A new report on New Zealand’s secondary schools provides many useful insights into current issues for teachers and schools, writes New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER) chief researcher CATHY WYLIE.

Every three years NZCER takes the pulse of secondary schools with a wide-ranging survey of principals, teachers, parents and board of trustees members. It is part of the national survey series we’ve conducted since 1989 to track issues and trends across the education system.

In 2012 our survey drew on responses from more than half the country’s secondary school principals (55 percent – 177 in total), from more than 1200 teachers and close to 1500 parents, and 290 members of boards of trustees. The survey was carried out in July and August 2012 – before schools were hit by the Novopay problems.

So how are our secondary schools doing? There are many positives in the survey data, but some of the concerns we have tracked over the years remain and in some cases have worsened, in particular funding levels, workload, competition between schools, support for schools and teachers, and access to reliable technology. Decile 1 and 2 schools stood out in the survey as having the biggest challenges with funding, student achievement, behaviour and motivation, and keeping and attracting good teachers.

Funding – or its perceived inadequacy – has always been a theme in our surveys but if anything the financial squeeze on secondary schools has got tighter. Two-thirds of principals reported that their school was in a worse financial position in 2012 than in 2011. Reasons included increased fixed costs, the introduction of new roll-based funding every quarter instead of just on March rolls and declining income from sources such as international students and parental fees.

More than half the principals were concerned about the adequacy of their information technology and Internet access. Teachers were enthusiastic about the potential for IT for student learning but more than half said use of IT in classrooms was curtailed by slow or unreliable equipment or access.

We found that principal and teacher morale had slipped since 2009. While most secondary principals and teachers enjoy their jobs, many describe their workload as too high. Thirty-seven percent of teachers felt their high workload meant they could not do justice to all their students.

Workload associated with NCEA also remains an issue – more so than in 2009. Most views about NCEA were positive, but most think assessment is driving the curriculum, even in Years 9 and 10. There are signs too that the greater emphasis on assessment, with its workload, is making it harder to put new ideas into practice.

Parent views of their child’s schooling experience have remained good (81 percent are generally happy), and in some aspects have improved, such as their view that their child receives clear feedback about their work, and that the cultural identity of their child is recognised and respected. They’re more positive about the information they get about their child’s learning progress than they were in 2009. But just under half the parents would like more information about this. Parents were less satisfied about the quality of information they got from their school about qualifications and how they link with future options.

Competition and collaboration

We were interested in exploring issues of competition and collaboration between schools.

This is a strong theme in another project I’ve recently completed, an analysis of the two plus decades since the Tomorrow’s Schools reforms. Published in a book calledVital Connections, my findings underline the need for much stronger connections between schools and a more connected system of support to build an effective learning culture and tackle gaps in student achievement. This has been a real shortcoming of our system and it is highlighted again in the responses to our 2012 survey.

Eighty percent of secondary principals see their school directly competing with other schools for students. Some see themselves competing with just a few schools, but the range reaches 21, with a median of around five other schools in direct competition. All but three percent of the 61 per cent of schools with enrolment schemes draw students from outside their enrolment zone, with 41 per cent of these schools gaining more than 20 per cent of their rolls from outside their enrolment zone. There is evidence from the survey that low-decile schools are losing out in terms of overall roll numbers, and students with high aspirations.

What do schools do to attract students? School actions to encourage students to enrol include attention to the quality of the programme, options for study, and a safe environment. High-decile schools are most likely to offer enrichment programmes for high-achieving students. Schools publicise their NCEA results, especially to feeder schools, and use local newspapers. They also pay attention to the look of their buildings and grounds. A quarter of the principals think they spend more on marketing the school than they would like and 10 percent say that they spend more on property than they would like, to encourage enrolments.

Though most principals are interested in working relations with other schools, only half report some sharing of resources, professional development and information about individual students.

A fifth remain part of voluntary school clusters, which no longer receive Ministry of Education funding, and there is some interschool visiting to learn from one another or acting as critical friends for other principals.

Schools do work together more now to place students who are having difficulty in one school into another (41 per cent, a marked increase from 28 per cent in 2009). However, fewer schools work together to reduce truancy (33 per cent compared with 44 per cent in 2009). Most liaise with local primary schools or intermediate schools in relation to student transition to secondary school.

Most principals (85 percent) are interested in establishing new or additional working relations with other local schools. These relations are particularly valuable to share professional development and provide one another with professional support, to learn how other schools are tackling common issues, to explore curriculum areas where the school wants to change its practice, and to offer more subjects. Principals also see benefits in sharing specialist facilities and equipment, collectively having a stronger voice with social agencies, and developing the potential to gain access to new funding sources through applying as a group.

Teachers would welcome the opportunity to learn from colleagues in other schools but only 32 percent have such opportunities. They would also like more customised advice and support from outside their school. Only 37 per cent can easily access helpful specialist advice outside the school when they need it.

School leadership

More secondary teachers show interest in becoming principals than in 2009. More principals now feel they can schedule enough time for educational leadership, though the overall proportions are still low: 28 per cent. But like teachers, current principals are less positive now about the support they receive for their role, both within and without the school. The stand-alone nature of our schools has a cost for principals as well, with the absence of career opportunities beyond the principalship. Just over half would like such career opportunities.

A clear message in the survey is the multidimensional nature of school leadership. We asked principals to identify their achievements over the last three years. Student achievement features prominently, including 71 percent who note Māori student performance levels improving or staying high. School processes that support student achievement—such as a more focused approach to pedagogy and the use of student assessment data to plan learning—are also areas in which two-thirds of the principals can see progress. There is an emphasis on developing strong school cultures. Between 50 and 60 per cent of principals talk about developing a stronger professional learning and inquiry culture and more leadership roles for teachers; developing student leadership roles and increasing student choices and ability to feed into decisions; retaining or building a strengths-based culture, and one which is inclusive of students with special needs. 57 percent of the principals think the overall quality of their teachers has remained high or improved since 2009.

This is the most up to date information we have about what secondary principals and teachers are thinking and experiencing, as well as the perspectives of parents and boards of trustees. There are encouraging signs of shifts in secondary school approaches to learning and student engagement, but also warning signs about tensions that may be hard to address in our current system.

For more detail on the 2012 secondary survey results, see Wylie, C. (2013). Secondary schools in 2012. Main findings from the NZCER national survey. Wellington: NZCER.

www.nzcer.org.nz/research/publications/secondary-schools-2012

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