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Future Focused Inquiries: Te Atatu Community of Schools build Collaborative Practice

Has your cluster been together for a long time or have you just started to connect? Are you the complex secondary school or the minority early childhood service trying to figure out how you fit into the cluster? Where does teaching as inquiry feature in your cluster actions? How future focused and collaborative is your cluster or network?

The Te Toi Tupu Future Focused Inquiry (FFI) programme, founded on teaching as inquiry, builds evaluative capability in leaders and/or teachers. The programme’s emphasis is on future focused education. The programme works predominantly with teachers and leaders to build their evaluative capability in future focused ways. In the past two years the programme has included support to build evaluative capability using Spirals of Inquiry and to emphasise future focused education at cluster leadership level. In 2014 the Hereora Cluster received that support and in 2015, the Te Atatu Cluster is engaged in the programme. 

Common signs that a network of schools is effectively collaborating include:

  • commitment to a common, needs-based goal
  • use of inquiry and knowledge-building cycles
  • the presence of challenge and critique practices
  • a focus on evidence-based needs, and
  • the presence of role clarity and relational trust among network members.

(Sweeney, R., 2011)

When applying this to the FFI programme, it is important to ensure that the focus is on the use of inquiry and knowledge-building cycles at both cluster and school level. This can be a complex task with a range of schools working together with varied contexts to take into consideration.

This impact story illustrates how collaborative practice began development in the Te Atatu cluster of ten schools (Matipo, Peninsula, Glendene, Tirimoana, Te Atatu Intermediate, Edmonton, Rutherford, Rangeview, and Freyberg schools and Rutherford College).

A model of collaboration - The Te Atatu Cluster

The Te Atatu cluster of schools were invited into the FFI programme by the Ministry of Education and Te Toi Tupu early in Term 1, 2015. The cluster leaders had already started working together, building foundations for collaboration. Our facilitation fostered a cluster inquiry into future focused collaborative practice. The aim was to prepare the cluster to collaborate in order to:

  • Raise student achievement 
  • Improve teacher effectiveness through improved school and cluster level inquiry processes and practices

What happened

After an initial day with FFI Facilitator, using research on collaboration, the cluster leaders recognised that the Te Atatu Cluster was an emergent cluster. The cluster had also recently been approved to be part of the Ministry’s IES Community of Schools project. Together with the FFI facilitator they recognised that there was good relational trust between schools at leadership level and within schools there was a strong foundation in this regard on which they could build. 

Future Focused Inquiries 1Collaboration was at leadership level and the leaders agreed that collaborative practice was “surface level” as they were in their early days as a group. There were some effective practices occurring in schools in relation to analysis and use of evidence and some schools in the cluster had moderated together or worked on transition with the secondary and ECE sectors. Initially there was no involvement at the FFI sessions from ECE and secondary leaders. Overall, the cluster was in a great starting place to begin to build a vision based on common needs/interests/priorities and unique or common strengths.

Future Focused Inquiries 2

Cluster leaders were supported to reflect on their actions over time using Spirals of Inquiry (Kaser and Halbert, 2014). Initial sessions during the first half of the year were about building professional relationships and locating common ground on which they could then build to develop a cluster vision and focus areas. At a macro level, the cluster leaders were moving slowly through the Scanning and Focusing phases of the Spirals of Inquiry, ensuring that they continuously gathered and represented the perspectives of learners, whānau, teachers and others back in their schools. The local secondary school quickly became involved through this process. 

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Cluster leaders were also supported in the FFI programme to identify the drivers of Innovative Learning Environments and future focused education practices. They were also supported to explore their own beliefs about future focused education before developing a clusterwide definition of this. This work enabled the leaders to go back to their schools to have quality conversations about future focused education with all other cluster members. 

Future Focused Inquiries 3Leaders and teachers explored learning sciences using the Learning Sciences research discussed in the Innovative Learning Environments Project and the Seven Principles of Learning have become part of the cluster’s focus in relation to future focused education. 

Locating common ground was a necessary part of beginning the cluster journey. This was enabled through a mapping process where leaders worked together in small groups to create a picture of the current situation in each of their schools, locating their priorities and values and then working together to identify the commonalities. The FFI Facilitator supported the leaders to answer the questions “What do you have in common?” and “What are you prepared to collaborate on?”. They used Learning Talk (Dalton, 2013) resources to foster the language of inquiry.

The impact

The FFI Programme work in the Te Atatu cluster in the first half of 2015 led to the cluster identifying some key focus areas where there was potential for deep collaboration. These were:

  • ICT
  • Innovative Learning Environments and Modern Learning Practices
  • Effective teaching and learning in Writing
  • Teaching as inquiry processes

However, as the cluster explored their beliefs about learning and teaching, and developed deeper understandings about their definitions of future focused education for their contexts, they explored various resources including:

This led to an evolving reiteration of key focus areas for the cluster where they explored future focused areas to work on together such as Digital Citizenship and enabling students to learn outside the hours of 9am-3pm.

FFI story huiA Story Hui process was used to evaluate cluster progress. This revealed that over the course of the workshops, leaders have become more aware of the importance of the perspectives of others, not only across schools and services, but also within their own communities. This is an area where they will continue to improve, challenging themselves to involve more than the people in schools at earlier stages in their thinking in order to build trust and genuinely co-constructed processes and practices.

It takes time, trust and respect to have the multiple conversations about what schools are genuinely prepared to collaborate on. It also takes a level of confidence and support for leaders to share what they are learning with their communities, as they are learning it themselves. The cluster leaders are now ready to share their beliefs about learning and teaching and future focused education with their communities so that a cluster vision can emerge. 

Where to from here?

Leaders are committed to spreading the cluster visioning process back in their schools and communities through the following: 

  • maps with learners, parents, teachers, and others to gather their perspectives on school priorities and cluster focus areas
  • share what has been happening in the FFI sessions. The leaders have been encouraged to blog about the sessions; talk to parents at the gate; get the message out that they are a cluster at the early stages developing a focus and vision - with them, rather than for them.

Following this, the leaders will share the range of perspectives in order to inform next steps for the cluster. They will also be supported to build the cluster vision, values/beliefs and principles using Julia Atkin’s (1996) work


  • Atkin, J. (1996). From values and beliefs about learning to principles and practice
  • Dalton, J. (2013). Learning Talk: Develop the Art of Inquiry
  • Dumont, H., Istance, D., and Francisco, B. The Nature of Learning: Using research to inspire practice (2010). Practitioner guide from the Innovative Learning Environments Project.
  • Kaser, L., and Halbert, J. (2014) Spirals of Inquiry for equity and quality. The BC Principals’ & Vice-Principals’ Association: Canada
  • Sweeney, R. (2011). An exploration of the collaborative practices within learning networks of New Zealand schools. Unpublished Master of Education thesis. Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.  

For more information about Future Focused Inquiries, visit the FFI project page or contact Rebbecca Sweeney.