Building Effective Kāhui Ako

In 2017- 2019, the Ministry of Education offered Expert Partner support to leaders of Kāhui Ako as they built collaborative practices and took action to meet their achievement challenges.

Expert Partners acted as critical friends to strengthen evidence gathering practices, critical data analysis skills, problem definition, and evidence-informed action planning. This support was designed to keep Kāhui Ako on track for developing robust and quality achievement challenges and associated plans that would accelerate student achievement.

Three of our Expert Partners, Michael, Garry and Steve, reflect on their experience and synthesise what they’ve learnt over the last three years.

As we reflected, a number of common themes emerged and, not surprisingly, they were all consistent with Distinguished Professor Viviane Robinson’s description of what she saw as being the key requirements for effective Kāhui Ako in her article: ‘Communities of Learners: What are the Implications for Leadership Development?’ What has become evident is how absolutely crucial for success these features have actually turned out to be. Although our reflections below define the themes differently, it is easy to see Robinson’s framework in them.

What we learnt

1.    A strong purpose

A strong purpose for working together is needed. Robinson refers to this as ‘Goal Setting’ and ‘Goal persistence’. Sure, all Kāhui Ako were required to have achievement challenges, but those that became more committed over time to collaborative working were the ones that began with very clear, relevant challenges. The challenges might have been to do with improvement in NCEA achievement standards, or better community engagement of one sort or another, or stronger student agency and well-being, or something else of importance to the Kāhui Ako. But if the aim, whatever it was, was not strongly felt by all, and relevant to all, the building of committed, collaborative, focussed relationships did not happen. Kāhui Ako for whom the initial goal was unashamedly a ‘resource-grab’ have tended to drift. They grabbed the resource, but found no greater, shared purpose. Some Kāhui Ako did start by merely trying to figure out how to access the Ministry resources on offer, but then discovered that there were things across their community that they did want improved. It took them a while to find a strong purpose, but once they found it, they were off!

Maintaining a focus on that purpose (goal persistence) in the face of multiple distractions is often a far greater challenge than setting agreed goals in the first place.

As Robinson notes:

“How will CoL leaders and advisors challenge and support those members who have long standing patterns of goal proliferation, or who make arguments for the uniqueness of their contexts? What training do CoL leaders and members need to quickly establish group norms of respectful challenge and support?             

… Trust is built by others seeing leaders as interpersonally respectful, holding personal regard for members, having integrity and displaying competence in the role. Trust is easy to build when everyone agrees, but it is the diversity of a CoL that is intended to be a major source of learning. What happens when people differ and disagree about the importance of student data, about whether and how it should be shared, and about the adequacy of progress? How is an initially low trust environment turned around by CoL leadership? What capabilities are needed?

I.    The courage and ability to make the undiscussable discussable

II.    Ability to tolerate and harness conflict

III.    Ability to craft integrative and inclusive problem solutions after appropriate inquiry

We agree with this analysis and have repeatedly seen the struggles of Kāhui Ako leaders to deal with their own capability limitations. It requires a different set of skills to lead a collective. On reflection, we think that insufficient resource has been allocated to enabling leaders to really assess and build their capability to lead a collective enterprise.

2.    A Theory for Improvement

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Raising achievement or boosting progress is a complex problem. Effective solutions arise from effective problem analysis and the subsequent construction of a theory for improvement. This theory connects the changes that we think should be made within the Kāhui Ako to the desired improvement through an implementation plan or process. For example, if we want to improve progress and achievement in some way, we may shape a theory that says that students will learn better if they have more agency, and that student agency will improve if our teaching better supports students to become agentic. To implement this theory requires both a measure of how good teachers are at agentic teaching currently, and a process for helping them to improve. Once this process is in place, progress in agentic teaching needs to be monitored, as does the impact on student agency and learning. For example, what is the evidence that students are more agentic in their learning, and what evidence is there that they are learning better? This then allows us to test our theory that students will become better learners, and therefore make more progress, if they become more agentic.

What we noticed was that there appeared to be a correlation between a clear, shared, theory of improvement and the performance of the across-school teachers, and to some extent of all Kāhui Ako staff. It makes sense that if this theory is clear, is shared, and is understood, then it provides a context within which all staff can see what their role is, how they will be supported, and by whom.

3.    Sound evaluative tools

One of the issues that can weaken a strong sense of collective purpose is an absence of adequate tools for monitoring actions along the logic of the theory chain. If the Kāhui Ako really does want to improve some aspect of student learning, then it makes sense to have sensible evaluative tools that will provide sound evidence of progress. If you really want to get somewhere, you have to know that you are on the right track, are making progress, or have arrived. We helped Kāhui Ako leaders think through what constitutes evidence of improvement in student learning, or agency, or teacher efficacy etc., how to collect that evidence, and how to evaluate that evidence, so that sound decisions could be made about what to do next. For all three of us, this was our major contribution.

We helped leaders to make sound decisions about progress across their Kāhui Ako, using tools such as the Curriculum Progress Tools and NCEA data. We also helped them in cases where the Kāhui Ako wished to focus on improving well-being, cultural capability, teacher efficacy, assessment capability, community cohesion and empowerment, key competencies and capabilities, or learning engagement, or on measuring stuff that they had never measured before. For some Kāhui Ako it got quite complex, but as the information was collected it began to deliver a sound guide as to progress and how to enable further improvement. Measurement has to be done, and has to be done well, if progress is to be seen. We estimate that by the end of 2019 about 11 of the 14 Kāhui Ako we worked with were well on the way to dependable progress measures. Nationally, we suspect there are many Kāhui Ako still without good measures. It is not uncommon to hear heart-breaking honesty such as this from a lead principal: “I have no concrete evidence that anything we have done has made a difference”. All that work and effort, and no idea whether any student is better off.

4.    Role clarity and continuity

The roles of the Kāhui Ako lead principal, the school leaders, and the across-school teachers (ASTs) need to be made clear very early. At the broadest, most strategic level, all of the roles need to be about supporting each school to address the achievement challenges, not about resolving each challenge as a result of their individual personal efforts. The concept of ‘we are all in this together’ is important, but it is equally important to know who is responsible for what. Establishing and maintaining professional relationships and trust is crucial. All school leaders within a Kāhui Ako need to shape a common understanding of each role, of role boundaries, and of how to be productively accountable to their peers for how well they carry out their role.

We also observed the importance of role continuity of role. Kāhui Ako are large and complex organisations and it requires considerable skill and commitment from the leader(s) to really consolidate the collaborative relationship amongst the school leaders and their staff. When the leader changes, or when the ASTs change, there is always a period of uncertainty and a slow down in momentum as the new people build their role capability and their understanding of the Kāhui Ako purpose, theory for improvement, and evaluative approach. For many school-based personnel this is substantial learning that does take time. The Kāhui Ako that seem to us to have made the most progress are the ones that have experienced the least change in personnel. It has been wonderful to see the emergence of clear, confident, leadership capabilities in ASTs who have enjoyed the privilege of working within their Kāhui Ako for two or more years.


5.    Cycles of collaborative inquiry

A Kāhui Ako is a group of schools that have agreed to work together to achieve multi-year goals. This requires collaboration across multi-year processes of evaluation or inquiry. Each year brings new problems to be solved. Those problems are not only the Kāhui Ako-wide ones, but also the ones that inevitably arise in each and every school. And then there is the third set of problems - those that involve the tension between the legitimate aims of each individual school, and the overall goals and plans of the Kāhui Ako. For example, if a focus of the Kāhui Ako is on improving mathematics outcomes for students, but that is not a primary need for one of the schools, how does the Kāhui Ako come to accommodate that school? If this type of issue is not adequately resolved, then commitment to the Kāhui Ako will lessen. This all means that each individual school leadership team will encounter numerous obstacles to success and, as Robinson points out, is likely to need help with:

  • Moving from indirect to respectful, direct discussions of problems. Indirectness is particularly evident in conversations in which leaders are attempting to address variable teaching quality.
  • Stages of inquiry that are typically skipped – particularly the rigorous analysis of the problem as leaders rush to implement a solution – “to do something”. The school-based causes of the problem are also not thoroughly investigated due to the difficulties described in (i) above [in the earlier quote].
  • Shared professional accountability. How are high expectations established in a culture which may have been content with low expectations? How do Kāhui Ako members hold each other accountable if they have not met agreed deadlines, or are speaking in ways that diminish rather than increase trust?

Collaboration to achieve a multi-year goal is tough work for each and every leader. It requires considerable professional courage, personal vulnerability, and commitment to the goal to progressively inquire into and discover what they personally need to learn in order to fully play their part in achieving the Kāhui Ako goal. In our view, it is this aspect that is perhaps the toughest to tackle and the one that we should have focussed more on in our support work.

Three years is a short time and we are sad that our Expert Partner work has ended. Collaborations across schools need to be long term, and the problems of achieving really effective multi-school communities has really just begun. It would be such a waste if the momentum was to be lost.


The authors

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Michael Absolum

Michael is the founder and director of Evaluation Associates and a thought leader in assessment for learning. He is the author of Clarity in the Classroom, which is recognised by educators as the best New Zealand text on assessment for learning.




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Steve Edwards

Steve is one of our National Managers of Professional Learning and Development. He has extensive experience in strategically leading professional learning and development through leadership in projects such as GROW Waitaha, the Consortium for Professional Learning, and the Christchurch based Assess to Learn (AtoL) programme.



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Garry Taylor

Garry is our National Manager of Assessment and Evaluation. Garry has led our e-asTTLe Support contract and has considerable expertise in Curriculum Progress Tools, e-asTTle, and OTJs. He has a passion for utilising assessment for learning principles within the classroom.


Although Ministry of Education support for Expert Partners has finished, Evaluation Associates consultants are still able to assist Kāhui Ako to reach their goals. 

 See how we can support your Kāhui Ako HERE.


Tags: leadership kāhui ako assessment for learning expert partners


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