A principal who asked students to run a teacher training day has won the top job at New Zealand's biggest school, Rangitoto College.

The top-decile North Shore college has chosen Patrick Gale, the current head of Kaipara College, to lead its 180 teachers and 3260 students from the start of term 3.

Board deputy chairman Mike Shaw said there were about 50 applicants for the job.

Gale, 44, has only been a principal since he moved to Kaipara at the beginning of last year and said the jump up to heading the country's biggest school was "unexpected at this stage in my career".

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But he applied for the job because he lives nearby in Mairangi Bay with his wife, Kate, the Year 13 dean at Rangitoto, and their daughters aged 12 and 10. He taught for 14 years at another North Shore school, Rosmini College, where he rose to be associate headmaster.

"I know the community and the education scene on the North Shore very well. I think that has been an advantage for me," he said.

At Kaipara, a much smaller school with 756 students, Gale said he tried to get students involved in designing their own education.

"It's about getting student feedback and engaging them to determine what topics they may be studying and how they are being taught, and then it's changing models of assessment to meet their needs," he said.

The college asked a group of about 15 Maori students, drawn from all year levels, to run a teacher-only training day for teachers.

"They ran an 'Amazing Race' for teachers about developing teachers' knowledge of Maori culture and tikanga," he said.

"The staff worked alongside the students to co-construct those outcomes, and the students went away and designed a day and worked with some of our key senior leadership team to develop that.

"It was about empowering them and entrusting them to help the teachers, given that they had more knowledge of their needs than we did."

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He also targeted about 20 students at each year level who needed extra mentoring and support to get through the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA), lifting pass rates at Level 2 in Year 12 from 84 per cent to 97 per cent of those who sat the tests, and from 73 per cent to 86 per cent of all Year 12 students.

Born in Britain, Gale trained as a geography teacher and first came to New Zealand in 2001 on an exchange with Kiwi teacher Nixon Cooper, who is now principal of Rosmini College.

"I lived in Castor Bay in his house for a year and we just loved New Zealand, so we went back to the UK, got married, and I applied to come back to Rosmini College starting in 2003," he said.

He has played and coached hockey and rugby and is "a keen follower of all sports", representing school principals on the board of North Harbour Sport.