School of the hour: a journey of continuous improvement

August 2014


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JUDE BARBACK visits Otumoetai Intermediate School, the supreme award winner of the inaugural Prime Minister’s Education Excellence Awards, and discovers the secret to the school’s success lies in an “unrelenting focus on quality”.

Otumoetai awardPrincipal Henk Popping gives a wry smile when I ask to see Otumoetai Intermediate School’s application document for the Prime Minister’s Education Excellence Awards. He knows I am not prepared for the enormous wad of paper that demonstrates his school’s success. As I thumb through the hundreds of pages outlining the Tauranga school’s journey to excellence, I am blown away.

Popping, along with a selection of staff and students, attended the awards ceremony in Wellington in June. Of the five award categories, Otumoetai Intermediate was a finalist in excellence in engaging, excellence in teaching and learning, and excellence in governing. But taking away the $30,000 supreme award was the icing on the cake.

The awards were introduced this year to highlight the combined effort needed to achieve improvement, equity, and planned innovation; they focused on engaging, leading, teaching and learning, and governing – areas that the Best Evidence Synthesis (BES) programme has shown are critical to the quality of education.

I had expected Popping and deputy principal for learning, Lynne Hutchinson, to share with me one new initiative, perhaps, or maybe an innovative programme, or possibly one area of learning that they had turned around – something concrete that had earned them the award. However, it quickly becomes apparent as we chat and wade through the vast application document that the school’s accolades are not the result of a single project, but rather many linked initiatives, and a deep, holistic approach to continuous improvement under focused leadership.

Popping says it is difficult to simply show people what they are achieving at Otumoetai.

“You almost need to be an intern at the school for a few weeks to understand what we’re doing here,” he says.

Even without the luxury and benefit of time, a picture quickly emerges of a school that is in tune with the needs of its students, staff and the community, and has a clear vision of how to go about meeting those needs.

Otumoetai Intermediate adheres to seven strategic goals. It is goal seven, which focuses on being ‘innovative and developing a culture of continuous improvement’ that seems to encapsulate the way the school is run.

Popping describes the school as being on a “journey of continuous improvement”. This is perhaps why it is difficult to define the parameters of the school’s success; there is no clear beginning or end point, no defined, before and after, shots – instead, what I am getting is a glimpse of where the school is at on this journey.

Otumoetai award 2

The strategic action plan has been guided by many factors, including research, data, and input from the community. A survey conducted in 2011 revealed that the community valued the school’s engagement with whānau, that it wanted the school to continue to be innovative and progressive, and that they felt strongly about students’ literacy and numeracy outcomes.

The school’s strong engagement with the community extends to its governance. Popping says the school has experienced a growth of expertise from drawing on the experience brought to the table by its board of trustees members. He describes how board meetings are mainly devoted to discussing student learning. The use of story boards and a traffic light system – whereby green reflects something is going well, amber means it needs work, and red highlights it as an area of concern – helps the board to focus on the aspects that need attention.

Engagement with the wider community also ties in with the intermediate’s strong relationships with its feeder schools and neighbouring Otumoetai College. Collectively, the schools strive to promote a seamless journey for the student, whom they refer to as “the Otumoetai learner”. The intermediate’s focus is on how it can add value to the learner in a two-year window on the course of his or her learning journey.

Value is certainly being added here, as evidenced by a number of graphs in the application document that highlight how much students have progressed over the two years they are at Otumoetai Intermediate.

The school started to see a lift in student achievement when it shifted focus from curriculum content to teacher capacity and teaching practice.

There is no room for rookie teachers on Popping’s staff. He acknowledges that parents are always going to want their child in an excellent teacher’s classroom, and to that end, he strives for consistency in the quality of teaching.

A number of initiatives have been used to achieve this, including a teacher inquiry and development model that helped to dispel the notion that experience alone equates to effectiveness. It also revealed the importance of timetabled learning opportunities for teachers and regular professional appraisal discussions with senior management.

Hutchinson points to the Learning Detectives initiative that also supports teacher development, whereby a group of Year 8 students work in pairs in classrooms across the school to observe the ‘movers’ and the ‘blockers’ to learning. Their findings are fed back to the teachers in order to help them improve their practice. The Learning Detectives programme was adopted from research originating in Cornwall.

“Everything we do is embedded in solid research,” confirms Hutchinson.

Indeed, there are countless references to educational researchers in the application document and there has obviously been a large amount of collaboration between the schools and high profile educationalists, such as Professor John Hattie and Dr Kevin Knight, the latter having worked closely with the school in a consultant role for some time.

In another example of a research-based learning initiative, Hutchinson shares how the school has utilised a BES Exemplar that focuses on developing communities of mathematical inquiry, and as a result, has accelerated learning for many students, as well as bringing about a change in students’ attitudes towards maths.

Even though hard evidence might lie at the heart of every decision made, my feeling is that the award was won on the merits of the school’s culture, which hinges on being completely student-focused. While this might be an intangible and immeasurable notion, the focus on the learner appears to have permeated every aspect of the school’s operation – from its governance to its engagement with community and neighbouring schools, and to its approach to improving teacher practice.

It is difficult to define a school’s culture and articulate what factors have influenced it. However, Popping believes it is there by no mistake.

“It is a deliberate act of leadership,” he says. “We have an unrelenting focus on quality.”

It is an approach that has paid off, and Popping and Hutchinson are clearly delighted to have received the supreme award, although they admit that since returning from Wellington, it is certainly business as usual.

I can detect a frisson of excitement in the air, however. Cameramen walk through the school and visitors entering the reception area offer their congratulations to staff. The trophy is expected to arrive at the school later that day, and Popping says certificates will be awarded to every student and staff member.

While I hope the school takes time to enjoy its moment in the sun, I can already sense the eagerness to continue improving. Hutchinson says they are keen to work on the areas of student voice and self-reflected learning. Popping says they will continue learning from other schools, although I rather suspect other schools will be looking to Otumoetai Intermediate as the example.


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