Learning from failure

Martine Udahemuka
Insights Newsletter
17 February, 2017

Last week The Herald premiered Under the Bridge, a three-part documentary about life in Papakura High School: a low decile school plagued with a reputation for persistent poor performance.

Despite increasing government support, the school’s achievement statistics remained among the lowest in the country and its student roll continued to decline as students and teachers lost hope.

The Herald followed the journey of the new principal brought in to fix the school in 2016.

Papakura’s story is not unique. The Initiative’s 2015 analysis of school performance reviews found that for many schools, failure had become business as usual. Even more concerning, we found that the majority of persistently underperforming schools disproportionately affected students from poorer homes.

But New Zealand does not have a monopoly on these challenges. We thus looked abroad to see how other education systems are managing these issues.

I was keen to learn of the outcomes of the reforms recently implemented in the UK and the US.

In 14 days, I visited five jurisdictions across both countries, went to six schools, and interviewed more than forty people.

I spoke to those affected by school failure and met with those charged with fixing it. I met with students, educators and their unions, bureaucrats and politicians, and academics to learn about how strategies to reform schools had panned out. 

The jurisdictions took different paths to tackle the challenges. What became clear quickly was that it took willing communities, committed school leaders and pragmatic politicians to spearhead the reforms in both countries.

Success was evident where politicians and school leaders were willing to talk about school failure and take action to correct it. And crucially, the reforms put the students at the centre of all changes.

Findings from my journey are documented in Fair and Frank: Global Insights for Managing School Performance, to be released on Monday.

Students typically stuck in failing schools are the very students for whom a high quality education may be their key out of the poverty trap. Papakura’s new principal agrees that many students there come from tough backgrounds but fairly asserts: “Those deficit factors in themselves can’t be used as an excuse for young people failing to achieve at school.”

Fair and Frank showcases how innovative approaches have transformed the lives of similar students in the US and the UK.

Insights from these countries will inform our recommendations in the final report in the series to address New Zealand’s own schooling challenges.

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