The Correspondence School was established in 1922 to provide lessons to approximately 100 isolated primary school children scattered throughout New Zealand. By 1938 the school roll had grown to about 1,800 primary and secondary students and there were radio broadcasts to students.
There’s a perception that the school has continued to mainly serve geographically isolated students, but in fact it has long provided learning for those students who may otherwise be underserved by the education system and for students seeking more flexible learning options.
In 1936 the Special Education Service began, followed two years later by services to adults and support services to secondary schools.
In 1948 the government announced that all schools would be closed due to the polio epidemic and The Correspondence School prepared lessons for every student in New Zealand, and broadcast lessons from January to April.
A course in te reo Māori began in 1949, and a 1956 film shows courses for adults. The school also provided lessons for inmates of the Department of Corrections, which continues today.
In 2016 geographically isolated students made up about 1000 of the school’s 23,000 enrolments. Approximately half of the school’s annual enrolments are dual registrations, where Te Kura supports schools to provide a full and balanced curriculum.
Chief Executive Mike Hollings recognised the need to be innovative, flexible and able to individualise the school’s teaching and learning to every student, given its large and diverse roll.
Te Kura online
In 2014 the school began the shift from being a predominantly paper-based, distance education provider to online provision to most of its students by the end of 2018.
Te Kura Board Chair Dame Karen Sewell highlighted that while digital technology represented new vehicles for teaching and learning, it wasn’t a proxy for learning itself.
“High-quality online learning uses technology as a tool to help in providing learning programmes that address learner’s individual needs and promote their engagement and achievement – it’s a medium, it doesn’t guarantee learning, that’s where the overall education approach is crucial and Te Kura delivers that.”
Before this move online, Te Kura went through another big change in placing more teaching staff in regional offices. This was to support online learning with more face-to-face meetings with students and the development of stronger local connections.
Mike Hollings says using online technology is a far more effective and interactive way of teaching and learning. Online is a more efficient way to deliver a variety of engaging resources, and it allows more interaction between teacher and students, and for students to collaborate more with one another. Online learning and teaching also gives students essential skills for life, he says.
The student at the centre
Each Te Kura student has the guidance of a teacher, or subject teachers for secondary, and a learning advisor who coordinates their learning at Te Kura. Te Kura staff work with a student supervisor, often a member of their whānau, to support the student’s learning.
The school has a strong focus on ‘authentic learning’, also known as ‘big picture learning’, and the online provision includes individual learning plans that place the student and their interests and passions at the centre, to develop individualised learning goals.
Online technology makes anything possible and classes and advisories can be done in groups and individually. Hollings says that many teachers new to Te Kura say they enjoy more one-to-one conversations with students. As the use of online develops, it’s also becoming apparent that students’ whānau can be more involved.
New Zealand’s first CoOL
The recently legislated Education (Update) Amendment Act has particular relevance for Te Kura with the establishment of Communities of Online Learning (CoOLs). The term ‘correspondence’ to describe a school has been removed from legislation. So, effectively, Te Kura is New Zealand’s first CoOL.
However, no changes have yet taken effect, with the timeline for the establishment of a regulatory framework for CoOLs scheduled from January 2020 at the latest.
It’s anticipated that the education sector will offer more flexibility and learning options for students and their whānau, including a potentially contestable environment with other CoOLs.
These anticipated changes will be welcomed by Te Kura.
“To get learning to all who need it we need to create new ways to learn, new skills outside formal schools and spaces where they are needed,” says Dame Sewell.
Hollings says the demand for more flexibility for learners is evident in the increase in enrolments in Te Kura’s summer school, effectively a fifth term, for students seeking extra NCEA credits to complete a qualification or to get an early start on the school year ahead. This kind of flexibility is an exciting proposition, and necessary for a sustainable education system, says Hollings.
Communities of Learning
The development of Communities of Learning (CoLs) is another area of great interest and potential to Te Kura. With over 20,000 students across New Zealand, the school estimates at least one Te Kura student is located in the geographical area of every CoL, and in many areas those figures are in the hundreds. Te Kura is exploring how it can work with CoLs, to ensure the best outcomes for all of the young people in the community.
Values and vision
Mike Hollings also notes the National Education objectives issued by the Education Minister. These include focusing on helping each child and young person to attain educational achievement to the best of their potential; promoting the development of attributes such as resilience, creative and critical thinking, and the ability to form good relationships; and instilling in each child and young person an appreciation of the importance of things such as the diversity of society, cultural knowledge, the Treaty of Waitangi, and te reo Māori.
Hollings sees these objectives reflected in Te Kura’s own values and goals and says it’s an exciting time for a school with a long history of providing innovative ways to meet the changing needs of New Zealand’s education system.