From Targeting Problems to Tailoring Potential: The Wairoa West Cluster Schools Success Strategy

Publication Details

This report summarises the changes in schooling practice in a group of remote rural schools, with a combined roll of approximately 120 students constituting the Wairoa West Cluster, as the result of the short term appointment of a Schools’ Director.

Author(s): Dr R. Gorinski & C. Fraser

Date Published: October 2007

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Executive Summary

It describes the situation prior to the establishment of the Wairoa West Cluster (WWC) in 1998, chronicles the alternative educational interventions considered, the evolution of the Schools' Director role, and the changes in student achievement, teaching practice, governance and management practices, and the development of a professional learning community, following the appointment of the Schools' Director. It concludes with an examination of the issues surrounding the sustainability of the progress made in the two years since the Director's appointment ended in 2004.

The purpose of the report is threefold - one, to inform policy development and contribute to the body of knowledge about leadership in small schools; two, to document the achievements of all stakeholders; and three, to provide insights into sustainable practices in remote rural schools, through an historical account of the initiative.

The research was guided by a qualitative case study design and used focus groups, face to face and telephone interviews, as well as document analysis as the primary data gathering tools. The data are representative of one cluster of seven schools - all full primary schools. The process of analysis sought to explore the role of the Schools' Director and also, to uncover what factors brought about the changes in student achievement, teaching practice, governance and management practices and the professional learning community, across the cluster schools.

Focus group sessions were conducted with key stakeholders associated with the Cluster schools including the Schools' Director 2002-2004, the Ministry of Education's Schooling Improvement Coordinator, two members of the Cluster Steering Committee who served during the years of the Schools' Director intervention and principals and Board representatives from five of the cluster schools. These focus group discussions were supported by interviews with five of the key stakeholders. An extensive document analysis was undertaken, tracking the changing approaches and shifts in management/governance and student achievement outcomes through both publicly accessible reports (Education Review Office - ERO school reviews) and internal records (Ministry correspondence and submissions; milestone reports; minutes from Cluster meetings, ERO third party reviews).

In addition to geographical difficulties of isolated location and access, the Cluster schools shared a generalised history of student under-achievement. Although there were individual variations amongst schools, ERO reviews had systematically documented dysfunctional Boards; financial mismanagement; staff retention difficulties; and poor curriculum delivery across the region. Early strategies to address these deficiencies included the appointment of a School Executive Administrator, the concept of a roving principal and the application of Section 78 of the Education Act to install a statutory manager (the latter two options were discarded before implementation).

At this time, Schooling Improvement priorities had begun to refocus on a student achievement outcomes approach, rather than school performance. Consequently, when a Schools' Director was appointed for the WWC in term 4 2002, this focus was extended across all participating schools, and improved outcomes were rapidly realised. Consistent strategies for student assessment, data collection, analysis and reporting were adopted across the Cluster, and then used for planning purposes at classroom and Board of Trustees (Board) level. Communication amongst cluster staff and Boards improved, with monthly principal meetings and regular Steering Committee meetings. A weekly newsletter to teacher/principals was implemented, and newsletters and surveys of parents and community became regular features of schooling life. Professional development for teachers and Boards was prioritised. The focus of the professional learning was upon issues of student achievement and curriculum, and for Boards, it included workshops on finance, property management, and staff recruitment. Importantly, cluster activities - academic, cultural and sporting - were arranged for students to get together and reduce the effects of social isolation.

The initiative yielded some extremely successful outcomes for the Wairoa West communities. Key outcomes included enhanced student academic and social achievement; improved staff retention, improved governance practice; a more clearly delineated interface between governance and management; the implementation of a more effective and reflective style of teaching practice; and significantly, the development of a strong and effective professional learning community. These successes appear to be due to a number of factors, key among them being the commonality of needs and the enthusiasm and motivation of stakeholders - the Schools' Director, Boards, teacher/principals, parents and community, and Ministry personnel with oversight of the project.

The Schools' Director's cessation of tenure at the end of 2004 coincided with a number of changes accompanying school closures and amalgamations under the Network Review. The resultant disquiet within the cluster led to a temporary drop in student achievement outcomes. By the end of 2005, and throughout 2006 however, there was evidence of elevated student achievement outcomes, with results indicating that learners were surpassing national averages in several subject areas. This sustained momentum was undoubtedly, partially attributable to the strong foundation of systems and policies established under the Schools' Director, and partly to the ongoing participation of several key participants who assumed responsibility for passing on the WWC professional culture.

Moving into the future, there is considerable concern amongst Cluster stakeholders, that the gains achieved under this initiative are retained. Many involved believe that sustainability currently rests with a handful of key personnel, and that the Cluster schools remain vulnerable to staff and Board turnover, although this has improved considerably since the intervention. Meanwhile discussion about how to consolidate and resource Cluster practices continues. This has been an energy-intensive programme in terms of time, money and goodwill. On-going, sustainable success will be dependent upon the continued high level of contribution from Boards, principals, communities and the Ministry, and their collective willingness to remain a part of this professional learning community.

Key Findings

  • Improved performance of the WWC schools and concomitant enhanced student achievement outcomes only occurred once school leadership and management moved their focus from operational matters to student achievement. Curriculum goals, requisite resources and appropriate pedagogical and assessment practices needed to become the focus before enhanced student achievement outcomes were realised.
  • The collection and analysis of data across the WWC schools provided a significant population for meaningful comparisons with peers and national norms, and assisted Boards, principals and teachers to identify gaps in teaching and learning for evidenced-based planning. It also enabled principals/teachers to be responsive to the range of student learning needs in vertical class groupings prevalent in small rural schools.
  • Progress is cumulative: in this case, the leaps in improvement that occurred under the leadership of the Schools' Director from 2002-2004 were facilitated by the raft of earlier supportive interventions and Schooling Improvement projects.
  • The key to stability of school management and staffing, and to longer-term sustainability of progress, lies in the establishment and maintenance of strong professional learning communities, with a distributed leadership approach. In this way, expertise becomes a shared resource, reducing reliance on individual personalities.
  •  Relationships are crucial and must be fostered by all stakeholders including the Ministry, community, parents/whānau and Boards, principals and teachers, and students. Learning is a collaborative, organic process and effective relationships and communication at all levels is essential for facilitating and maximising enhanced social, cultural and academic achievement outcomes .

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