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In relation to all New Zealand schools, professional development makes a positive difference because it can be:

  1. contextualised to place;
  2. underpinned by gifted education theory;
  3. delivered by experts in the field; and
  4. long-term to enable the links between theory and practice.

Story: Turanga-Gisborne Cluster Model

  • Programme/School: Turanga-Gisborne Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) Cluster
  • Contact: Karen Bush
  • Contact details:


  • Story written by: Karen Bush
  • Date written: 2011

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed individuals can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has” (Mead, 1928).

Although the statement by the renowned anthropologist, Margaret Mead, was used in another time and context, these words ring equally true today in the field of gifted education. The sense of community and commitment to a cause go hand-in-hand. Nowhere are the resounding effects of such collegiality more apparent than in Turanga-Gisborne, a remote and regional part of New Zealand, where a cluster of primary schools have been working together for nine years on a project for gifted and talented students. Importantly, the main reason the principals set up the cluster in the first place was simply because “We knew we could do better” – Principal (Bush, 2011, p.75). Togetherness was their key to their cluster culture and future success and you can read more about their early work in an earlier case study.

There was the reassurance there was always someone there in a type of buddy system. – Principal (Bush, 2011, p. 95).

Indeed, the sustainability of the model in 2012 is testimony to the long-term impact of this adventurous and community-minded concept.

The initiative was based on the willingness of schools, both rural and urban, to come together to address the needs of their gifted and talented children. The strength of this collaboration was the powerhouse to drive the educational programme. This format was founded on a management committee consisting of principals, who supervised this provision in coalition with the local facilitation agency, Tairawhiti REAP (Rural Education Activities Programme). Notably, the cluster project was resourced by the Ministry of Education as a Talent Development Initiative from 2003-2005. The regard for this venture was then recognised by a second round of ministerial funding for an ‘Enhance TDI’ during the latter era of 2006 to 2008. Case study research carried out by Karen Bush, as a Massey University Master of Education thesis completed in 2011 was centred exclusively on the principals’ perceptions. The evidence-based nature of the cluster means that this unique brand is now considered an example of best practice for rurally-based gifted education. It was this ethos of collegiality which inspired the principals and REAP to work together to enhance the outcomes of their promising students. Essentially, the co-operative approach made the biggest difference. One principal confirmed succinctly, “Clustering was the way we could do best for those children” (Bush, 2011, p. 75). So a pioneering idea activated by a passionate group of leaders can bring about really good results for gifted children!

How did the principals work together?

In practice, there were some very clear ways established for working together. The cluster was premised on egalitarian ideology and mutual contribution. The voices of the six research participants perhaps tell the story best. (Pseudonyms are used to protect each principals’ anonymity. All quotes are cited from Bush’s 2011 thesis)

Certain qualities were expected within the high trust model of management. Chebz defined these attributes: “This is where the sharing, the trust and the respect come in. You gave as much as you could give. And it was accepted that this was what was on offer. Nobody asked for more” (p. 95). All were considered equals, or as HB put it: “There was never any professional jealousy” because “no big egos were involved” (p. 83). Junior, the last member to join the cluster, described the meeting forum as a “welcoming place where you could sense as a new person that there was mutual respect for everyone” (p. 94). As the nom de plume suggests, Babe was another late starter, also identified the definable sense of a communal culture: “You always knew that if you couldn’t do it, you’d just email someone and they’d help you to get you back on track” (p. 94). Clearly neither principal was made to feel inferior or inadequate because of their inexperience on “our leadership journeys” (p. 94).

At the beginning I was a lot less confident ... And that’s why the cluster was so important. The networking; the going to other schools; the sharing. That was great, and so now ... we’re running things ourselves – Principal (Bush, 2011, p. 92).

 This support for each other meant there was an affiliation to their collaborative community, plus an allegiance to the larger cause of district-wide gifted education. Here in Turanga-Gisborne, collegiality marked all that the cluster did and stood for.

How were decisions made?

Historically, the prime driver for initiating the cluster was new Government policy in the early 2000’s and the prospect of additional resourcing from the Ministry of Education. This time highlighted the beginning of the Talent Development Initiative scheme.

“It was back in the days of contestable funding when there was a meeting for people who wanted to find out about putting in an application. So basically the cluster grew out of the people that went to that meeting” – Principal (Bush, 2011, p. 74).


Principals grabbed the opportunity of the funding incentive and made very sure they were proactive in prioritising the importance of gifted education. This forward thinking was aligned with the resolve for educational equity. The principals believed that so much of the money in schools was given to students of special needs, which meant that there was no allocated funding for children at the other end of the spectrum with exceptional abilities. The contestable pool was seen as an enabler to bring about immense benefits for their brightest and most promising children.

Building on Existing Provision

Yet critical to their group credibility was the fact there already existed a basic prototype in the district. The establishment of a small pilot cluster was certainly important. HB pointed this out: “We had already done a lot of the documentation that was needed, which was beneficial to the cluster. And the fact that we’d already done something ourselves, by ourselves, beforehand, probably went in our favour” (p. 76). This pilot programme provided a rudimentary template to counteract the barrier of rurality. The miniature cluster exemplified a customary way of operating that suited Turanga-Gisborne. Chebz pinpointed the tradition of community-mindedness: “You see the power of clustering rather than working by yourself” (p. 76). Clearly, it was more about, “what can we get for these kids, rather than what can we get for me and my school” (Chebz, p. 117). Collaboration was a core component and already a proven tool to educational development in this isolated region.

Leading the Way

A key determinant for the structure of this cluster centred on the fact the principals made up the management committee. The group met regularly for a working lunch. These committee meetings took place at least twice a term at the Tairawhiti REAP office. Protocol was followed with minutes taken, which involved principals’ evaluations on the merits and weaknesses of the withdrawal programmes.

Most notable, this inclusion of only the top echelon of leadership was regarded “as a damn good sort of practice” (HB, p. 83) and a timesaver so that “you didn’t have to go cap in hand saying please can we do this...they could just say ‘yep’ have our hall” (Chebz, p. 83).

 The immediacy of executive decisions translated to efficiency. “We could brainstorm, go away, do some organisation, come back; it would be put together” (HB, p. 124).


Consensus played a huge part in cluster practice.

  • “There were some really strong debates, but this was how the decision making was made” –Junior (p. 94).
  • “Everyone was listened to and didn’t turn around and sulk or anything like that” –Junior (p. 94).
  •  “Ten representatives, ten votes eh? Everyone got a say ... it was just ten people coming to a collective decision” – Hunta (p. 83).

This sense of power-sharing anchored the way in which the cluster worked as a team. Democracy underpinned the direction setting and policy making of the management committee. HB explained: “You know someone at the meeting might have said, “Personally, I don’t agree with that, but it’s a collective decision” (p. 83).

Therefore, it was clear that the size of the school had no bearing on the authority around the table. The feeling of co-operation morphed into another form whereby the larger schools helped out the smaller schools. This was especially important for the rural schools. Venues and resources were readily provided by the town principals. Relevantly, this cross-school generosity was a noted strength underpinning the overall philosophy for running the programme. The rural-urban coalition was classed as a trait of the cluster’s success.

How was the cluster facilitated?

Of particular significance to the development of the cluster was the clear contribution of an outside agency. This facilitation expertise proved to be a real asset to all aspects of the cluster. Tairawhiti REAP, an educational community-orientated organisation, was charged with the responsibility of the co-ordination and administration for the Talent Development Initiative.

This partnership meant that “things would happen and it wasn’t another job that our principals were tied down to doing. We would sort of come up with the plans and someone else would keep them running for us, so that was pretty, pretty important” (Hunta, p. 85).

 A crucial point to the cluster’s democratic system for decision making was that “REAP had any equal voice as any of us who were there” (HB, p. 78). So the equalitarian culture was an integral dynamic to the overarching cluster concept. In HB’s words:

At the commencement of the TDI contract, gifted and talented education became for the head of REAP, one of the passions of her job ... Having REAP as the fund holder and subsequently contracting the Co-ordinator to do the organisation was certainly one of our strengths. (p. 85)

This definitive professional relationship was the extraordinary part of this project. To be specific, no evidence was found anywhere else in the literature review, thus suggesting that this bipartisan approach was possibly unique to not only New Zealand, but the rest of the world. It was a strong finding for the research.

Having an External Facilitator

In this external co-ordination role to implement a differentiated programme, REAP became the impetus to all operations. The project was founded on the delivery of out-of-school withdrawal workshops planned on a continuum and taught by specialist tutors in their expert areas. The central premise was to go further than just meeting the needs of school-identified gifted and talented students. The programme was designed conjointly by the principals and REAP. Both parties worked in unison to ensure children’s abilities were challenged and scaffolded to a higher level of learning or performance. HB summed up the cluster’s cornerstones: “We found that sense of purpose ... never deviated from the kids at the centre and we were happy to try new things – we evolved” (p. 92). So the team of the management committee and the REAP facilitation were the co-constructors of a rich and vibrant talent development scheme.

Yet for most schools, the chance of working with an outside agency for the co-ordination is extremely slim. However, whatever the situation, the role of the co-ordinator cannot be underestimated. This position is the lynchpin to the whole programme, whether this be in-school or as a cluster. The Turanga-Gisborne research participants were quite definite in the importance they placed on this anchor person.

  • “The dedicated time to do it ... a job that they did instead of it being piled on top of somebody at a school” (p. 85).
  • “So part of the effectiveness was keeping the communication going. That was everything. The co-ordinator was just great at it – at keeping us all linked up” (Babe, p. 107).
  • There were clear benefits to the cluster for efficient administration and “having that go-to person” (HB, p. 96).

Having a dedicated facilitator or organiser like the co-ordinator … who could really put a lot of time and effort into keeping the (Chebz: structure) thing going. Like the mundane part of it. Like, harassing everybody and chasing people along and just doing the organising and shooting out to places. Just being that vital link person. (Babe: Bringing us back to the kaupapa as well). We say it’s a little job. But actually in essence, it’s the biggest job. That face of the cluster, if you like. (Hunta, p. 41)

For a school embarking on a gifted education programme, a designated co-ordinator is advantageous, if not essential. This person grounds the entire provision and is a centre point for posting all information. Once the decisions are made at leadership level, the co-ordinator is the action-maker. “A the end of the meeting, you’d give it to the Co-ordinator and then she would make it happen” (HB, p. 95). Hence, the benefits of having a good co-ordinator are immeasurable. This person, whatever the institution, then takes on the mantle of the motivator to deliver a well planned programme. Most importantly, to be effective, gifted and talented education needs the services of a skilled co-ordinator.

How are provisions linked across the cluster?

The integrated approach characterised the complexity of the cluster model. This linking together of the multi-faceted provision was a basic requirement for the focus and function of the entire operation. Many connections needed to be made:

Principals and Schools – REAP Facilitation and administration

Students – Learning Programmes

Local Needs – Ministry of Education Requirements

Cluster – Parents and Whanau

So if nothing else, the cluster was premised on making the connections to join the separate parts into a working whole. Although this was certainly not an easy process, the cluster succeeded particularly well in developing two focus domains of giftedness.

A Student Leadership Model

The management team valued leadership to such a degree, this area of giftedness became an integral strand to the cluster in 2007 to 2008. The aspiration was to have children feeling comfortable with their own image of giftedness and talent. Also, the aim was to bolster self esteem as a prelude to stronger self confidence. Babe commented on the uniqueness of this well planned, high level provision: “As a new person coming in, I hadn’t seen anything like it before” (p. 87).

It was an experimental initiative. Basically, the concept built on what the schools were already doing with their Year Six students. A specialised programme was offered to extend these abilities by representing their school on the Cluster Student Council. In a way, this council became a mini-version of the management group with emphasis on consensus and democratic decisions. These young leaders were expected to attend a management meeting to report back on their progress to the principals.

During 2007, the leadership programme took the form of a social action project where students identified a real-life issue within their schools. This miniature community problem solving culminated in a presentation to the Mayor and the Gisborne District Council. The workshops concentrated on, and reflected, the events happening in “our place” (HB & Chebz, p. 88). This fostering of leadership qualities was such a winning formula that it ended up as “one of our major programmes that’s been totally sustained and embedded in our school” (Babe, p. 88). Clearly, there was a direct link from a cluster- initiated project back into this in-school reproduction.

“The kids love it and were always asking ‘will I be on the Cluster Student Council next year?’” (Chebz, p. 40)

The undisputable success of this core strand for interpersonal development ensured the continuation of this programme into 2011. Leadership became a sustainable trademark of the cluster and symbolised its credibility within the regional community. 

Literature Circles

This literacy-based model exemplified another innovative approach to challenging bright and literate students to step out of their comfort zones. The mediating link between the cluster and schools showed up a willingness to try new theories in gifted education and inventive teaching practices.

The idea of “Literature Circles” was introduced in 2006 and trialled by a principal with mini-clusters of schools. The main features of the programme were to extend comprehension skills whilst encouraging a true love of literature. Relevant too was the fact a generous resource budget was set for each group so that the “lit students” could choose a selection of books for personal reading. This model was perhaps comparable to the notion of an adult ‘Book Club’ where discussion of texts took place at each meeting time.

In a dual objective, the concept was designed to not only extend students with very high reading ages, but to have cluster teachers learn alongside as professional development. The strand was broken down into smaller units of learning, circling out into the outer reaches of cluster classrooms. This resulted in a domino effect when “we’d split, and then we were running three at three different schools at one stage” (HB, p. 28). In reality, it was more like a cascading effect because teachers modified the Literature Circles concept to suit their own students. “Mm, I kind of like. And everyone started doing it so that the end product was good classroom teaching” (HB, p. 37). This case embodied how the larger cluster ‘rippled out’ to recreate multiple hubs of a tried and true programme into individual schools. In other words, this replicated literature model was a good example of linking out-of- school provision with the regular classroom.

What made the cluster work?

Throughout the case study of the cluster, there were interwoven many confirmed examples of effectiveness. However, there are two obvious areas, not previously discussed, which have particular relevance for this piece – the child centred philosophy and importance of professional development.

A Child-centred Philosophy

A most important point for this case study was the deliberate and concentrated focus by the management committee on a child-centred approach. The children relished the sense of togetherness.

“In some ways, irrespective of what the programme was, it was their own company – like-mindedness – that they enjoyed ... they just enjoyed getting together with kids of the same ability” (HB, p. 23).

The rich opportunities offered in specific areas of talent provided students with a meeting point for like-ability with like-minds. “They grew and they became friends” (Hunta, P. 17). The cluster team collectively appreciated how important it was to nurture the affective side of giftedness and the socialisation process. “And then we realised that our first lot of kids [who had been together] went off to Intermediate, they all went upwards and took off” (Chebz, p. 17). These children now had their own community of support for learning.

This recognition of the students ’socio-emotional needs became firmly ensconced in the ethos and policy of the cluster. The children were at the heart of all decision making.

  • “Whenever we came to an impasse or something, we would always come back, to hey, ‘what’s best for the kids?’ (HB, Chebz & Babe, p. 82)
  •  “We got talking to the kids about what they wanted ... And what did they say all the time? Cooking and Art” (Chebz, p. 82).
  •  “That’s when Science came in because they wanted more hands-on and problem solving” (Babe, p. 83).

HB labelled this learner approach as “the thrust of the philosophy” (p. 83) because the student viewpoint was valued to the extent it became a stand-alone perspective in its own right. It was a key research finding that determined the specialness of the cluster and its comprehensive programme.

The Importance of Professional Development

Professional development was considered a main ingredient to the quality of the entire provision and the growth of knowledge capital within the schools of the cluster. This theme constantly reappeared through the research data. In this sense, it had an ongoing impact on the role of management. This meant that professional development was of undoubted significance to the specific choice and design of the educational programme.

The Gifted and Talented Advisor from the University of Waikato was credited with creating a strong platform for shaping the direction and performance of the cluster, especially in the early days. Somewhat inversely, the lack of exposure to the advisory services emphasised the importance of ‘teaching the teachers.’

Junior believed he came from a deficit position because he missed out on the foundation-building time: “One thing I would have enjoyed more would have been the PD opportunities to be involved with our advisor and the university lecturer because it would have made my input better” (p. 78). This professional advice was seen as the base from which “our concept of gifted and talented definitely came from” (Chebz, p. 11). It ensured the principals were on the same level of understanding for their cluster kaupapa, which in turn, informed the effectiveness of their decision making. Therefore, professional development was a primary tool for embedding philosophy in schools and enhancing practice in the cluster programme. This was a conclusive finding for this research.

Can the cluster be replicated?

A key performance indicator confirming the worth of the cluster was the replication of the prototype in other parts of Tairawhiti, and beyond. The original cluster model is now duplicated in three other school districts within the region, and another REAP has reproduced the framework to construct their own local version. Possibly the greatest evidence of sustainability is the fact that the cluster is still functioning today in a restructured amalgam of two school groups. Hunta endorsed the merits of this type of collegial practice:

What we’ve done over the past few years has become kind of entrenched in the schools. We’re all on the same page. The practices are out there. It’s a perfect model. I’m damn sure; you go ask anyone. From a small school’s perspective, we’ll cling to the cluster because we can’t do it on our own. Bottom line for us. (p. 92)

This perspective on the far reaching qualities of the cluster was backed up conclusively by HB. “It’s sustainable in a sense that what everyone’s taken away from the it, they can do in their own environment, whether they’re in the cluster or not. This says it’s successful so it will have ongoing impact” (p. 93). The cluster’s effectiveness was benchmarked by the longevity and the replication of the blueprint. Therefore, the learning and experience was meaningful, wherever in New Zealand the cluster principal might now be.

This case study was a vignette of a collegial style exemplifying the successful provision of gifted education in rural New Zealand. Collaboration was not just about working together, but interacting in a positive way. The hallmarks of the cluster ethos were the warm professional relationships and the sense of collegiality. This spirit of community was reminiscent of the catchcry for The Three Musketeers: “All for one and one for all.” Clustering is therefore a proven method to connect schools and to be a catalyst for positive change within the field. Obviously, schools cannot easily form clusters. But what remains true for any attempt at provision is the power of teamwork. It is an ingredient which can be grown and mixed into the programme delivery of all New Zealand schools. The challenge now is for schools to pick up the gauntlet and develop their own team brand of gifted and talented education.


Bush, K. (2011). The Cluster Team.’ A Model of Collaboration and Collegiality in New Zealand Gifted and Talented Education 2003-2008 (Unpublished master’s thesis). Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand.