Rethinking school-wide self-review: a New Zealand model and application


Cashmere Primary School in Christchurch was already well set up in terms of school development and review processes. Principal Jacqui Duncan used her sabbatical time to think about ways to advance the school's practices of critical school-wide self-review.

I was thrilled to have a principal’s sabbatical in term 2, 2010. I had some clear goals about what I wanted to achieve. I wasn’t going to travel this time. I wanted to be a thinker, and a reader and a learner.

We already had self-review practices happening in the school. But they were a little disjointed, it was all a bit fragmented. I wanted time to think about it, to step up, climb the mountain, to really think about what it meant right through the whole school. (Jacqui Duncan)

Jacqui used the processes identified in the BES Teacher Professional Learning and Development (Timperley, Wilson, Barrar and Fung, 2007) to promote professional learning. She visited and interviewed experts – other principals in a range of schools, academics, an ERO person, a Ministry person, and leadership and management advisors.

She read and reflected critically on evidence-based research about adult learning and teacher inquiry, and on students’ learning. She also used publications from ERO, and the Ministry of Education, including Ka Hikitia, Kiwi Leadership for Principals, Teacher Professional Development and Learning, and School Leadership and Student Outcomes: Identifying what works and why. In addition she found useful material on websites such as TKI and Educational Leaders where there resources about self-review.

Returning to her school, she engaged in learning conversations with her staff. Together they collected school data and made sense of it so they could plan next steps for their teaching and for students’ learning.

These sources of professional learning gave Jacqui the theory, evidence and practical insights she needed as she and her staff redesigned the school’s self-review processes in order to focus on improving the engagement and achievement of all their students.

Summary of Jacqui’s key evidence base

From her investigations, reading and thinking Jacqui has focused on the following understandings which she developed or had validated during her sabbatical. They represent the key factors in working with staff to implement the kind of critical school-wide review she wanted at Cashmere Primary School.

  • Student learning, engagement and achievement needs to be the focus of school leaders and the focus of school review (KLP, 2008).
  • School leaders make a critical difference to the quality of schools and the education of young people. The closer that educational leadership gets to the core business of teaching and learning the more likely it is that leaders will have a positive impact on students (Robinson, Hohepa and Lloyd, 2009).
  • Building relational trust between leaders and teachers is important to engender and sustain improvements in teaching and learning (Robinson et al, 2009). Leaders who show regard for others and treat them with respect are seen to be competent, have integrity and are trusted. Such leaders can foster the levels of inquiry, risk taking, and collaboration that school improvement requires. For example, performance management, accompanied by transparency, honesty and accountability are important components of critical school review and school improvement. Coaching and the development of learning communities also use relational trust to change practice by school leaders and teachers and lift school-wide achievement (Timperley, et al, 2007).
  • Home-school connections are important. School leaders can build educationally powerful connections with families, whānau and communities through their approach to home learning, and by developing strong relationships with them (Robinson et al, 2009).
  • It is unrealistic to expect any one leader to possess all the leadership knowledge, skills and dispositions that a school needs. It is important that a principal develops other leaders within the school. A school leader also needs to strengthen networks with experts beyond the school. In these ways school leaders give and gain support to develop effective learning communities (KLP, 2008).
  • Understanding of adult learning is crucial as adults need to be involved in the co-construction of their own learning and need to believe that the changes being suggested will lead to an increase in student achievement. Simply mandating change won’t shift practice. However there does need to be pressure and support within a school to ensure changes that lead to school improvement and better teaching and learning do happen – "engagement in constructive problem talk" (Robinson et al, 2009).

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Key influences on Jacqui’s thinking and processing

In addition to these evidence-based materials Jacqui was influenced by five other key factors.

Ministry of Education self-review tools:

The Ministry published its school wide self-review tools which I thought were rather good – the Ministry had done my work for me!

ERO’s six dimensions (draft 2010): This is a draft document which includes on page 15 a diagram of the six dimensions of a successful school.

This spoke volumes to me. … review is about helping a school know what is happening with student learning. I have used them along the top of my diagram to show what a successful school does.

The cyclic notion of inquiry and review:

I have committed the school to a cyclic approach to inquiry and review. In many respects we were doing this anyway, asking these questions each time: Where do we want to be? Where are we at now? Where’s the evidence? What’s the future direction? But we were to some extent ticking boxes and complying. Now the Ministry’s Intent 2010–2015 is asking schools to focus on student achievement and to ensure success for all students. And this takes us back to ERO’s model with student learning, engagement, progress and achievement at the heart of the matter.

Our school has also identified for some time that teacher inquiry is an important part of a teacher’s job. We are supporting our teachers as they collect data to know how effective they are being as teachers in terms of students’ engagement, achievement and learning how to learn. We want to do this through peer coaching, with our team leaders as leadership coaches, modelling good practice in their team meetings – how to use data to inform us, and to find where the next challenge is, so that we can develop our next steps.

Implementing the New Zealand Curriculum: Cashmere Primary has committed to having a specific, cyclic and evidence-based curriculum review set out in a timetable, 2011–2015.

We are bringing the curriculum in to a cyclic review too. In implementing this broad, rich, deep, lovely curriculum as a school we have to be certain that our students are learning.

Implementation of the National Standards: Jacqui agrees that the National Standards can have a place as a formative approach to assessment within the school. As long as they are used validly, and each school has an internal moderation process, and as long as the school is focused on teaching and learning they have a place.

We will collect data from multi-sources. We will define what we think a child should be doing to reach a standard, using norm-referenced data, and also using other objective material which the school has identified as part of overall teacher judgment (OTJs). This is a key to ensuring students are assessed in a personalised yet consistent way and will help with whole school consistency, and with reporting in clear, plain language to parents and the board.

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Since her return to the school, Jacqui has developed processes to implement the new critical school-wide self-review approach. In doing this she has used the reading, thinking and learning time of her sabbatical to keep the planning on track. In particular she has:

  • continued to focus on improving student engagement and achievement
  • ensured that what they do makes a difference for students and uses evidence to evaluate that difference
  • stopped what doesn’t make a difference for students, and soaks up time and resources
  • focused on continuous research based school improvement
  • continued to build staff capacity to improve students’ outcomes so they all experience success as learners
  • worked on keeping a link between theory and practice in all they do
  • streamlined the development of the school charter, strategic plan, the annual plan, and the school review process so that they are research based, future focused, challenging and rigorous
  • continued to build leadership capacity by coaching leaders on how to lead professional learning conversations and quality learning circles.

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Jacqui Duncan is an experienced principal. Her sabbatical gave her time to read and think, and to develop an evidence base for the developments she wanted to take back to her staff, board, families and students. The board has approved her new self-review model, so she is empowered to get on and do it. She also has an external mentor who is involving the board, staff and students. The mentor is preparing a report which Jacqui will use with her leadership team as part of her on going review of what happens in the school. This will be part of the commitment to evidence-based continuous school improvement.

She is also embarking on another process which involves her directly in the continuous cycle of critical review. She has asked her leadership team to take part in assessing her own leadership – the aspects of her work that help them, the aspects that are a barrier for them. She is taking out of their feedback what her strengths are, what things she needs to see as developmental opportunities, and from those things what are the next steps for her in terms of her leadership of the school. As she said, this has taken some courage! But as she has owned the process she sees it as an example of a high trust approach, and another layer of the review process.

What I am accountable for is to show that I have gone through a process. I am looking at it as objectively as possible, and I have come out of it with some next learning steps that mean something to me. We ask students to do this all the time. I hope that our values of respect and honesty in this school are lifted by my involvement too.

Reflective questions

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

  • To embark on critical school-wide self-review you need to be clear about the changes that your school wants to implement. In discussion with your leadership team (or mentor) develop a list of the priorities your school has in terms of improving teaching and learning.
  • How will you ensure that your teachers feel supported as well as challenged as you pursue the changes to school practice that you have identified as necessary? Relational trust is a key component in this as Jacqui Duncan suggests. What processes do you have, or can you put in place to develop a trusting environment in your school?
  • Board, community and student participation are key to successful school-wide review. On her sabbatical Jacqui thought about a number of ways to ensure broad based buy in to the process. How will you manage this aspect?
  • In preparation for developing her approach to school review Jacqui drew on evidence-based research, resources, and a number of external experts to develop her own knowledge. Many of these are mentioned in the article and even more detail is available in her original sabbatical report. Use her references and suggestions (including approaching her for some summaries) to help prepare yourself as you embark on this kind of process for school improvement.
  • From your review you will come up with further priorities that you need to build into your action and annual plans. How will you decide what to do first?


Ministry of Education. (2008). Kiwi Leadership for Principals: Principals as educational leaders. Wellington: New Zealand.

Ministry of Education. (2008). Ka Hikitia. Wellington: New Zealand.

Duncan J. (2010) Principal Sabbatical Inquiry: Critical school-wide self-review.

Robinson, V., Hohepa, M., & Lloyd, C. (2009).  School Leadership and Student Outcomes: identifying what works and why. Best evidence synthesis iteration (BES). Wellington: Ministry of Education.

Timperley, H., Wilson, A., Barrar, H., & Fung, I. (2007). Teacher professional learning and development:Best evidence synthesis iteration (BES). Wellington: Ministry of Education.

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