JUDE BARBACK looks at two established Communities of Learning and finds enthusiasm and optimism for the new initiative is overriding some of the earlier negativity surrounding the controversial IES policy.

In the movie version of Communities of Learning, the opening scene would probably start with a grainy flashback to January 2014 when the Prime Minister announced a “flagship policy” for education – the $359 million Investing in Educational Success initiative.

Cut to sector leaders, sporting expressions somewhere between confused and impressed, scrambling to make sense of it all, suspicions aroused by the lack of consultation.

It would then fade to the present: a sharp, clear, bright, full-colour image of Communities of Learning (CoL) as they stand today.

From IES to CoL

The movie metaphor might seem a little twee, but the journey from the first IES announcement to today’s 117 CoL has been nothing short of dramatic.

The sector, and particularly the unions, played an integral role in shaping the policy, which was initially flung on schools as the answer to raising achievement. A working group of education sector leaders gave advice on how to progress IES and the Ministry worked with the sector to finalise its design.

IES, as it was presented in the earlier days, was arguably more attractive to secondary schools. Even then, the PPTA worked with the Ministry to hone it into something that better reflected what secondary schools wanted. Meanwhile NZEI Te Riu Roa argued that what students really needed were smaller classes, more teacher’s aides for special needs, 100 per cent qualified early childhood teachers and better resourcing of bilingual education for Māori and Pasifika. The primary teachers union pursued an alternative with the Ministry – the Joint Initiative – which involved a number of working parties tasked with identifying ways to support children’s success at every level of their learning.

These negotiations and agreements have changed the look and feel of IES. Communities of Schools have become Communities of Learning – although the more established communities still refer to themselves as Communities of Schools. ‘Expert’ and ‘lead’ teachers, ‘change’ and ‘executive’ principals are no longer part of the IES vernacular. More significant than any language changes, the policy is now starting to resemble something that has the ability to effect real and positive change in New Zealand schools.

Renwick School principal Simon Heath believes the process needed to take its course. Heath shares leadership with Marlborough Girls’ College principal Karen Stewart of Blenheim’s 2BCoS, New Zealand’s first Community of Learning.

“Some good things, some valid points emerged from the Joint Initiative to help shape the Communities into what they are today,” Heath says.

So what are Communities of Learning?

The Ministry of Education describes Communities of Learning as the ‘engine room’ of IES. Groups of around 10 schools or kura will team up to represent the ‘pathway’ for students from primary to secondary school.

Each CoL will have a small number of ‘across-community’ teachers working closely with other teachers to share their subject and practice expertise and to get the best out of the combined strengths of their colleagues. There will also be career opportunities for ‘within-school’ teachers, who will open their classrooms as models of learning for other teachers. The Ministry expects to see around 1,000 across-community teacher roles and 5,000 within-school teacher roles established.

Building leadership capacity

Heath says the intensely political nature of IES initially had a bearing on whether teachers would support the CoL initiative and put themselves forward for the new within-school and across-community roles.

“To be brutally honest, the NZEI’s stance on this meant that some teachers were not sure if they wanted to buy into it and put their hands up for these roles. It was very political.”

The Blenheim CoL has appointed seven across-school teacher positions and 37 within-school teachers.

“It has taken time but now teachers are on board. We’ve noticed a big shift in buy-in from teachers. They’re now ready for where we’re at,” says Heath.

Principal of Auckland Normal Intermediate, Jill Farquharson agrees. She is the leader of ACCOS, the Auckland Central Community of Schools.

“Some staff have put their political preferences aside to support this initiative,” she said. “We shared with staff just how good it is for the kids.”

ACCOS has appointed approximately 47 within-school teachers and is in the process of recruiting for nine across-community positions.

Farquharson says they were keen to avoid a “top-down model”, so their CoL is driven from the middle with the within-school teachers in the driving seat.

“The new positions have provided teachers with career path opportunities,” she says. “In terms of building leadership capacity it’s the best thing I’ve seen.”

Favouring high decile schools?

However, recent scrutiny cast over the initial funding allocations for the new within-school and across-school positions has raised questions over whether CoL is an initiative for schools in New Zealand’s more well-off districts.

Ministry data shows that the high decile schools have received more funding for the new teacher roles than low decile schools – statistics that have earned the Ministry sharp criticism.

The Ministry argues that higher decile schools signed up in higher numbers at the start of the initiative than lower decile schools, so they are represented more heavily in the first allocations of funding. A school’s roll size is also argued to have more of a bearing on its IES funding allocation, rather than its decile.

The Ministry expects IES funding will even out as more schools gradually embrace the CoL model, including those from lower deciles.

“It has taken a little longer in some cases, often because it takes schools time to come together but over-all principals we have had contact with have been really positive about the new opportunities available,” says Katrina Casey, head of sector enablement and support at the Ministry.

Forming communities

ACCOS is the epitome of high decile. The Community is made up of schools that lie in some of the more privileged suburbs of Auckland: Mt Eden, Epsom and Remuera. It comprises schools that reflect the learner pathways of its students.

Not all primary schools have opted in. Farquharson sees no problem with this. After all, it is entirely voluntary. “The door is always open,” she says.

The Blenheim Community of Schools, 2BCoS, is actually two communities, reflecting the two learner pathways to either Marlborough Girls’ or Marlborough Boys’ College as there is no single sex secondary school in the area. All 21 schools in the region are part of it, representing over 6,000 students and 330 teachers. There is talk of including ECE and tertiary in the mix too, with some interest shown from Marlborough Kindergartens Association and Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology.

Not all CoL have materialised with such ease. Heath believes it helped having a strong history of collaboration among the schools, with various cluster-led initiatives paving the way towards the community model. With no university or teacher education provider in their region, they are used to banding together, he says.

Heath and Stewart believe the communities have enabled even greater collaboration between schools.

“Schools are starting to collaborate in ways we didn’t imagine,” says Heath. “In the past there was an emphasis on getting bums on seats, now schools are encouraging parents to send their children to the closest schools. Some are even in the process of reducing their school zone in an effort to improve all schools.”

“We’re moving beyond superficial relationships,” says Stewart. “We’re now all responsible for all learners, rather than just concentrating on the five years or so that you have them.”

“We used to blame each other,” says Heath. “The high school would blame the primary school for why the kids’ learning wasn’t up to standard. Then we’d blame ECE and ECE would blame the parents. Now we’re all responsible.”

Other CoL are experiencing the same sense of collaboration, including the Waitakere Community of Learning.

“For me, it used to be ‘here are the Waitakere College kids and here are the others’, but now it’s just ‘here’s our kids’. There’s a shared sense of community,” CoL leader Shona Smith told Stuff.

Farquharson echoes this sentiment.

“It’s changed talk of ‘me and my students’ to ‘us and our students’,” she says.

“There were good things happening before but we need consistency and seamless transitions between the sectors,” says Farquharson of ACCOS. “The Community is helping us achieve this.”

Arguably the greatest value of the CoL model lies in its ability to tighten the collaboration between the levels of schooling.

“Bemoaning the state of learning from a previous sector, school, or classroom will shortly become a whinge of the past,” said Minister of Education Hekia Parata.

Teacher-Led Innovation Fund

Karen Stewart points out that the CoL initiative also allows good opportunities for working within the various schooling sectors.

Heath gives the example of a small professional and learning development group of teachers between two primary schools. The Teacher-Led Innovation Fund and the CoL structure have helped leverage this concept to incorporate other schools, by allowing inquiry time and release time for staff.

The Teacher-Led Innovation Fund, although part of the IES initiative, actually sits outside of Communities for Learning. It is designed to support teams of teachers to develop innovative practices that improve learning outcomes. Minister Hekia Parata recently announced the fund would be extended for an extra two years. It will now run until June 2020 with additional funding of $8 million taking the total invested to $18 million over five years.

Parata says the fund has “captured the imagination of teachers”.

“It … is resulting in some really exciting projects, including a programme using neurological science to help students with dyslexia, and a collaborative project establishing a farm where students and teachers build stronger engagement in science. This work has the potential to spread across the education system and make a real difference to kids’ achievement.”

Are CoL helping to raise achievement?

It is early days for Communities of Learning; too soon for a sequel to tell the story everyone is dying to hear – that achievement has soared across
New Zealand schools as a result of this initiative.

After all, that was the Ministry’s intention all along. The quality of teaching is acknowledged as one of the greatest influences on whether students succeed. Of course, socioeconomic factors and other ‘out-of-school’ factors come into the achievement equation as well, however the IES initiative was designed to improve the ‘in-school’ factors by improving teaching practice through enabling better collaboration between teachers and schools.

It appears progress is afoot. Once approved, the achievement challenges for each CoL are added to the Ministry’s website. A quick look reveals a range of similar documents, all identifying which national standards areas and NCEA levels they need to improve, for which students, whether it is a focus on Māori students, or boys, or learners who require extra support. Each plan shows where the schools sit currently, where they want to get to and how they propose to do it together.

The Ministry’s Katrina Casey says one of the key challenges has been working with CoL to identify their achievement challenges. Twenty-two CoL have now had their achievement challenges endorsed with 11 leaders and over 200 of the teaching roles appointed.

“That’s good progress but more needs to be done,” she says.

The ACCOS schools are among those with an approved achievement plan. The achievement levels for ACCOS schools were already relatively high so Farquharson says they are really aiming to stretch themselves with their CoL achievement challenges. By 2017 the Community hopes to see a lift in writing – with a specific focus on boys’, Māori and Pasifika students’ writing – boosting the 78 per cent currently achieving the national standard to 90 per cent. It hopes to see attainment of the reading standard increased from 86 per cent to 95 per cent. For its secondary schools it is looking to increase NCEA Level 2 and Level 3 achievement. Its final goal is about boosting parent engagement.

The Waitakere CoL has goals to raise the achievement level of reading, writing and maths of its students, particularly in Māori and Pasifika learners as well as achieve the national goal of 85 per cent of all students leaving with NCEA Level 2 or better.

In each of the plans, the focus is on singling out the areas that need attention, not on singling out individual schools. In the past, thanks to the hangover of Tomorrow’s Schools, there has been an unhealthy competitiveness among schools. By contrast, the CoL achievement plans convey a real sense of ‘we’re all in this together’.

Stewart says the goals are driven by data and by learner need, allowing them to target the right areas and monitor their progress.

The challenge for Communities of Learning, aside from the obvious task of meeting their achievement goals, is to communicate their CoL vision to the wider parent communities. Parents have become accustomed to competition between schools and have played no small role in enhancing this rivalry.

Stewart says getting parents and the wider community on board has been key for their community.

Farquharson says they are looking to compile a joint newsletter for their CoL’s parent community.

It doesn’t appear to be a particularly ‘hard sell’ for parents.

“I haven’t met a teacher, principal or parent yet who doesn’t want the best for all our Waitakere students – so there is a huge groundswell of goodwill and optimism,” Waitakere CoL leader Shona Smith told Stuff.

Transformational

The ‘goodwill and optimism’ hasn’t always prevailed.

“In the early days what was frustrating was people passed judgement and made comment before having all the information,” says Farquharson.

Since then, she says there has been a “groundswell of support” for the initiative.

She says they have some truly insightful principals among their community.

“In the past at principals’ meetings we discussed things like sports days, wet lunch days, uniforms and so on. The CoL has now upped the ante. We talk about bigger issues like achievement and pedagogy – really meaty stuff.

“It’s a big pedagogical shift, you can’t look back. Even if we make mistakes, we can learn from them and move forward,” she says.

In this regard, it would seem CoL have the full support of the Ministry of Education.

The Ministry has regional directors working across the 10 regions to provide direct support for the CoL. These directors and their staff provide information about student movements across pathways, achievement and other student-related data, and general information, advice, guidance and brokering potential CoL membership.

The directors and their staff also work with each CoL to work out what professional learning and development needs they have. Casey says the Ministry is making professional learning and development available across the country.

“It’s all new for the Ministry as well,” says Heath. “Ministry support has been exceptional. Our CoS liaison person is very supportive and forthcoming.”

He says they receive rapid, and in many cases, instant responses to their queries.

Farquharson agrees the Ministry has been “fantastic”, especially with things like dealing with macro data.

So it would seem Communities of Learning – The Movie is set to be a feel-good flick after all.

To the question, ‘why be in a community?’ Stewart’s answer is clear:

“Why not?” she says simply. “There is now resourcing that allows collaboration between schools.”

“It’s exciting and daunting at the same time,” says Heath. “It’s hard work, but it’s exciting work. It’s a game changer.”

 

Numbers at a glance

  • 117 Communities of Learning approved
  • Over 1,000 schools now in Communities of Learning
  • (40 per cent of schools)
  • 8 ECE services are in a Community of Learning
  • More than 320,000 students
  • 22 CoL have had their achievement challenges endorsed
  • 11 have appointed CoL leaders
  • Over 200 teachers have been appointed to new within-school and across-community teaching roles

All figures based on information received from Ministry of Education mid-June 2016.

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