The Joint Initiative is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to boost the New Zealand education system. Will the Minister of Education give the go-ahead or will the government persist with its ideological tick-box approach?

The fatal flaw in the Tomorrow’s Schools’ model is now well recognised: schools are forced to compete for resources and students, driving inequality and undermining best practice in the system.

Dr Cathy Wylie’s 2012 book, Vital Connections, explains that to lift our system’s performance, schools need to work in groups and share knowledge, resources, motivation and best practice. But to do this effectively, and sustainably, the clusters need a framework and resources.

Various governments over the last decade or more have made attempts to foster clusters. Some groups of schools have overcome the obstacles and gone it alone with collaborative projects.

Finally in 2014, the current government caught on – but blew its chance with a top-down, one size fits all community of schools (CoS) model that was overwhelmingly rejected by NZEI members.

Subsequently, the government agreed to work with NZEI members on a Joint Initiative around deepening successful collaborations and transitions – aspects of the investing in educational success policy we could agree on. The initiative drew on the best ideas from hundreds of members, and from international research.

Holding on to hope

louise-greenAs EA went to press, final agreement on the details of the outcomes of the first phase of the Joint Initiative were still being negotiated between NZEI and the ministry.

However, primary principal and teacher members will be asked to endorse the key design principles and roles of a “community of learning” model NZEI has developed when they come together at worksite meetings early in Term 3.

NZEI president Louise Green says this model includes early learning and is designed to be flexible and responsive to the real needs of learners as well as providing accountability for boosting student success.

“On a practical level, it would mean that schools and services can voluntarily agree to come together in a community of learning, and could then choose from a range of required and optional leadership and teaching roles to meet the particular needs of learners in their community. Communities would also be able to pool time and resourcing to use in the way that best provides for their learners’ needs.”

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The model would resource a stronger focus on community engagement, children’s transitions and cultural competency, which would better support success for Maori and Pasifika learners and children with special needs.

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“The model would resource a stronger focus on community engagement, children’s transitions and cultural competency, which would better support success for Maori and Pasifika learners and children with special needs.” Louise Green says the model has been developed as a direct result of the discussions NZEI members and ministry staff have had over several months with teachers in schools and centres.

“We’ve listened to each other and to the voices of practitioners and community. The model is based on what we know works in schools and centres as well as what the international evidence tells us.”

She says both parties are committed to a second phase of the Joint Initiative which will focus on Maori, Pasifika, early childhood education, support staff, special education and professional learning and development.

Many educators are already working in clusters, and are keen to see more resourcing to make their collaborative work sustainable.

In South Auckland, Maori and Te Reo Maori teachers meet at least four times a year to share effective practices for Maori students and provide needs-based professional development for teachers.

“I didn’t feel I had enough support as the only Maori teacher at my school. We’ve come to realise that as Maori teachers and Te Reo Maori teachers, many of us are already leaders and need some kind of leadership support,” says teacher Angela Palalagi, who began the cluster six years ago.

The cluster is now putting together a proposal to their schools to fund a teacher-only day once a term because the group currently meets on a Saturday and availability is a real issue. “We want to create plans, more long term, more sustainable. The PD we gain from the kahui cannot be found elsewhere and is absolutely invaluable.”

The Katote Cluster in North Canterbury has moved well beyond an “arranged marriage” brokered by the Ministry of Education after the earthquakes. Kaiapoi High School, seven primaries and 16 ECE centres now work together closely. “There’s a lot of diversity,” says Woodend School principal Graeme Barber. “A lot of effort goes into coordinating it and you can’t tell people what they’re going to do.”

Transitions are a major focus of the Katote Cluster. As well, the cluster identifies the “at risk” factor. “That’s all the things happening in our local context – post-quake stuff, poverty indicators and stress in the family. Then we put in place actions. One of the key drivers here is success for families – ‘you are welcome here and you will be successful’.”

These two clusters are just a few of many successful initiatives around the country that could be sustained and upscaled by the Joint Initiative’s community of learning model.

As Wylie, chief researcher at the New Zealand Council for Educational Research, writes in Vital Connections, “It will be connections that increase the effectiveness of our schools and the ability of our education system to better meet our expectations.”

Read more about the Joint Initiative