This audit assessed the effectiveness of the administration of the Improving School Enrolment and Attendance through Welfare Reform Measure.
Improved school engagement is seen as an important contribution to reducing areas of Indigenous disadvantage, including in literacy and numeracy levels and economic participation. The Improving School Enrolment and Attendance through Welfare Reform Measure (SEAM) is not necessarily confined to Indigenous parents and children; however the communities to which SEAM is applied all have a high proportion of residents who are Indigenous Australians.
Overall, the administration of SEAM has been mixed. The first two phases of SEAM have been implemented as scheduled in 15 communities and 37 schools—extending to more than 4500 children, with work underway to implement SEAM in other communities; and reasonable arrangements have been established to support collaboration between Australian Government and NT Government agencies. However, there remains scope to improve SEAM’s effectiveness through strengthening key aspects of service delivery and performance reporting arrangements.
To encourage parents to enrol their children in school, the enrolment element identifies parents (who live in SEAM communities and receive income support payments), and obtains enrolment details for their children. Nearly 2500 parents were identified as within the scope of SEAM in 2013 and enrolment details were obtained covering more than 90 percent of relevant children. Of these parents, around 10 per cent had payments temporarily suspended, but promptly restored, indicating that a significant proportion of the enrolment activity is simply requiring parents who had already enrolled their children to contact DHS. As a result, whether SEAM has stimulated an increase in underlying enrolment levels is not readily identifiable.
Encouraging children to regularly attend school in SEAM communities, many of which are in very remote locations, has long presented a challenge. During 2013 there were a large number of children identified who attended school less than 80 per cent of the time, which is the benchmark agreed by the Australian and NT governments. A structured approach to prioritising attendance activities has not been developed for SEAM and in 2013, attendance processes were undertaken for just one quarter of the parents of children with poor school attendance. There is scope to better manage the disparity between the number of children with low school attendance and SEAM’s capacity to focus on these children through developing a clearer approach to the targeting of SEAM resources including in relation to the contribution of other school attendance initiatives.
While an evaluation strategy was developed for the trial of SEAM, limited performance measures were established prior to the transfer of SEAM to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C). This has constrained the ability of the department to assess SEAM’s effectiveness and identify areas to improve efficiency of delivery. It also constrains the department’s ability to provide advice to government on the program’s success, and to inform policy considerations. Ideally, performance measurement arrangements are developed at the commencement of an initiative to allow for the establishment of baseline information and consideration of performance information needs. SEAM is planned to be in operation until 2022 and in this context finalising a performance reporting approach with appropriate performance measures including proxy measures where necessary, would be a priority. The proposed evaluation of SEAM, which PM&C advised it intends to commence in 2014, would form a key element of this framework. The department has also advised that it has commenced work on an approved performance measurement approach.
In developing SEAM, the then Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) and DHS had the advantage of being able to draw upon the experience of a three and a half year trial which was allocated funding of $31.2 million. While these departments had resolved some issues which arose during the trial, many of the key issues identified in this audit were also identified under the trial. The continuing presence of these issues indicates that the opportunities to learn from the trial, and make improvements, were not fully realised.
The ANAO has made one recommendation directed towards PM&C strengthening SEAM’s program implementation. The planned evaluation of SEAM in 2014 also offers an opportunity to examine elements of the SEAM’s design and operation highlighted in this audit.