Innovations in Partnership Schools Kura Hourua

Publication Details

The Ministry of Education has a clear focus on improving student achievement, and employs a range of approaches to support the sector’s efforts, including provision of strategic leadership, resources, and targeted interventions. Partnership Schools | Kura Hourua (PSKH) is a new policy that provides an innovative addition to this mix.

Author(s): Martin, Jenkins & Associates. Report for the Ministry of Education.

Date Published: Ocotober 2015

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Executive Summary

Context – Partnership Schools | Kura Hourua policy

Partnership Schools | Kura Hourua (PSKH) are a new kind of school/kura outside the state system. The sponsors of PSKH are accountable to the Crown for raising student achievement through contracts to achieve specified school-level targets. Contracts will be renewed or revoked depending on the sponsor's performance. The most significant difference between Partnership Schools | Kura Hourua and other schools (private and state) is that they have more flexibility about how they operate and use their funding, including over curriculum, qualifications, staff pay and conditions, hours of operation, and school leadership. It is expected that this flexibility will provide the opportunity for PSKH to be innovative, but the extent to which they do things differently from state or private schools is up to the sponsor.

In summary, the policy intent is that if the schools/kura have clear outcome-focused accountability, freedom to manage and govern, and a broadly similar level of funding to that for state schools, they will then be able to develop innovative solutions that match local needs while still meeting high quality standards. This, in turn, will enable them to attract students who have previously not been well served by the education system and lead to equitable achievement outcomes for those students.

Five schools/kura opened in February 2014 and a further four schools/kura opened in February 2015.

Evaluation design and methodology – overview

MartinJenkins is conducting a multi-year evaluation of the PSKH policy for the Ministry. The overall purpose of the evaluation is to assess the extent to which the PSKH policy has delivered what it intended to deliver with regard to flexibility, innovation and student outcomes. Over the course of the evaluation its focus progressively shifts from understanding the early operation and implementation of PSKH, to exploring whether the policy is creating the conditions for success and, finally, assessing achievement of intended outcomes. The evaluation is framed to answer four overarching evaluation questions over this time.

Question 1:
What does the policy look like and to what extent is delivery aligned with design intent?
Question 2:
To what extent are conditions for successful delivery of the policy in place?
Question 3:
What outcomes were achieved and were they achieved through the mechanisms that were envisaged?
Question 4:
What lessons can be drawn from the PSKH experience and what are the implications of these lessons for improving the design and delivery of the policy?

The evaluation complements other monitoring and review information that looks at how the schools/kura are performing:

  • The Ministry assesses quarterly and annual reports provided by the PSKH as part of their contracts, including information about whether the schools/kura are meeting their agreed targets.
  • The Education Review Office (ERO) conducts a readiness review before the schools/kura open, a New Schools Assurance Review approximately 6 months after opening, and an Education Review approximately 18 months after opening, with regular reviews thereafter –¬ this is the same as for state schools.
  • The Partnership Schools | Kura Hourua Authorisation Board monitors the schools'/kura's educational performance.

Note all of these activities relate to review of performance at the individual school/kura level. By contrast, to minimise overlap and maximise value-add, the MartinJenkins evaluation focuses more on how the PSKH policy works in practice, rather than the performance of individual schools/kura.

Year 1 of the evaluation: focus on innovation

This report marks the end of the first year of the evaluation (Phase 1). This phase of the evaluation describes how the first PSKH that opened in 2014 are translating the policy intent into practice. At this stage, the evaluation's focus is on the first overarching evaluation question:

What does the policy look like and to what extent is delivery aligned with design intent?

Both the evaluation and the implementation of the policy are in the early stages – this report provides feedback on only the first year of Round 1 PSKH operation. 

Phase 1's particular focus was on understanding innovation within PSKH, to look at early indications of how policy was enabling the schools/kura to do this. It involved only Round 1 schools/kura, focusing in depth on three of the five Round 1 schools/kura. Round 2 schools/kura will be included in the evaluation from Phase 2, beginning in mid 2015. 

Key information sources for Phase 1 included: qualitative feedback from visits to Round 1 schools/kura (all five were visited as part of scoping, three were visited to examine innovation); a literature scan on innovation in schools conducted by the Ministry; and secondary analysis of relevant information (quarterly and annual reports provided by PSKH to the Ministry as part of their contracts, ERO's New School Assurance Review Reports, PSKH applications and contracts, and policy papers). 

The literature scan highlighted how contemporary discussions of innovation in schools are grounded in the perceived need for flexibility in public education, to meet the rapidly changing economic and social needs of a globalised and technology-driven society. Despite the large body of literature that refers to innovation in education, the concept is poorly defined. However, broadly speaking, innovation in schools is understood as something that is intentional, and designed to support changes in practice to create value (ie improvements in teaching and learning). In the context of education, innovation is less about wholescale experimentation and more about the creative application of good practice solutions in a way that is appropriate in a specific time and place. For PSKH, it may not be that the idea itself is specifically new but its application to this particular student group, or in combination with other ideas, is at least uncommon and at best unique. 

Findings about innovation within PSKH

The range and nature of innovations we found within PSKH provide early evidence the schools/kura are developing innovative solutions that match local needs while still meeting high quality standards. 

Using the literature scan and other sources, we identified eight dimensions of innovation. These are: funding models; governance; management; staffing; student engagement and support; pedagogy (teaching and learning); curriculum; and engagement with community and parents/family/whānau. 

The dimensions of innovation are linked and there is an implicit hierarchy across them – some are necessary precursors for others. Figure 1 captures this. Each of the three case study schools/kura had a different mix of innovations, and each emphasised some dimensions over others. The figure also shows our overall assessment of the level of innovation across the dimensions, based on our analysis of the early operation of the Round 1 schools/kura.

Figure 1: Innovation within PSKH, hierarchy and linkages between key dimensions


  • The funding model is shown to the side, indicating its qualitative difference to the other dimensions: as a structural component, it enables other potential innovation. 
    • In addition to being an enabler, funding is used in a range of ways -its flexible nature enables innovation across a number of dimensions.
  • The greatest levels of innovation in the first year of operation are in the dimensions at the top of the figure - governance and management. 
    • The key driver of innovation is found at the governance level: the sponsor's vision provides the impetus and mandate for innovation in all other areas. 
      • A key innovation in governance was enabled by the policy - this is that boards are appointed for specific expertise without the need to involve parents.
    • Management enacts the sponsor's vision by implementing specific innovations across the school/kura.
      • A key innovation in management was the split between administration (CEO) and academic leadership (principal).
  • Innovative practices and examples of best practice were evident in three dimensions driven by management.
    • Staffing: skilled staff support and bring innovation - they are experienced (including the small number of unregistered teachers) and bring a strong focus on improving outcomes for priority students; staff share the responsibility for ongoing innovation with sponsors and management and are employed under individual contracts.
    • Student engagement and support: there is a strong focus on student wellbeing and engagement using a range of best practice approaches and innovations.
    • Pedagogy, teaching and learning: multiple examples of best practice, with approaches well matched to context and student need - while similar examples can be found in state schools, these practices are not widespread across the state sector.
  • The final two dimensions showed many examples of good practice, but little real innovation.
    • Curriculum: while not particularly innovative, curricula are being tailored to meet the needs of priority students.
    • Engagement with community and parents/family/whānau: this is recognised as extremely important and a range of best practice approaches are used.


Innovation within PSKH

The Partnership Schools | Kura Hourua policy includes elements designed to enable innovation – we saw clear indications that the three case study schools/kura were innovating in these areas: using funding flexibly; appointing governance boards to access specific skills; and splitting their management functions into administration and academic leadership. Innovation in these dimensions supports emergent innovations in other dimensions, with the three case study schools/kura developing innovative educational provision for students who have been under-served by the education system. 

As the evaluation progresses we will continue to focus on innovation, to see if and how it grows over time, and across dimensions, in response to students' needs and aspirations. As part of this, we will examine the drivers of innovation. There are some early signs that the case study schools/kura are developing innovative educational provision for their students. It will be critical to see to what extent innovation grows in coming years, and as schools/kura learn how best to respond to students' needs and aspirations. The extent that PSKH continue to innovate may also depend on the capability and capacity of sponsors, management and staff to drive innovation forward. The accountability framework is also a significant lever for continuous improvement. 

In Year 1 sponsors' were focused on the challenge of implementing a new model of education; coming years may provide the opportunity for sponsors and staff to innovate more widely as the schools/kura become established. Currently PSKH staff (at both management and teaching levels) feel empowered to innovate and try new approaches for the benefit of their students, and are excited and energised by this opportunity. 

Emerging themes about conditions for successful delivery of the policy 

One of the key evaluation questions asks whether conditions for successful delivery of the policy are in place. While this was not the specific focus of this first phase of the evaluation, a number of themes are beginning to take form.

  • Opportunities are presented by small school rolls and/or class sizes, combined with a focus on the individual student.
    • Schools/kura believe they are achieving good results for their students (in terms of both engagement and achievement) through quality relationships with individual students and their parents/family/whānau, and individualised academic support. Both these factors are facilitated by low ratios between students and teaching staff. Relatively small roll sizes overall also allow non-teaching staff (management and sponsors) to maintain close connections with students and their parents/family/whānau. 
    • Quality pastoral care is also facilitated by small rolls.
    • The Ministry expects school/kura rolls to grow to the maximum capacity each PSKH is funded for; maintaining individual support for students through this expansion will present a challenge to the schools/kura.
  • The strong visions of individual sponsors.
    • The sponsors are using principles from business to succeed: they are taking personal responsibility for the success of their school/kura and are determined to succeed. Each is aiming for the best possible results and is aware they are operating in an environment of high scrutiny.
    • Sponsors' visions are driving all aspects of operation: schools/kura are designed to meet the needs of a particular demographic. 
  • Sponsors' history and capability.
    • Each sponsor is building on a history of success in education – they were able to get underway using networks and trusted and capable staff (though new staff were also employed), and had relevant, transferable knowledge of finance, employment, teaching and learning, and their community.
  • The opportunity and freedoms provided by the policy and funding.
    • The fact each school/kura is new was an important factor supporting the implementation of sponsors' visions; the vision and direction is clearly communicated to all staff and they are clear about what they have 'signed up' for. There is no need to change practice or manage a process of change (as would be the case in an existing school/kura).
    • The freedoms provided by the funding model and a determination to succeed have created conditions conducive to innovation, including an 'institutional space for risk taking' – sponsors and staff view this as an exciting opportunity and feel empowered to continually test and improve approaches.
  • The emphasis on aligning teaching expertise with the school/kura's mission and values.
    • Each school/kura endeavoured to employ the highest quality staff possible; quality staff were identified by the sponsors as vital to achieving their vision. 

For the three case study schools/kura we also identified a small number of perceived barriers to success at this early stage of implementation. 

  • Negative public perceptions of PSKH: these were perceived to have had a range of impacts including discouraging parents from enrolling their children at PSKH, discouraging teachers from applying for positions, and limiting other schools' interactions with PSKH.
  • Limited facilities: all three PSKH are operating out of premises that have been adapted from a previous use – limitations identified included lack of outdoor space and limited access to some specialised equipment. Schools/kura are seeking to address this through accessing external facilities; in their view, time-limited contracts with the Ministry constrain their ability to secure long-term locations and develop facilities. 
  • Short lead-in time: The three case study PSKH all also noted difficulties associated with opening a Round 1 school/kura – the short time period between being approved and opening posed challenges including high stress and difficulty getting policies and processes in place and recruiting quality staff. 

All three sponsors had a strong drive to provide a valid alternative to the current system, for students and whānau who they thought were not being well served. This drive pre-dated the policy and the PSKH policy is credited by the three schools/kura as providing them with the opportunity to finally implement their individual visions. 

In each case the sponsor was building on a history of providing services to similar groups and the PSKH policy allowed them to expand their offering – something they had all been planning to do. Despite this the sponsors didn't see themselves as unfairly benefitting from the policy (when they had already been planning to open a school); rather the policy enabled them to implement their vision without compromises they believed would have been required if they worked within the state system. 

In particular the sponsors valued the opportunity to provide a 'full' solution, or truly integrated approach – having the freedom to use the funding model to focus all aspects of the school/kura on the needs of priority students. From the sponsors' perspective, the flexibility inherent in the policy allows a cohesiveness and coordination across all aspects of the school/kura. Everything is driven by the sponsor's vision and all actions and decisions are clearly linked to achieving improved outcomes for priority students.

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