Overcoming disadvantage is a tough ask. But it is a job schools are battling head-on as they seek to help all students achieve their potential. Kirsty Johnston reports in part three of our series looking at the great education divide.

It was a simple idea - ask children to tell their teachers and families how they like to learn. Get them to draw a picture. And then talk about it - with other teachers, and other schools - and use what the students said to help them catch up.

"It's crazy, really, that we hadn't thought of it before," says Dr Brian Annan, the brains behind the "Learning Maps" idea.

"It's an unbelievable concept that people coming together to talk about kids' learning is a new idea."

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The maps were part of a $7 million, three-year initiative called Learning and Change Networks (LCN) trialled in almost 400 primary schools nationwide, which saw student scores on reading, writing and maths lift by 24 per cent in one year.

LCN are one of the dozens of initiatives to be trialled with underachieving kids in New Zealand in an attempt to lift performance.

Data shows most of those who struggle to keep up are from disadvantaged backgrounds, and are also likely to be Maori, Pasifika or have special education needs.

Data shows the achievement gap between rich and poor in New Zealand is particularly wide compared to other countries. More worryingly, an OECD report in 2011 found our schools are the worst in the world at helping students overcome the disadvantages of being born into poor families.

At Avondale Primary in West Auckland, LCN has been running for almost two years.

Deputy principal Kim Wilkinson says the way teachers see their pupils has totally changed in that time.

"It's really child-centred, as opposed to me learning the content, and not thinking about the children. We'd expect the kids know all this stuff," she said.

"Now we are finding out what they know first, and what they like, who lives at home, what language they speak. As a teacher it's really important."

Some of the findings have been hard-going. While they found the kids loved sharing time, they had three boys say "we sit on the mat too long" which gave the teacher pause.

The strategy includes a heavy focus on National Standards data, an expert facilitator, work with other schools, wider network meetings about common issues, and families.


Wednesday: A day in the lower deciles: We go inside some of our poorest schools
Yesterday: The long tail of the long tail: Why does the underachievement gap persist?

Ms Wilkinson says parents loved the maps. The school now used them at family conferences, to encourage families to get involved at home. That can be confronting.

"Sometimes dad isn't on the map. And that can be very hard, for them to feel like they're out of the equation."

The maps also help teach students about their learning, with kids as young as 7 able to articulate goals, like learning their times tables by the end of the year.

Now we are finding out what they know first, and what they like, who lives at home, what language they speak. As a teacher it's really important.


In a Year 4 and 5 class, the kids proudly display their maps. They have pictures of themselves in the middle, and lines splaying in all directions, sometimes with drawings of where they learn (home, school, church) and who helps them (big brother, mum, nan).
LeBron Houpapa, 9, knows exactly what helps him best.

"Working by myself. People talking to me is a distraction," he says.

He's confident, and says he doesn't need help at home, "because I know the most". He uses a computer to play Mathletics, an education programme.

Angel Togia, 7, says her big brother helps her at home, while Hayley Fuimaono, 8, likes to work in the quiet.

LCN is now wrapping up as a new nationwide programme called "Communities of Schools" begins.

The learning maps have not been taken over to the new initiative, although Dr Annan has started a business named Infinity Learn, where he will carry the project on.

"I don't see LCN ideas disappearing at all - rather re-appearing in new clothes," he says.
Avondale Primary will continue using the maps.

It can't be part of a Community of Schools yet and the high school in its area doesn't want to be involved.

Ms Wilkinson said they still feel "pretty green" with the idea, and it would have been nice to have continued support for a bit longer.

The network's facilitator will continue to help out - on a volunteer basis - this year.
"I really believe they're an essential part of the classroom," Ms Wilkinson said. "Something tangible that really helps."

Ethan the Incredible, a children's picture book inspired by Te Horo boy Ethan Wyman, who lost his fight with cancer in 2012, aged 10. Photo / Supplied
Ethan the Incredible, a children's picture book inspired by Te Horo boy Ethan Wyman, who lost his fight with cancer in 2012, aged 10. Photo / Supplied

What else is working?


The University of Auckland's Starpath project has been running for 11 years. Although its government funding has ceased, the university has given it $600,000 to continue for two more years (albeit at a reduced level). Focused on raising achievement for Maori and Pacific students in Auckland and Northland, Starpath experts work in high schools to help build data knowledge, improve academic counselling, set up in-depth family conferencing and offer NCEA advice. They work to ensure priority kids aren't being fobbed off with soft options, and can progress to university if they wish.

Positive Behaviour For Learning (PB4L)

The Ministry of Education provides $10,000 per school per year to help schools improve behaviour through this well-regarded initiative. It helps schools build a culture where positive behaviour and learning is a way of life. It's not about changing students; it's about changing the environment, systems and practices schools have in place to support them to make positive behaviour choices. In 600 schools nationwide.

Reading Together

Reading Together is a research-based school literacy programme that helps parents to support their children's reading at home. It's in all decile 1-4 primary schools and some decile 5 schools. It's low cost and high impact. Statistics show children have gained a full year in their reading level within 12 weeks of starting the programme.


The Manaiakalani schools are a group in Tamaki, Auckland, that use technology to facilitate accelerated learning. Parents pay a small weekly fee for all kids to have a netbook, and wireless internet is provided at a very low cost. Its results were so good it has expanded with philanthropic funding this year. The Ministry of Education's chief data scientist Stuart McNaughton is involved with the research arm of the project, saying it has been particularly significant in improving students' writing. Dr McNaughton says there is an "ongoing need" to collect evidence to ensure interventions are working.


Achievement in Multi-cultural High Schools is a group of nine urban secondary schools where a high proportion of the student population come from Maori and Pacific Island backgrounds. It was initiated in 1995, and although funding ran out in 2001, the schools continue to work together on leadership, increasing their rolls, community relationships and providing access to alternative education. It is credited for popularising the idea that social workers are a valuable asset in schools.

Avondale Primary school students Hayley Fuimaono, LeBron Houpapa, and Angel Togia show their learning maps. Photo / Greg Bowker
Avondale Primary school students Hayley Fuimaono, LeBron Houpapa, and Angel Togia show their learning maps. Photo / Greg Bowker

What more we could do to close the achievement gap

1. More support for kids with learning needs

Labour education spokesman Chris Hipkins says he would like to see the amount of support for children with special learning needs increased.

"I would also like to see more targeted programmes like Reading Recovery available in all schools, along with similar programmes in maths. Having said all of that, we can't simply pretend that the lives kids lead outside the school gate don't have an impact."

2. Schools as community hubs

Green Party education spokeswoman Catherine Delahunty says the decile model ought to remain, and her party would also implement its school hubs policy for decile one to three schools. These would include a paid facilitator, school nurse, school food programme and other services determined by the community and the school.

3. Targeted support instead of deciles

New Zealand First education spokeswoman Tracey Martin says there should be equity funding based on individual children's needs, rather than a decile rating or other arbitrary measures based on a parent community. Equity funding ought to be tied to student achievement, so those with higher learning needs receive more funding. "We also believe that any funding should stay with that child for as long as they require it."

4. Keep the deciles, change the publication

Waikato University education academic Martin Thrupp says we should continue to base decile funding on census data, and definitely not tie it to school performance. But he says the scale of funding should be less obvious. "There is no reason to exaggerate the stigmatising of schools by providing such a simple one to 10 scale as we are doing now with the decile approach."

5. Never mind schools, just give it to families

Max Rashbrooke, editor of Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis, says his favourite piece of research on the topic was a meta-study of the literature on spending on kids, which shows that if you want to raise a poor child's school results, giving their family $1000 is just as effective as $1000 spent in the school system - and has lots of other spill-over effects for family functioning that the school spending doesn't have.