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Ngatea Primary School – Leading change

Ngatea Primary School is a full primary with a roll of 313 situated on the Hauraki Plains. Over the past five years teaching and learning has been transformed to flexible, collaborative learning environments that promote student agency.

Principal Neil Fraser and Deputy Principal Karla Hull explain how they focus on meeting the needs of all learners, staff included. Their school vision encourages them to take risks to make strategic, well informed school wide changes.

Ngatea Primary School logo.

What was the reason for change?

Ngatea Primary was a very traditional 1960's school with single cell classrooms when Karla arrived as lead teacher in the senior school (year 7–8) in 2011. She embarked on digital learning with three "cows" (computers on wheels) for three classrooms, the beginning of learner access to devices at the school. The recently updated school vision helped guide the changes taking place, including the digital pathway. Leaders saw the need to be more collaborative and the whole school, including staff and the Board of Trustees, began using G-suite (Google docs).

From using digital devices we could see that learning could look quite different, that students could have more control of their learning.

“From there we began to look at how best we could meet the needs of the students rather than the students coming to the ‘system’.”  


Initially this was driven by the leadership team. In time teachers could see the need and helped to drive it. They had a key interest in change once they saw the impact on students. Some teachers naturally took it on board and others could see what was happening so they became interested too.

What was the main focus for change?

Ngatea Primary had a very strong vision statement in 2011, which really helped to focus on the direction for learning.

“It helped new staff who came on board. It helped me when I first started. It was a vision for the whole school and it led the learning.”


However it was a page long and it included a lot of what we intended to do. By 2015 we had passed that intent so we revised the vision to a much shorter statement.

Authors of our own learning in a collaborative and supportive community that lets play, passion, and purpose grow.

We established the Harakeke Trust in 2012 to purchase bulk devices on behalf of parents and to manage the devices, which are made available to other schools in the area if they want them. Harakeke Trust is working well for Ngatea Primary with close to 95% uptake by parents. The school currently employs an IT technician to service the 1:1 devices for year 4 to year 8 students.

Ngatea Primary - flexible learning spaces.

Changing the physical learning environment followed. After teaching collaboratively in existing spaces, in 2014 we opened doors between classrooms and never shut them again. The single cell classrooms became flexible learning spaces and new furniture was bought to suit the range of learning styles.

“At that time I was participating in the Springboard Trust strategic leadership programme. Leaders in the programme reinforced how important it was to have a vision statement, and a strategic plan sitting behind it, to meet that intent. And that’s how 'Authors of our own learning' came about.”


The focus shifted to students taking ownership of their learning and building the environment. We had lots of discussions around learner agency and students making good learning choices. The Board of Trustees was very much part of this vision.

“We can keep doing the same old or take the risk to do something different.”

Board chair, Andrew Gordon

Vision statement

Ngatea Primary School provides a student and community orientated environment that empowers, challenges, and motivates learners to explore and inquire into the richness of their personal and community contexts.

“Ui mai koe ki ahau he aha te mea nui o te ao, Māku e kī atu he tangata, he tangata, he tangata!”  

"Ask me what is the greatest thing in the world, I will reply: It is people, it is people, it is people!”

Ngatea Primary - students and vision.

Guiding principles under the vision statement: Creativity, Connecting, Resilience, Curiosity, Being Me

How did ‘I CARE’ come about?

When we reviewed our charter in 2010 we looked at values using an idea from the USA that we adapted for our students. We also have five levels of I CARE. Learning Powers were developed in 2015.

  • What do students do when they are stuck?  
  • What can we do to be the best learner we can be? 

We interviewed students as to what they did when they were stuck. The teachers were working collaboratively, often with other groups, so how could the children help themselves without having to rely on the teachers? This led to our learning powers that support learner agency for year 1–8.

What has worked well?

Staff have really been on board with the school vision. Our job as leaders has been to create the need for change, however the system and the environment has to allow for this change to occur. Some staff needed more time to get used to new ideas. It’s important to allow time and give more support where it’s needed.  

We completely stopped whole-school staff meetings for a term because teams needed to spend more time together.

In 2016 we looked at our curriculum framework and focused on building curiosity through learner inquiries.

“That students are able to engage in inquiry learning has been a highlight for me.”


We can have 80 different inquiries happening in our senior school at one time based on students' passions and interests. Some examples include...

  • How could we reduce our carbon footprint?
  • Is sugar the new drug?
  • Who is more of a threat – humans or sharks?
  • How do natural disasters affect us?
  • How can we support NZ made?
  • How are we protecting our fishing stocks for the future?
  • What impact does mining have on our community and environment?
  • What are alternative forms of energy and how will they change our lives?

Learning had changed so much for our students – we then asked; what does learning look like for our teachers? We have been using the Spiral of Inquiry to lead teacher PLD across the school since 2016. In terms 1 and 4 we cover school-wide initiatives, looking at data etc. In terms 2 and 3, PLD is personalised to meet teachers’ needs and is focused on their collaborative Spiral of Inquiry. Learner agency is equally as important for the teachers as it is for the students.

We asked ourselves at the beginning when making some of our changes:

  • What if school was not compulsory?
  • How do we get our students to want to come to school every day?
  • How do we talk to students and engage with students? 
  • What experiences will they have when they walk through the gates?

We’ll revisit that at our next Teacher Only Day.

We have a professional reading list for teachers and a library of educational books. New staff can see what has influenced our thinking.

Some people who have influenced us to support our learning: Tony Wagner; Stephen Murgatroyd; Sugata Mitra; Mark Osborne; Stephen Heppell; Dr Kenn Fisher; Stephen Harris; Kath Murdoch; Simon Breakspear

Our Board of Trustees has been very supportive throughout the change process. They allowed all staff to attend a thinking conference in Wellington in 2013. Next year the board is sending the leadership team to a conference in Australia.

“Neil is great at letting teachers have a go and supporting them.”


“Karla is great at asking the questions and having the learning conversations, focusing on the why.”


What were the challenges?

  • Ako Wordle.
    For some people change is a loss and therefore they need more time to get their heads around that, for example, de-privatising space can be challenging.
  • Keeping the whole system going while you are making the change. Keeping the wheels turning.
  • The need for conversation, compromise, ongoing meetings, considering others before making an impulsive decision. Critical and professional conversations need to be held in time. Private, honest, and public unity are required to build relational and professional trust.
  • We are creatures of habit so we go back to what we’ve always done really quickly. We need to continually reflect on how we are using our learning spaces – “Are we defaulting back to single cell pedagogy?”  
  • We created some "elephants" on the way. For example, our learner profiles had to be changed so we could be more collaborative with students and work smarter. Initially we made our learner profiles too complex and created more work. We learned quickly to have fewer goals.

What has been the impact for students?

We can say that our behaviour management incidents have dropped by 80% since 2014. Students are more independent. They can talk about their learning goals and their learning with confidence. We’ve worked on building inclusiveness and all students being able to talk about their learning. Parents often tell us their children are having learning conversations with them.

Our achievement data levels haven’t drastically improved… yet.

We’re very conscious that reading, writing, maths shouldn’t dominate but it’s hard to move away from that. The focus should be on student engagement and reading, writing, and maths should fall out of that. We’ve also focused on enabling the key competencies and preparing students for the future.

How do we measure creativity? This is something we’re working on.

What advice would you give to other schools starting out on this journey?

  • Have lots of community consultation – don’t be put off at first with small numbers.
  • You need the school vision behind you – Be sure of it so you can sell it. We sold: collaborative learning spaces; the way we reported to parents; doing our own technology (rather than going to the local high school); play based learning (introduced in term 2).
  • We often get asked about teacher collaboration – it’s about having professional relationships to provide the best learning. If teachers are friends or become friends, that’s even better. Collaboration is key and something we revisit constantly. Collaboration is more than organising and getting along.  
  • Be transparent!
  • We changed our existing learning spaces for our students not because we were forced into a new learning space. We are driven by the pedagogy and the people, not the environment.
  • It takes time. Schools should realise we have taken five years to get to this stage.
  • Just take a risk and do it. Fail fast and move on. Don’t be anxious, otherwise you’ll wait too long to make it happen.

“Have the passion and support and vision.”


“Once you bring in one change it leads to others.”  


Published on: 24 Jan 2018