For the first time in years, there is a real buzz in the sector and sense of optimism about a new initiative.

The need and the desire for this development can be illustrated by the experiences of a group of 10 Paeroa schools that got together to see how they could better meet the needs of their kids and local communities.

After the first year of sharing data, expertise, ideas and support, many teachers were moved to tears when they saw their student’s improved results.

Principal Kaye Ferguson of Miller Avenue School says that was the moment that her staff stopped talking about themselves as decile 1 teachers who everyone dismisses as inadequate. They had new confidence and now knew that what they were doing had real meaning.

Thirteen years on, the Ohinemuri cluster is still going strong, even though the Ministry of Education School Improvement Funding that got them started has long since gone.

The cluster is built on trust and a flat structure of shared leadership with nobody at the top calling the shots. Everyone contributes and roles change according to need and expertise.

However, resourcing is a struggle and the cluster has had to temper its ambitions since the ministry money dried up. Kaye Ferguson describes the group as “grabbers of anything that is free and useful. If it aligns with the plan, we pick it up.”

It seems a tragic waste that schools coming up with brilliant grassroots initiatives are stymied by a lack of resources – often for teacher release time to share ideas and expertise and learn from each other or outside experts. It’s also disappointing that great models can’t be developed and rolled out to be picked up by other learning communities that could benefit from them.

However, that is about to change, thanks to the NZEI-Ministry of Education Joint Initiative that evolved late last year out of primary teachers and principals rejection of the controversial Investing in Educational Success scheme.

Teachers didn’t want a hierarchical structure of highly paid leaders in a “Community of Schools”. They wanted resources to be centred on the children, and funding to release them to work together in a flexible and collegial way according to the specific needs of their communities. They wanted support staff and early childhood educators to be included and a focus on the aspirations of Maori, Pasifika and special needs students.

And the Ministry listened. The Joint Initiative was born, and the Ohinemuri cluster was one of many examples of successful practice around the country that working parties visited earlier this year.

The working parties were established to look at collaboration, transition, and success for Maori and Pasifika learners. They also met with researchers and processed 1300 survey responses from NZEI members.

The same messages and ideas came through repeatedly, giving us the model (or, more accurately, models) to create learning communities that are child-centred and flexible.

Under this model, Communities of Learning can choose the money, time and people they need. The model is responsive and flexible, with time, money and people resourcing shaped by the community itself, rather than a one-size fits all model imposed by Government. There will still be some required roles but there are a range of others. The new initiative will incorporate early childhood and potentially stretch up to tertiary education.

Communities can chose teaching roles that focus on improving transition, cultural competency and community engagement. For example, an across-school teaching role with a focus on transition could help families with special needs kids who need extra support when their child moves from kindergarten to school. Or the teacher could work with other teachers across their community to ensure all schools and services have effective transition programmes.  A cultural competency expert could deepen a school’s or group of schools’ ways of acknowledging the culture and identify of Pasifika children when they arrive at the school or centre, and/or upskill teachers in Pasifika language and culture.

There is shared responsibility for leadership across the community rather than one leader role.

Communities can chose from a range of leadership competencies that their community needs rather than have one leader doing it all. This means important leadership skills like facilitation, curriculum expertise, coaching and mentoring and teaching skills can be recognised.

The next step is to meet with our teacher and principal members and begin negotiations to vary the principals’ (PPCA) and teachers’ (PTCA) collective agreements over the coming weeks. This will cover any new roles that arise as a result of the Joint Initiative agreement.

The likes of the Ohinemuri cluster will hopefully not have to temper their ambitions for much longer, and schools and centres around the country can hit the ground running with dynamic initiatives that will truly benefit the people at the centre of this model – our kids.