Two researchers from NZCER think they've found the answer, and it has nothing to do with socio-economic status, proximity to the city, size or ethnicity. It doesn’t even have all that much to do with literacy, specifically.

Eliza de Waal and Jan Eyre set out to investigate six diverse primary schools, which, based on National Standards data from 2012-16, appear to have made greater-than-average sustained shifts in literacy achievement.

The results of their investigation are published in Exploring literacy: How six schools lifted achievement, published in April.

What researchers found most fascinating when speaking to staff at the schools, is overwhelmingly they all started talking about factors that were not specifically related to literacy.

“They talked about their school culture and the way they do things,” de Waal explains.

"They talked about building a culture that we've ended up calling ‘safe’.

“...they said things like ‘the students feel like they belong here so that they have the confidence to explore their learning and to share ideas without judgment’, so that kind of element of safety” she recalls.

“Of course, there were other schools where safety for them meant physical safety; it was the place they could rely on being each day.”

Eyre and de Waal have created a triangle which depicts the three-pronged approach to literacy outcomes they found across all six schools, despite their characteristic differences.   

A well-defined, positive school culture sits at the bottom of this triangle, forming the foundation.

De Waal says such a culture was predicated on building strong relationships.

“There was one school, for instance, who changed their lunchtimes around so that it was a shared relaxed eating time, staff were with the children and they'd have informal conversations, for instance,” the researcher recalls.

“They also went out of their way to build relationships with parents.

“So schools would challenge their teachers to build relationships with the parents and find ways to encourage parents who may not be that confident about being in school, to come into school and be there.”

A second common thread that was identified, is a strategic focus on literacy.

“So they had all identified that that was an area that they wanted to improve.

“It was often in their strategic plan and they focused their PLD on improving aspects of literacy teaching,” de Waal says

The schools focussed on student agency and visible learning, and often made a deliberate effort to help teachers understand how students were progressing across the whole school, not just in their year level.  

The third factor which was present in all six schools was coherence.

The researchers found each school had a leader who made a point of taking everyone along on the literacy journey.

“Everybody in the community, teachers, teacher aides, teacher aides were usually involved in the PLD as well,” de Waal says.

“They would bring the community along and the parents as well as the students, and we realised that was a sense of coherence.

“Without that idea of a coherent approach that's woven through all the foundational and the literacy factors, then it would fall over.”

Now that the report is available to download from NZCER’s website, de Waal hopes the examples provided will be useful for other schools wanting to improve their literacy outcomes.

“I think the strength of this report is that we've ticked six quite different schools and we've included quite a lot of detail about the different ways that these schools went about this.

“We hope those other schools will recognise aspects of themselves in some of these stories and will find useful practical ways that they could change some of their own practice.”

“I mean, the fact that we've had responses from people wanting to talk to us and know more about it has been absolutely delightful,” she says.

“I think it reflects the great work that lots of these schools are doing.”