no real leadership or even support to staff willing to address the issue of NZC implementation. Additional support from advisers was needed to enable these schools to make progress.

In some CIES schools, new principals had been appointed with the explicit expectation that they would get curriculum change under way. Several of the schools reviewed by ERO in 2008 also had new principals. ERO noted that this could slow the process of implementing NZC (because the principals had other priorities to deal with) or could provide an opportunity for a fresh start, creating new momentum.

A Shared Understanding

In their first (January 2009) report, ERO stressed the importance of developing a shared school-wide understanding of NZC in the context of the individual school. They found that effective school-wide involvement usually led to a better shared understanding of the school's curriculum at classroom level.

In their most recent (2010) report, ERO identified 'collaborative staff' as a key factor typically associated with good progress towards implementation. By this they meant not only a shared understanding of NZC, but also knowledge of how they could and would be involved in preparing for implementation, and 'a say in the design of learning programmes that reflected their local context' (ERO, 2010, p.15).

An Action Plan

According to ERO's first report, one of the key factors was a planned approach to implementation; schools that had defined the activities and tasks to be undertaken, had designated who would be involved and specified a timeline for completion of each phase, were making good progress towards implementation. The third ERO report noted that some of the schools already giving effect to NZC had been helped by starting their preparations early, and using the long lead-in period effectively.

External support

ERO stated in January 2009 that schools that were well advanced had made good use of external PD and also of the electronic and print resources provided by the Ministry. MECI also mentioned the availability of high-quality support as a key factor.

Wider consultation

In August 2009, ERO reported that 'School leaders who actively sought opinions and ideas from teachers, parents, students and other community groups at an early stage gave the participants a sense of ownership that provided a firm foundation for subsequent planning' (ERO, 2009b, p.10). In June 2010 they noted that those schools that were already giving full effect to NZC had used a variety of methods to consult with parents and find out what they wanted the school to do for their children. Feedback had provided a solid foundation for developing a vision, a set of values, key competencies and assessment objectives. Moreover, 'Schools that succeeded in engaging the interest and support of their communities, including Māori communities, were in a strong position to strategically advance their progress.' (ERO, 2010, p.7).

CIES observed that a supportive (and well-informed) Board of Trustees could be 'an added catalyst for assisting change' (Cowie et al, 2009, p.17). Both CIES and ERO (August 2009 report) felt that school networks or clusters could be useful in supporting change, as they enable teachers to observe what is happening in different contexts, and so provide ideas about what can be done.

Student Focus

In their most recent (2010) report, ERO identified 'the centrality of the learner' as one of the key features of schools that had made good progress in the implementation of NZC. This involved informing students about NZC and what it meant for them; consulting them about teaching and learning; demonstrating that their perspective was valued and that their views had been considered in decision making. It also meant teachers putting learner-focused strategies into practice.

Trialling ways of working and reviewing progress

The importance of experimentation and risk-taking was mentioned in Chapter 5. ERO noted (in August 2009) that successful schools had established formats and systems for planning, delivering and assessing their curriculum; they were regularly collecting evidence to inform decisions about changes to practice. This meant that teachers were confident about trying out new ideas and finding out what worked best.

Factors hindering implementation

Curriculum implementation could be hindered by a lack of the positive factors identified above. In addition, the following factors could have a negative impact on curriculum change.

Staffing issues

There were three problems in this area. First, a high staff turnover would threaten the inevitably lengthy process of developing a shared understanding of NZC and planning its implementation. Second, new or inexperienced teachers could find it difficult to cope with the flexible nature of NZC, perhaps feeling a need for more detailed direction as to what they should teach. Third, staff who had been teaching perhaps for many years in a more traditional way might be apathetic or resistant to the idea of wholesale change. Those who had not been consulted about the school's vision and values, or made aware of the intent and principles of NZC, might also be reluctant to 'buy in' to the process of change.

Individual schools may experience any or all of these problems, and it will require a skilled principal to deal with them. Those interviewed by CIES researchers spoke of the need to manage resistance to change, and to ensure that the pace of change was compatible with staff needs, beginning with small steps if necessary. A change of principal during this period could therefore cause even greater difficulties, although (as noted above) new principals were sometimes appointed with the specific task of implementing change.


Assuming that staffing issues are resolved, do teachers have enough time to cope with all that is involved in curriculum implementation? The MECI surveys asked respondents to identify the extent to which each of ten items was likely to be a barrier. They could rate them from 'not a barrier' to 'an extremely serious barrier'. The average rating for most items was around the 'minor barrier' level, and it is encouraging that, in every case, factors were perceived as less of a barrier in 2009 than in 2008.

However, there was one factor that responses indicated was a much more serious problem. 'Time for planning and implementation' was rated a moderate to difficult barrier in 2008, though in 2009 it was closer to the moderate level. This is consistent with the NZEI/PPTA 2008 survey, which indicated that teachers' greatest need was for more time (see Section 3.5). An SSS report also noted that 'Time for implementation continues to be an issue raised by schools as impeding their progress towards fully giving effect to NZC' (SSS, 2009, p.144).

School structures

Several of the MECI focus groups discussed the organisational structures and systems that could hinder implementation of NZC. The timetable in secondary schools was seen as a particular constraint. As a consequence, some schools were considering, or experimenting with, changes (see Chapter 5).

Conflicting demands

Throughout theMECI evaluation,the competingdemands of assessment and qualifications were mentioned by secondary school respondents as barriers to implementation of NZC. In the latter stages, primary participants expressed concern about the perceived competing demands of National Standards. SSS reported concern expressed by advisers as well as schools that 'NZC implementation will be sidelined with the introduction of the National Standards' (SSS, 2009, p.169). One region believed that 'Without further intensive professional development that builds deep understandings of curriculum theory and practice, schools will default to current practice dressed up as NZC, or adopt National Standards as their school curriculum' (p.181).

In their most recent (2010) report, ERO noted that there were a small number of  schools where teachers and leaders claimed that the introduction of National Standards may distract them from work on NZC. However, they observed that most schools had 'faced these challenges, responded appropriately to them, and continued to make progress with implementing effective teaching and learning strategies'. (ERO, 2010, p.16).


  1. The impact of leadership was not explored in the MECI surveys.
  2. It is encouraging to note that in their most recent report, ERO found less evidence of apathy and resistance to change (see Section 2.2).

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