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School curriculum review

June 2010

This Update discusses ongoing curriculum review and how it supports schools to draw on the national curriculum to address the particular needs, interests, and circumstances of their students and communities.

Teacher and student using maths equipment.
School curriculum review

The New Zealand Curriculum empowers schools to exercise “the scope, flexibility, and authority they need to design and shape their curriculum so that teaching and learning is meaningful and beneficial for their particular communities of students” (page 37).

Curriculum review is a vital part of this designing and shaping. For every school, it is an ongoing process as the needs of students, their communities, and wider society change and as curriculum understanding deepens.

The principles of the New Zealand Curriculum are the foundations that should guide every aspect of curriculum decision making. As they review their curriculum, most schools find that they need to revisit their vision for their learners, for example, in relation to the principles of inclusion and having high expectations for all students. Typically they also think about the values they consider most important and the place of the key competencies in relation to the learning areas and the wider life of the school.

At the heart of the school curriculum are teachers’ decisions based on evidence about student learning and effective practice. A school curriculum must determine priorities for students’ learning, how to address these, and how to assess the students’ progress and the quality of teaching and learning. Schools with year 1–8 classes are required to report to parents at least twice a year in writing about their child’s progress and achievement in relation to the National Standards.

The following diagram identifies six possible areas to focus on during curriculum review, each of which is then discussed in detail. There is no set sequence for schools to follow as they explore these areas, and schools will use a variety of approaches to do so, depending on their circumstances.

Six focus areas for curriculum review.

If you cannot view or read this diagram, select this link to open a text version.

Exploring the big picture: The New Zealand Curriculum

The curriculum presents a vision for young people in New Zealand as lifelong learners who are confident and creative, actively involved in their learning, and able to contribute to a society that recognises the partnership between Māori and Pākehā and embraces other cultures.

Curriculum review happens in parallel with a focus on the theory and practice of teaching and learning, using the best evidence currently available and evidence-informed professional development.

Such teaching approaches are also implicit in Ka Hikitia – Managing for Success, which is founded on the belief that recognition of language, culture, and identity is a key to ensuring that Māori enjoy education success as Māori.

Rotorua Boys High School

Rotorua Boys’ High School celebrates the significance of Māori culture, knowledge, language, and identity. School programmes are based on te reo Māori taught in conjunction with tikanga Māori. The school also offers tikanga-based programmes in other curriculum areas to support the teaching of te reo Māori as a second language.

Students of te reo me ōna tikanga Māori also practice a variety of traditional and contemporary skills, that relate to their lives and support them to contribute to their whānau, marae communities, and the wider world.

Wairangi Jones, Director of Māori Achievement, comments that the students “have the opportunity to be Māori … They hear their own waiata, their own mōteatea, their own haka, their own dialect; they hear the stories of their tūpuna. When you have this incorporated into a school programme, as a Māori your own self-esteem is a lot stronger.”

Mike Green, the carving teacher, says that as students gain credits in his course “and other courses around the school, such as technology, Māori performing arts, and food technology, their self-esteem starts to build and then they have the confidence to target what they really want to do.”

View the Rotorua Boys’ High School school story >>

Engaging students, parents, and communities

Engaging students, parents, and communities is vital if they are to be partners in identifying desired outcomes for students and supporting their learning. This will involve building strong relationships, providing appropriate information, and discussing the data gathered. It will also involve setting targets for groups of students in relation to the National Standards.

Bluff Community School

Bluff Community School used questionnaires and discussion groups to build up a picture of what their parents, teachers, and students wanted. Parents and staff both ranked a number of values, and the parents were asked: “What do we want our students leaving school knowing, feeling, and being?” When the teachers’ and parents’ rankings of the values were compared, the first three values for both groups were found to be: respect, integrity, and excellence.

The school asked its community to think about what skills, knowledge, and understandings each student would need in their “Bluff Brainbox” in order to walk along their “Yellow Brick Road” of learning. Each paving stone on this road represents a desirable attribute, such as being a lifelong learner. The words on each brick were sourced from questionnaires, meetings, and discussions. The staff considered how the selected attributes related to the curriculum and how they could be supported in programmes of teaching and learning.

The school visualised a representative student called BoBB setting off on the Yellow Brick Road. With student input, a design group created a poster of BoBB, which was the focus of a celebratory launch. The poster and the character of BoBB became a ready reference point in the classroom: “What would BoBB do about this?” “What would go in your brainbox now that you’ve completed this task?” “Go and look at the Yellow Brick Road and find the words that match what we’re doing.”

Questions to prompt thinking and action

  • What do we want for our young people?
  • What values do we hold most strongly?
  • How do these values relate to the values of The New Zealand Curriculum?

The specific ways in which these values find expression in an individual school will be guided by dialogue between the school and its community.
The New Zealand Curriculum, page 10

Reviewing the school's vision

With a clear understanding of the vision, principles, values, and key competencies and of what your community wants for your students, you can take a fresh look at your own vision, mission, and goals.

Cotswold School

Cotswold School wanted to represent their vision as the Cotswold Way and to emphasise the school’s culture of caring. The school involved its parents, board, and staff and visited other schools as part of their consultation. The teachers engaged the students in a brainstorming exercise to identify words they associated with caring; then they collated the words into a form, which was sent home to the parents.

After the consultation, the school reworked their vision statement around five key words: caring, community, communication, creativity, and challenge.

Making sure that they took the school community with them, the teachers next examined classroom teaching practice and the key learning areas in relation to the vision statement.

The school emphasises the need to keep reviewing and revisiting their vision:

"We are currently in the process of changing some of our concepts. For example, although we want to have community as part of our vision statement, the word “community” doesn’t translate into action, so we’ve decided to rewrite this as community participation.

This process of discussing and thinking about the relevancy of the Cotswold Way is ongoing and evolving, and we expect that there will be changes as our needs and goals change."

The brochure From the New Zealand Curriculum to School Curriculum includes three helpful prompts for considering your school vision:

  • What is our current vision for our students and their learning? Is it clear and widely shared?
  • How does our school vision reflect the aspirations and identities of the different groups in our community?
  • How similar are our school vision and the vision found in The New Zealand Curriculum? What are the significant differences?

Challenging the school's curriculum

Part of reviewing your school curriculum involves challenging it to ensure it continues to meet the particular needs of your students. You also need to consider how the principles, values, key competencies, and learning areas of the national curriculum will be embodied in your teaching and learning programmes.

Schools are required to base their curriculum on the principles of the New Zealand Curriculum, to encourage and model the values, and to develop the key
competencies at all year levels.

The New Zealand Curriculum, page 37

You are free to determine how best to meet the needs of your students – whether, for example, to follow a subject- or topic-based approach or an integrated approach.

Although you may choose a particular focus within a learning area, over time you must ensure coverage of that learning area.

None of the strands in the required learning areas is optional, but in some learning areas, particular strands may be emphasised at different times or in different years. Schools should have a clear rationale for doing this and should ensure that each strand receives due emphasis over the longer term.

The New Zealand Curriculum, page 38

The school curriculum happens as each teacher works with groups of learners both inside and outside the classroom. This will be strengthened by taking the time to consider and develop shared understandings of the teaching approaches that have a positive impact on student learning. See the Effective Pedagogy section of The New Zealand Curriculum (pages 34–35) for more detail.

Papanui High School

Papanui High School’s initial concern was the underachievement of many students, particularly those it described as the “soggy middle” of achievers, who were not really extending themselves. Papanui’s journey began with several schooling improvement initiatives.

The teachers visited Papanui’s contributing schools to gain a better understanding of the educational contexts their students came from. They also developed their understanding of The New Zealand Curriculum and identified where changes in teaching and learning might need to occur.

The school trialled an approach that provided students in years 9 and 10 with authentic, theme-based, cross-curricular learning opportunities, and incorporated opportunities for teachers to become more familiar with the curriculum, particularly the key competencies. This programme, Connect 08, was run over three days after the seniors had left for exams.

Based on this experience, the school revised its approach for the following year, deciding that the year 9 teachers would together plan a programme in which:

themes may range from robots, kite flying, reducing waste, or worm farming to the new Graham Condon Leisure Centre in Papanui.

The teachers felt confident about managing this programme over a period of time, possibly including some double periods and EOTC.

An ongoing goal is to increase student engagement “by not only looking at what we teach but by reviewing and changing our pedagogy (the art of teaching or HOW we teach).” Looking ahead, the teachers want to:

  • explore the key competencies further and make them central to teaching and learning
  • continue with the focus on authentic cross-curricular learning
  • design more appropriate courses for students that meet their needs both in content and assessment.

Questions to prompt thinking and action

  • Are our students getting what they need from our school curriculum?
  • What are its strengths and weaknesses? What gaps are there?
  • What evidence do we have on its effectiveness?
  • What other evidence do we need to gather?
  • How is our understanding of curriculum changing?

Making changes

Having a vision is not enough. Curriculum review is likely to identify changes that need to be made. Data revealing underachievement requires us to do something differently. Changes may include choosing different content and different teaching strategies (and monitoring the impact of these changes on student achievement). They may include structural changes in areas such as timetabling and resources. Appraisal processes may need to develop to reflect new emphases. Such changes are part of the ongoing cycle of curriculum planning and review.

Whatever changes are made:

Curriculum design and practice should begin with the premise that all students can learn and succeed … and should recognise that, as all students are individuals, their learning may call for different approaches, different resourcing, and different goals.

The New Zealand Curriculum, page 39

Monitoring and evaluating the impact of changes

School curriculum design and review is an ongoing process that responds to the information gathered from the monitoring and evaluation of teaching and learning.

Schools need to know what impact their programmes are having on student learning. An important way of getting this information is by collecting and analysing school-wide assessment data. Schools can then use this information as the basis
for changes to policies or programmes or changes to teaching practices ...

The New Zealand Curriculum, page 40

Schools gather a great deal of assessment information, much of it for use at classroom level. This evidence needs to be used at school-wide level to evaluate the impact of teaching programmes on student learning and to inform decisions about changes to the school’s curriculum. The National Standards in reading, writing, and mathematics will clarify expectations for achievement and add to the school-wide picture for schools with year 1–8 students.

At any level, the ultimate aim of monitoring and evaluation is to improve students’ learning and teachers’ teaching.

Key messages about school curriculum review

Changing your school’s curriculum is likely to be a challenging and sometimes messy business. While packaged solutions might seem the easier route, the deepest, most meaningful learning outcomes for your students will be achieved when you work collectively and collaboratively with your school community.

Your school will not necessarily move through the areas of curriculum review outlined above in a given sequence. After all, schools are not only designing and building the aircraft – they are flying it at the same time!

Several key messages have emerged from the stories schools have been telling about their journey of curriculum review and change.

  • It is important to spend time helping teachers to understand the ideas that inform The New Zealand Curriculum and why change is necessary.
  • Engaging parents, whānau, the wider community, and iwi helps to establish a collective sense of purpose and direction. To achieve this takes time.
  • There is no single way to review a school’s curriculum, but focusing on the areas outlined above ensures that a review is comprehensive enough to provide a strong base for the school’s curriculum.
  • Each school will need to keep revisiting its curriculum, asking itself to what extent its intended achievement outcomes for students are being met. Curriculum review is not a one-off event but part of the normal cycle of school life.
  • The school’s curriculum, charter, and annual plan should be closely aligned.

Helpful resources

The New Zealand Curriculum Online

Key Competencies

Assessment Online


National Standards

Ka Hikitia

BES (Iterative best evidence syntheses)

Updated on: 21 Jul 2014