Sustaining school improvement: ten primary schools' journeys

by Linda Mitchell, Marie Cameron, and Cathy Wylie


This research report describes case studies in nine primary schools and one intermediate school that have made deliberate efforts to bring about positive improvements in teaching and learning.

The report provides descriptive material about the case study schools and the main features that supported or constrained them in their efforts to develop. It describes interviews with 32 experienced people involved in schools as practising primary principals, representatives of school sector organisations, government officials, academics and researchers, and teacher educators. It highlights similarities and differences in perspective about their understanding of school improvement, and main themes and issues related to improvement.

Case studies

The 10 schools had different histories and different patterns of development that distinguished them. But there were common features about starting points and development paths that were used as a basis for grouping them. The starting points were:

  • Culture of steady development – no clear starting point. These were stable schools, making positive changes in teaching and learning over time.
  • Rapid roll growth schools. Two schools had rapid roll growth – one from 300 to 375 students in 3 years, the other from 193 to 255 students.
  • Crisis turn-around schools, where the school had moved from a point of crisis to positive development.
  • All schools had some features in common and took some similar and some different approaches.

Common elements

Five common elements emerged in all schools:

  • Staff shared and understood school goals, which had a primary focus on student learning.
  • Teachers had high expectations about student achievement and behaviour. Some teachers’ perceptions of students’ capabilities and expectations of students were extended through professional development.
  • Student feedback was used to help students gain insight into their own work, and to become reflective about their own work.
  • There was a major focus on literacy and numeracy in all schools, with some schools integrating the curriculum and others cutting back in some areas. The flexibility to use achievement objectives selectively allowed schools to construct their own goals in response to analysis of students’ needs. Only one school described its efforts to systematically cover and have professional development in all essential learning areas, in response to Education Review Office (ERO) criticism. Some thought the mandated curriculum made unrealistic demands on teachers. Some schools offered extension programmes.
  • There were varying approaches to assessment, with some schools struggling to use assessment tools and interpret data for student learning. Schools that were part of the Ministry of Education’s Literacy Enhancement Programme were positive about their learning from this programme of how to develop and moderate their own benchmarks, provide consistent shared standards across the whole school, and have a common base from which to analyse teaching and learning.

Information about student achievement levels over time was easiest for schools to provide where they developed school-wide exemplars or standards of expected achievement for different curriculum levels or units, or used standardised tests. Most schools tracked the achievement of students at different levels, and identified students who needed additional attention. Some schools focused their programme on identified need and checked to gauge whether progress had been made to meet expectations.

Some schools gave evidence of rises in student achievement levels over 3 or 4 years, but this was not constantly upwards, reflecting the natural variability of students, teacher expertise, and to some degree the priority given to a curriculum area, including professional development.

Professional development was regarded as a crucial condition of work, with whole-school approaches generally being seen as of greater benefit to school-wide teaching and learning than individually targeted professional development. Schools found it useful to identify professional development needs from analysing data on student learning. Most professional development was related to improving achievement in curriculum areas. Many schools focused on literacy and numeracy.

Reflective question

  • Looking at the case study schools and the common elements between them, do any reflect where your school has been or is in its improvement journey?


Mitchell, L., Cameron, M., & Wylie, C. (2002). Sustaining school improvement: Ten primary schools’ journeys. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research, Te Rūnanga o Aotearoa mō te Rangahau i te Mātauranga.

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