From his twelve years at Christchurch’s Burnside High School to now twelve months at Pukekohe High School, Principal Richard Barnett has been leading his school into its new chapter and is feeling positive about its successes and the future.
As a new leader, Richard has been transparent about his plans and changes for the school that starts with looking at the legacy of the school especially as it approaches its 100th year. He says it’s a team effort that involves the school, the board of trustees and community to take it from where it is to improve the expectations, standards and achievements to create those pathways for students when they leave.
“I want to say that in however many years’ time, when I’ve passed the baton on, that we’ve started from here, we’ve now reached this point and we’re ready for new changes and ideas.” says Richard.
Part of those changes include improving the school’s continued health and safety with fire alarm drills and evacuations that look after students and staff’s wellbeing on a very basic level, but the systems and processes surrounding achievement levels is where he says change is paramount.
“This is why we’re here and the function of the school is to realize the potential of students. Currently, we are working on students who are at possible risk of not achieving their Level One (NCEA) in one year. Looking at those groups of students, we need to know what are the systems we can put in behind to support them and enable them to recover. Maybe they’ve not had a great start to the year, maybe a subject or two isn’t working out for them, can we do anything to boost their numeracy and literacy to enable them to be successful in the next twelve months?”
With an expected growth rate in the next decade that could see Pukekohe High’s student roll rise from its current 1750 to 2,500, he says there needs to be more work done in order for the school to function at its highest capacity, and that it comes back to those achievement levels.
Richard says that while there is a certain number of staff that work within that student support area for now, it won’t be enough to accommodate the growth in the future and intends to put additional resources in that area so that the school can be responsive to the needs of students and their parents in order to cope really well.
“Coming from Burnside High, for a long time it was a super school and at one time it was the largest in New Zealand, and so being used to those systems and structures worked well in that school and its useful knowledge for us for the next five years plus.” says Richard.
He says having a national benchmark from the Education Review Office is also valuable in drawing a line in the sand that gives he and the school a clear direction of where they need to be, as the Education Review Office works alongside schools in a one to two year initial review period.
In addition to that, the school will have new buildings in order to accommodate the student growth and that also brings with it more ideas on what those buildings will look like and more importantly, what those methods and practises of teachings will be inside. With the thinking of other Auckland schools Richard says there is probably a reasonably conventional approach to teaching and learning so it becomes question of what does the school and its community want and the expectations surrounding that but says he is excited about the ideas of what that could look like in five to ten years’ time to meet the needs of the school’s diverse learners, especially as their school is and will remain the only high school in Pukekohe.
“That gives us a huge responsibility to meet all those aspirations and needs and especially the needs of students who may not value education. We have to cater for those students that may have entered high school with lower than expected rates of literacy, but we also have to cater for students who themselves and their families have high aspirations for university pathways and beyond. That’s a real challenge to cope with that broad range of students in so many ways which is where the systems and processes come into play, because we have to get that right.”
Transparency and open dialogue with the community has been another way to help lead those changes and the school has recently re introduced PTA meetings (Parent Teacher Association) and subject teacher conferences. The latter Richard says could be seen by most schools as a step backwards but feedback from parents has been overwhelming positive because families like to hear from individual subject teachers in that five minute slot and get a better understanding of where their child is at in their learning.
“It’s a step in the right direction, and while we don’t exactly have a way to measure how the community feels the school is at from a year ago, we have been working really hard and I talk to parents whenever I can with a lot of positive feedback.” says Richard.
In particular he is proud of the work with their Pacifica and Maori families over the last twelve months and recognised it was something the school wasn’t doing systematically enough. He says it’s something they are doing term by term by speaking to those communities and using some Ministry (of Education) expertise to work alongside the school and having that dialogue with parents about what is happening, what needs to happen and what is being done about things.
“In high school its different because as parents you become very involved at primary, maybe intermediate, but high school can be tricky. We want to try and change that and we still have a lot of work to do, I’m not pretending that we’ve got everything sorted.”
For the upcoming year of NCEA achievement Richard says they have tried to calibrate their goals and want to start with narrowing the gap between gender equity and Pacifica and Maori. He says for Pacifica and Maori students, the university entrance rate is too low compared to other Auckland schools that have been successful in their UE rates.
“That is one of our goals to work on and if we look at Maori achievement against the rest of the cohort, again there is that equity gap. We are working very deliberately to narrow that gap and a good example of how is, one of the things that parents has told us is they don’t feel there is much support towards career advice so we’re looking at bringing in, at least short term for a couple of years an outside programme that will help build that particular expertise.”
Richard says the plan will work with twenty students as a group and individually within that year level because the feedback they have had from assemblies is that aspirations are very high, so they have to work to meet those aspirations and there is probably a knowledge gap for the school and students on how do they reach those them.
He also recognises the importance to increase capacity for staff to have that knowledge when they work with Maori families and lift them up to where they want and need to be, and having that connection.
He says the feedback they have been getting from parents is that there is not enough support towards career advice, so they are looking at bringing in, at least for a couple of years, an outside programme that will help build that expertise.
Bridging the gap between students’ needs and their values is also important for the school and Richard says that on a day to day level they still have work to do regarding student behaviour in and outside the classrooms, especially with language and punctuality. He says it’s not just about having punitive consequences, it’s about student’s sense of self -worth.
“We are a part of our community and we can’t expect things like language to stop at the gate but nevertheless we have to lead and work with young people to increase their sense of self -worth and how they value each other. I think we can expect more from our young people, but again it’s an ongoing everyday dialogue and we need to get the expectation and aspirations up around the school.” says Richard
He says they have worked with students who helped create the school’s value matrix and that has already helped create an open discussion where some students have asked for a suggestions box. He says these are only small examples, but hopes they will add up in time because as a school, they want to listen and be responsive. Another focus is on bullying which does exist in the school. Richard says it’s not so much about the physical behaviour, but how students treat each other in a mental state, by exclusion. He says students have to help drive that and the school already has some amazing student leaders with plans next year to appoint a staff member to work more closely with those Year 13 groups.
Another area he is keen to explore further is the idea of setting up a horticulture academy in order to create more connections between students and growers in the community as there is a shortage of skilled young workers. With its proximity and the proposed polytechnic merge by the Government, Richard says horticulture is the obvious choice for the school but says there will be other areas of trade too like electronics and IT.
“It’s trying to meet students’ needs and we need those other roots and things in place. There certainly will be other areas in the future worth exploring.” Says Richard.
As for the rest of 2019, Richard says they will look forward to ten new classroom that are scheduled for 2021 and their continuation with the Education Review and the Ministry of Education to ensure those achievement levels for targeted learners are met.
“There is lots to do and also we are also looking ahead to 2020. We need to ensure that students in classroom are getting the success that they can.”