Tamaki Primary: turnaround school

by Corinne Hansell

I began as principal at Tamaki Primary School in 2005, and I’m now in my seventh year. Before that I worked for the Ministry of Education where I was involved with the Schooling Improvement project for Mangere and Otara schools. I learned a lot in that time through the professional development that the Ministry provided around change management. It was the problem solving and the collaboration among all the schools and their leaders that I enjoyed and gained from. I became convinced that it is possible to turn around a school and achieve results when you have collaboration among people.

Establishing trust while introducing change

When I first went to Tamaki I followed in the footsteps of a dearly loved principal who had been at the school for 17 years. Everyone worked very hard, but some systems had broken down and I could see there was a need for a coherent strategic vision with proper ‘buy in’ from all participants.

My first year was about creating an environment of trust and credibility. It was hard at first and of course nobody knew me, but there were a number of issues to address. I went to the board and said that some things needed to change that people had come to accept as normal.

There was quite a bit of "feeling sorry" for our kids because we were (and are) a decile 1 school. As a result they got away with a lot! We needed to establish protocols around what we would and would not accept. One of the ways we achieved this key change was looking at classroom and playground behaviours that were not OK. I talked to the students about why there was a difference between street language and school language. They learned that how they spoke outside the gates was street language, but in school we used school language. We didn’t talk about ‘bullying’, instead we shifted focus onto creating peaceful relationships. We got on board with the Peace Foundation and were trained for peer mediation. We now have a Peaceful Playground Philosophy. It has taken time but we have completely turned around playground behaviour.

Another early change involved closing off the budget to rectify a deficit. Responsibility for curriculum budgets were shifted to the senior leadership team and the team had the final say about expenditure. We also changed the budget priorities from "wanting" to "needing" and being able to support the need through explicit planning focused on student outcomes.

Getting the right teachers

My two associate principals are very important allies. They know a lot about curriculum, and brought the two syndicates together into one collegial team through which we’ve been able to build real consistency of practice. Our children now have a good vertical transition throughout their schooling because teachers share information and have honest conversations about targets for students’ learning.

This wasn’t easy because all the senior syndicate teachers left in 2005 and we had a series of part-time or long-term relievers. It took a while but finally we appointed the right people to stay and commit to the work we needed to do. If I were starting over I'd be smarter about the staffing, and not have so many relievers. Teachers need an opportunity to develop really good learning relationships long term with students so that trust can develop. We got very fussy about who we appointed and once we had teachers who were there to really teach, had a strong work ethic, and a genuine liking for our students we supported their teaching and the students’ learning. For three years all staff members have been permanently employed.

Establishing partnerships with outside agencies

At first about a third of our students received multi-agency support (from CYFS, Housing New Zealand, RTLBs, social workers or health nurses). Poor quality housing also affected the health of a large number. This had consequences for their schooling because they were often unwell and away from school. I personally attended family group conferences with CYFS working to get things right for these children, many of whom had high and complex needs. I opted to go to these conferences while my APs were at school leading curriculum and making sure that the classroom stuff was functioning well. We have now turned a lot of the actions we took in the early days into systems through which the schooI can help families to get direct support from the agencies. Our RTLBs have been invaluable in supporting the strengthening of these partnerships.

Releasing APs to coach staff

Providing release time for my two APs was one of our bravest and most important moves as a board and staff. It meant that they could undertake effective coaching and modelling in classrooms, look after the pastoral care of the students, and support teachers to identify students’ learning needs early. As a result we saw gains really quickly in terms of student outcomes. We have enabled this release time for two years now, and every year I say to our budget person, “This is something that has to happen again next year!”. Teachers report feeling supported and valued in their work and any problems in classrooms are recognised early, and minimised with good collaborative discussions. This move has been key in our commitment to effective practice in every classroom every lesson.

Through this approach we have built a culture of effective teaching in the school.

Establishing high standards and high expectations

Leadership is often about pushing people out of their comfort zones to show them what they are capable of. Every single day I make sure that I talk about standards, I say things like, “We are going to be a school with high standards, high expectations!”. When I walk around corridors or classrooms I ask the kids, “How’s your learning been today?” It is very deliberate. I want to infect everybody with the message that learning is what we are here for!

Using video to review teaching practice

Having focused conversations about our students’ learning means we can learn together how best to benefit them. We only needed to go through one assessment cycle and the staff could immediately see the significant shift in achievement results, and boy, everyone was on board! Teachers have become very comfortable with what we do, even when using video analysis of teaching. I’ve done this before in past teaching positions, and I acknowledge that the fear is real. So we talked with teachers first about this strategy and said that good things would come out of it. It is now part of improving teacher practice that is non-negotiable!

Shifts in practice have led to improved outcomes

There are some non-negotiables that are very important in terms of trying to turn a school around. Sometimes they relate to teachers, sometimes to the students. One of our “biggies” is teacher tone of voice when addressing students and the manner in which students are spoken to on a daily basis. Consequently, the school culture has become one of respect and whanaungatanga (strong relationships).

We are seeing major shifts in our student outcomes – three and four times the typical national shift in our students within a year level. While we still don’t have enough students at or above the scores, the shifts we are getting from one test to the next are actually huge. Last year was the first year that we had none of our Year 4 students featuring in the “well below” category. That showed that our three years of consistent professional development in literacy is really having an impact. It was hugely satisfying to celebrate that. The challenge now is to make sure that we maintain it. We have to remember that 111 of our 200 students are ESOL learners.

The importance of staff relationships

The other thing that I address immediately now is if I notice any undercurrents of staff dynamics that have the potential to become destructive – like any gossiping or any backstabbing. In my experience this has been the very thing that has led to a negative school culture. I choose to have a lot of conversations with staff that are very clear and open. I share with them my views about “underground” communications. I address it straight away at our staff briefings. We are far too busy and our students have needs that we have to work on. There is no time for unprofessional behaviour and because we are a small staff, it is critical that we remain collaborative and honest with each other.

Accessing technology

There is a lot going on in the Tamaki area for schools in e-learning, and it is hugely successful. The philanthropists associated with the Manaiakalani Project are funding wireless internet access in our students’ homes, which are very low decile. For our families it is marvellous. This is a hugely exciting development to be part of with a great group of collegial principals.

Leading change is an ongoing part of my role at Tamaki Primary School, and it keeps me busy, inspired and engaged.

View a series of videos about how Tamaki Primary School engages with parents and whānau

Reflective questions

These reflective questions might guide you in your reading of this story:

  • What review is needed so that your school can improve its outcomes for all learners? Discuss this story with your senior leadership team to decide what changes you need to get things started. Are they about curriculum, finances, teachers, community relations or ..?
  • This In Your Own Words story shows the importance of defining and allocating different roles for the senior leaders in the school. Re-examine your roles and those of other senior leaders. Are you all being as effective as you can be? What changes could you make to the leadership roles, and how would it be best to go about the process?
  • Corinne writes about how important it has been for her and the staff to concentrate on learning, teaching and curriculum. This has helped turn the school around. What important leadership behaviours does she demonstrate that have achieved this? How could you improve learning and teaching in your school to bring about a similar turnaround?
  • Corinne also writes about the importance of whanaungatanga (strong relationships). This underpins trust and respect. How are you building whanaungatanga at your school?
  • Establishing some non-negotiables in Tamaki Primary helped turn the school around. They applied to both teachers and students. What non-negotiables do you need to introduce to improve teaching and learning at your school?

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