West Auckland principals collaborate

An impressive collaboration has been underway in Waitakere, West Auckland for many years. In 2007 a group of principals from a range of school joined forces to see if they could work together to make a difference to student outcomes across the region. This story explains how they did it.

Photo: Cherie Taylor-Patel, Chris McLean and Jude Black from WAPA 2020

The impetus for change

The impetus arose from concerns expressed by Waitakere secondary school principals, primary school principals, and the wider community about regional student achievement.  

At the time NCEA statistics for the area were not looking good against national norms, and there were concerns in both primary and secondary schools around student engagement in learning. With support from Waitakere City Council regional data was gathered in an education plan that captured and synthesised the concerns.

In response the leaders made a commitment to work together collectively to raise achievement across the region to address the achievement concerns. They established the WAPA 2020 Trust as the backbone organisation for the network of schools that chose to join the initiative.

Principal of Flanshaw Road School, Dr Cherie Taylor-Patel, provides the background:

“The regional council partnered with the West Auckland Principals Association (WAPA) to seek ways to address underachievement in our region. The partnership also included representatives from ECE, Māori and Pasifika, special education, special needs, tertiary, refugees and migrants, and youth groups.  With support from Unitec and the University of Auckland, a group of principals developed the schooling sector part of the Council’s education plan, with other sector groups working on their own sections.

From the Council’s plan we then went away to develop and implement a collaborative learning plan for the region.

The vision for the cluster, jointly agreed in 2008, was that by the year 2020 this network of schools would have made a significant positive difference to the achievement of all learners, but particularly those students who, having started school as five-year olds in 2008, would graduate from secondary school in 2020.

The shared core values that underpin our work are manaakitanga and ako. We believe that we have a collective responsibility for all the students in our region, and that learning with, from, and through each other is a more effective way of improving student achievement”.

Since 2008, the WAPA 2020 network has grown. The initiative started with 16 schools, and at the end of 2014 there are 31 schools in the network. Those involved say that today WAPA 2020 can be described as a sustainable, successful collaborative network that is making a difference to regional achievement.

The importance of taking time

Foundation members of WAPA 2020 say that one of the most complex things about launching this initiative was getting input into and agreement on the first draft learning plan.

They say that because working in collaboration takes time, it was important to create opportunities where leaders and others could talk, develop relationships, engage in dialogue, reflect, rethink and refine the vision and common purpose.

While the schools in WAPA 2020 had a similar geographical location, the principals were from primary, intermediate and secondary schools, and did not necessarily know each other.

Says Cherie:

 “We took time to write our first plan with Chris McLean leading us through the process. We tried to include all viewpoints from the wider education community; we held forums, shared our thinking back with the original group, we talked to parent groups and members of other education sectors.

During this time we were also building trust between the members of the cluster, and that can’t be rushed. We went through a process of learning about each other, our different contexts and schools. We worked collectively on the vision, core values and shared goals.

We ended up with a learning plan that everyone felt they could align with their individual school goals, as well as the WAPA 2020 network and the Waitakere City Council’s vision for education in the region.

The Council’s education plan had eight indicators that all had actions, and we knew we couldn't address all of them straight away. We needed to narrow our purpose, and determine where our focus should be. We selected three “strands” as the way to realise our vision for raising achievement in the region: leadership, student achievement, community engagement, and later we added a fourth, digital learning”.

Clustering collaboratively

At the start WAPA 2020 principals needed to learn about the principles of effective networking that had been identified in research.

A reference group looked at overseas research in this area, particularly the Hume District Project in South Australia, the York District Project in Ontario and the work Professors Louise Stoll, David Crandall, Michael Fullan, and Lorna Earl.

Around this time Cherie completed facilitator training with Louise Stoll around leading networks. She was also completing her Ed.D work on student-led conferences, which was aligned to key goals in the student achievement and community engagement strands. This meant WAPA 2020 schools had local access to current research in this area.

The initial groundwork done by the seven principals of the WAPA 2020 Trust gave the network a strong foundation on which to frame up how they might work. Stoll and Crandall’s (2005) Networking for Learning research base has stood them in good stead over the years, particularly in terms of sustaining and growing the cluster.

Cherie says that there are marked differences between cooperation – the approach of many clusters – and collaboration.

“Collaborating means being strategic and purposeful in our actions. We have a common vision and agree on key approaches to achieving outcomes for our learners. Our purpose is greater than any one school. For instance, PLGs are quite structured and the learning is scaffolded, to support leaders at different stages of their careers. We are all exposed to similar material, which we then personalise for our individual school contexts.

We cooperate by sharing our data, but we collaborate by sharing our stories. We utilise each others’ capabilities. We are accountable for and to each other. We share what happens back in our schools with one another. We trust each other. Our joint dialogue has created opportunity for new learning and incremental innovation to emerge”.

Read Cherie's 2014 research report on networking (PDF) - APPA website

Processes and activities

All principals of network schools, and principals who wish to join the cluster, come together at the beginning of each year to revisit the purpose of WAPA 2020, to reflect on successes and challenges, and to ‘sharpen the focus’ for the coming year.

Leaders engage in a simulation exercise, devised by Louise Stoll, that supports leaders to identify what stage their schools are at in terms of a range of organisational change elements (exploring, developing, deepening, bedding down, sustainability) across each strand of work. The simulation provides a framework for people to use to align school goals with network workstreams, and reflect on what changes they have made, and still need to make.

The four strands around which the cluster’s activities are based are each led by a steering group. Teachers, leaders, aspiring leaders and lead teachers from network schools can be part of a strand’s work, not just principals.

Strand members meet each term for learning workshops where they share knowledge and ideas, listen to invited speakers, report back to the group on school-based projects and provide feedback and feed-forward for the steering committees. Lateral activities, linked to workshop information, are planned for and take place in schools across the network.

Has the network made a difference?

Over the eight years the network has been collecting and sharing data, 13 of 31 schools in the WAPA 2020 network have developed school capacity, as measured by four- or five-year ERO results. All other schools  are on three-year review cycles.

Cherie comments that the network has longitudinal evidence that students are more engaged in their learning than they were. NZCER Student Engagement Data (Year 5 – Year 10) and e-AsTTLe cluster data has enabled the network to engage in analysis of macro-trends in achievement and engagement, in addition to individual school data analysis.  From the data, it has been possible to identify pockets of excellence in innovation, happening in individual classrooms. 

Read NZCER's 2016 report on the network - NZCER website

Cherie explains:

 “Just one example of this work is the engagement of boys. When we looked at the e-AsTTle data of schools where boys were engaged and doing well, we wanted to understand more about what our best performing schools and teachers were doing.

Teachers from these schools presented their learning to the network about strategies they had used to engage boys effectively. This kind of information sharing between schools encouraged other schools make changes to practice. The results of these changes were reflected in subsequent NZCER Student Engagement data.

Talented leaders and teachers across our schools have shared success stories in many areas including raising literacy levels, engaging communities, using digital tools to engage students, developing student voice, reciprocal reading that accelerates achievement, accelerating Māori student achievement and developing culturally responsive pedagogy”. 

Thoughts for other clusters

WAPA 2020 has the following goals:

  • To make a difference students’ learning, progress and social development within and across schools.
  • To help build staff capability and professional capital within and across schools.
  • To contribute to teacher motivation and professional thinking and practice through rigorous and challenging work and enquiry.
  • To build capacity for learning and sharing knowledge between schools.
  • To develop mutual commitment and shared responsibility within and across schools.

The foundation group of WAPA 2020 principals offer this advice for other regions considering setting up networks on these lines:

  • understand why you want to network / cluster to raise achievement across participating schools, what has triggered this decision?
  • engage with research on effective clusters and learning networks
  • with your foundation group, take time to discuss the vision and values that will underpin the work your cluster engages in
  • come to an agreement on what your common purpose is, and how you wish to work together
  • create partnerships with other groups, for example a tertiary provider and ECE
  • understand it takes time to build relational trust among group members and without this the depth and quality of work done at network level will be difficult to sustain
  • collective responsibility and sharing resources are key to ensuring all schools achieve success, individually and collectively
  • decision-making needs to be distributed   
  • school principals and key leaders need to be involved in the process of developing the network programme of work from the beginning and need to step up as drivers, problem solvers and champions of the network
  • as the network develops an induction process for those who want to join needs to be developed
  • network leaders need to access funding to support the running of the network.

Recommended reading

Crandall, D. & Stoll, L. (2005). Networking for Learning. London: Innovation Unit and NCSL.

Reflective questions

  • What is the most effective network, cluster or collaborative project you have been involved in?
  • In terms of change management, which of the stages below best describes the network/s you have been part of?
    • Exploring:  Talking with others, finding out about the project, deciding what value it has for you individually and/or as a school.
    • Developing:  Committed to meetings, leaders participate in network activities, involves some school staff, leadership development work a focus, sharing experience of networking with others, sources of evidence of success developing.
    • Deepening:  More committed to the network principles and work streams, school goals aligned with network goals, more people across the school involved, some network activities involve classroom teachers and student projects, resourcing for the network becomes more organized, sharing to a range of stake-holders becoming more organized, evidence of learning being mined at local and network level.
    • Bedding down:  Network activities part of school activities, leaders, teachers, students and school communities engaged in network activities, network backbone organisation well established, sharing across and beyond the network well established, joint work creating incremental innovation, evidence of success being used to inform next steps as a network. 
    • Sustainability:  Building capacity of students, teachers, schools and the network happening through strategic, sustained, on-going decision-making at multiple levels, links to other sector groups and education organizations (local, regional, national and international) strengthening, strong self review processes in place, multiple sources and evidence of success.
  • From what you know of the WAPA 2020 network, why do you think they have lasted as a network?
  • From your experience of networks and cluster projects what do you think are the hardest challenges to overcome when setting up and starting out?
  • If, as a leader or lead teacher, you were to be part of an effective network, what do you think you would have to do differently from what you do now to make a effective contribution?
  • If you are part of an effective network, how do you think it will add in value (or not) for:
    • you
    • your school
    • your teachers
    • your students
    • the wider network community.

Tags: Collaborative practice

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