“James and I have the same dopey sense of humour,” says Te Atatu Intermediate School Principal Noelle Fletcher as she and Arohanui School principal James Le Marquand attempt to explain their easy rapport.

The principals sit in Fletcher’s office going over the plans for a new block of classrooms at the intermediate, where two on the ground floor will be part of Le Marquand’s school for special needs students.

For James Le Marquand, collaboration with Auckland principals is essential to success for his students, and he’s adamant it’s the informal structures that work best. And he would know.

Arohanui caters for high needs students aged from five to 21 across 12 sites in West Auckland. It also runs a comprehensive outreach service in a further 33 schools for students in the Ongoing Resource Scheme.

“If you’ve got the relationship, it’s easier to have those hard conversations when they’re needed,” he says.

Scepticism

And he’s convinced those relationships don’t come about if they’re imposed on principals and schools. That’s one of the reasons he’s sceptical about Communities of Learning (CoLs).

“Let’s face it, CoLs are there first and foremost to grab resources rather than being about genuine collaboration.”

But that’s not quite how Fletcher sees it. Te Atatu Intermediate is one of eight schools in West Auckland to recently form a CoL based around their former cluster. In this community there is one college and one other intermediate but no early childhood services at this stage.

Despite their controversial beginning, Fletcher is optimistic CoLs have the potential to work for students. “If we can work together without competitiveness and distrust, then the CoL model can work brilliantly. But we need to work with honesty, respect and clarity.”

Teachers are altruistic

For herself, she doesn’t think that the chance of across-school leadership was a motivating factor for principals when forming the CoL. “Teachers are very altruistic. I’ve never heard anyone say they want to become a principal for the big bucks.”

For Le Marquand and his school, joining a CoL under the current structure has never been on the horizon.

“I work across a large number of West Auckland schools so being drawn into just one CoL would not benefit our kids.”

On this visit to Te Atatu Intermediate, Le Marquand had earlier made a point of stopping en route to grab Fletcher a latte – he knows how she takes her coffee.

Genuine engagement

On arriving at the intermediate, he’s greeted with: “Did I tell you that we’ve built you a gate?” Fletcher’s school caretaker had seen the need, and taken it on himself to ensure there was a secure gate for Arohanui’s students. Student runaways can be a source of tension between schools sharing the same grounds.

It’s this kind of genuine engagement that Le Marquand cites as an example of how real collaboration works – something he says comes about best when the relationships are real, honest and trusting.

“I didn’t have to go through a bureaucratic formal process to get that gate – something I would have had to do if there had been no relationship, or if the relationship had been a formal process.”

When he started as Arohanui principal 14 years ago, he inherited a structure that involved things like formal satellite meetings, appointments, agendas, minute taking and so on. He found that to be an impediment.

“What I found was that I only had so much time to invest, and it was a much better investment to invest time informally. You get a lot more done.”

How will it unfold?

So how will his informal style fit with the new system of formalised CoLs?

Le Marquand says he’s not sure how things will unfold in the long run and amongst his worries is ensuring that all students continue to get access to resources.

Yet, despite his scepticism about the motivation underpinning the new model of schooling, he could see a workable CoL structure that would suit the West Auckland community. A few suburbs away in New Lynn, sits Oakland Special School. Le Marquand sees the very real possibility of a CoL model of collaboration between the two schools: essentially a micro-CoL working across other Cols.

However the question remains as to whether the CoL model really is flexible enough to allow such a stretch in the best interests of all students.

In the meantime

NZEI member leaders are urging schools and centres to take their time in forming Communities of Learning (CoL) and to “stretch the envelope”.

“Stretch the CoL resourcing and roles currently on offer to ensure they go where children’s learning needs are greatest,” member leaders say in a package of CoL resources available at nzei.org.nz/col

In 2014, NZEI members voted overwhelmingly against the government’s first proposal, Investing in Educational Success but last year, after negotiations won improvements, a cautious “yes” was given.

The improvements allow for shared leadership and more flexible crossschool roles. They also schedule in a review of the CoLs model to begin in December 2016. It is hoped that ongoing, joint member-ministry work will feed into this, and formalise further improvements for ECE, support staff, inclusive education and Māori and Pasifika.

Needs to evolve

Berhamphore School principal Mark Potter helped develop the resources and says, “We strongly believe the CoL model needs to evolve further if it is to meet the goal of significantly improving success for learners with the most challenges.

“We strongly encourage members to put the needs of learners first. Forming communities must be voluntary and it is the right of every school or service to decide what is best for their students.”

The resources look at the purpose of CoLs, how to form one and the resourcing; as well as answer questions such as, “Who’s my tribe?”, “Can we be bigger than 10 schools?”, “Does it mean we can’t belong to other or exisiting clusters, communities?”

  • Debra Harrington and Jane Blaikie