The objective of the audit was to assess the effectiveness of the administration of the Improving School Enrolment and Attendance through Welfare Reform Measure.

Summary

Introduction

1. Australia generally performs well in relation to school attendance. As the 2013 Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Reform Council report on five years of performance in education in Australia demonstrates, the vast majority of children regularly attend school.1 However, the report noted that attendance levels of children in some areas lag behind the national average. In particular, the report highlighted the ‘large decreases’ in attendance levels of Indigenous secondary school students in the Northern Territory. Furthermore, the Australian Government Minister for Indigenous Affairs recently commented that ‘in the Northern Territory, only 13 per cent of kids are attending school 80 per cent of the time. This has to change.’2

2. Poor school attendance in the Northern Territory was highlighted in the 2007 Little Children are Sacred report. The Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse noted the: ‘miserable school attendance rates for Aboriginal children and the apparent complacency here (and elsewhere in Australia) with that situation’.3 In its response to the report, the then Government announced the Northern Territory Emergency Response which included a number of initiatives to improve school enrolment and attendance, such as improving school infrastructure and boosting teacher numbers.

3. In this context, and as part of the then Government’s broader initiatives to reform the welfare system4, the Australian Government announced the School Attendance and Enrolment Pilot in 2009. The Government’s intention was to trial the conditional linkage of school enrolment and attendance to welfare payments, so as to encourage better enrolment and attendance.

4. In 2013, following a three and a half year trial, the then Australian Government allocated funding of $107.5 million over ten years under the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Budget measure to implement a revised model. The new model, entitled the Improving School Enrolment and Attendance through Welfare Reform Measure (SEAM), commenced in March 2013. SEAM is to be implemented in four phases covering 52 schools in 23 Northern Territory communities (SEAM communities), by 2015. While SEAM may apply to parents of any background, the SEAM communities all have a high proportion of residents who are Indigenous Australians.

5. SEAM applies to parents (in‑scope parents) who: live in one of the SEAM communities; are responsible for the care of one or more school‑age children; and receive certain income support payments. SEAM requires these parents, as a condition of their welfare payments, to make sure their children are enrolled in and attending school. SEAM offers social work support to help parents overcome barriers to school enrolment and attendance, and as a last resort, parents may have their welfare payments suspended for failing to take appropriate action.

How SEAM operates

6. The Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) was originally responsible for the development of SEAM policy and overseeing SEAM’s implementation. Following Machinery of Government changes in September 2013, these responsibilities were transferred to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C). The Department of Human Services (DHS) and the Northern Territory Department of Education (NT DoE) are jointly responsible for SEAM’s day‑to‑day service delivery, and have been involved in the implementation of the measure since it commenced. The Social Security (Administration) Act 1999 (the Act) provides the legislative basis for SEAM, including the provision of individual school enrolment and attendance information to the Australian Government.

7. SEAM has two elements, one related to ensuring school‑age children are enrolled in school and the other designed to improve school attendance. The enrolment element involves collection of enrolment details of relevant school‑age children. Welfare payments may be suspended if parents fail to provide information about their children’s enrolment to DHS and do not have a reasonable excuse for doing so. Under the attendance element, where a child is identified with low school attendance5 within a SEAM community, their parents6, will be required to participate in a compulsory conference to discuss the barriers to regular attendance, and agree to improve their child’s attendance under a school attendance plan. If these requirements are not met, certain welfare payments may be suspended.

Audit objective and criteria

8. The objective of the audit was to assess the effectiveness of the administration of the Improving School Enrolment and Attendance through Welfare Reform Measure.

9. The audit examined the administration of SEAM by DEEWR (and after September 2013, PM&C) and DHS from its commencement in March 2013. To conclude on this objective, the ANAO examined whether the measure was effectively planned and implemented, including in accordance with relevant policy and legislative requirements; and whether effective monitoring, reporting and evaluation arrangements were established, including to support the continuous improvement of SEAM.

10. The audit also examined the program’s development, to determine whether lessons from the trial were effectively applied in the design and implementation of SEAM.

Overall conclusion

11. 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 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.

12. 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.

13. 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.

14. 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.

15. 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).7 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.

16. 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.

17. 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.

Key findings by chapter

Chapter 2: Delivering SEAM—the Enrolment Element

18. Reasonable arrangements have been developed to support collaboration and information sharing between responsible Australian and Northern Territory government agencies in respect to the identification of parents who fall within scope of SEAM, and to collect enrolment details for their children. The timeliness of the enrolment process has improved compared to the trial program that preceded SEAM, and in general DHS applied enrolment processes and payment decisions appropriately. Nonetheless, under current arrangements, if a child was not enrolled for school in term one, the SEAM enrolment process may not take action to encourage their enrolment until a week or two into the second term of the school year. This means that the child may have missed an entire term of school before action is taken. In April 2014, PM&C advised the ANAO that it intended to commence consultations with NT DoE and DHS to identify possible options to expedite enrolment data collection, enabling enrolment data to be available earlier in the school term.

Chapter 3: Delivering SEAM—the Attendance Element

19. During 2013 an estimated 1300 children were identified as having low school attendance, and as their parents were within scope of SEAM, all of these children should have been afforded attention under the attendance element. However, attendance action—compulsory conferences and the development of school attendance plans—was only implemented for one quarter of these children (331). Noting that in the early stages of SEAM’s rollout, processes may not have yet reached full capacity, there are several factors that may have contributed to this low level.8 These include that the attendance processes required more time and effort than was originally envisaged and the resources to apply SEAM activities to all children who meet the criteria were not sufficient given the numbers of children and geographic distribution of communities. Of the 276 parents who were required to attend a compulsory conference in 2013, 127 were issued with one or more compliance notices, because: a conference was not attended; a school attendance plan was not agreed; and/or commitments agreed in a plan were not kept. During 2013, the payments of 60 parents were suspended for not complying with a compliance notice under the attendance element.

20. To seek to maximise and sustain SEAM’s impact, a clearer approach is needed to target SEAM resources. This approach should be informed by a sound understanding of SEAM’s current capacity, options to streamline attendance processes to increase capacity and consideration of SEAM’s relationship with other broader school attendance initiatives. Specifically, the issues of which cohorts of students (including by age or attendance levels) should be prioritised; and the appropriate timing and degree of contact between Senior Attendance and Truancy Officers (SATOs), Social Workers and parents, and the extent to which efforts are concentrated on specific communities with SEAM or spread more evenly across all communities, should be reviewed. PM&C advised in April 2014 that NT DoE and DHS had commenced negotiations for a service level agreement. While a service level agreement may address service delivery deficiencies, it is important that an overall strategy is developed to determine how SEAM resources are best targeted to achieve the program’s objectives.

Chapter 4: Monitoring and Reporting on SEAM’s Operation and Effectiveness

21. Current performance information for SEAM focuses largely on monitoring the levels of activity by NT DoE and DHS in relation to business delivery of the enrolment and attendance elements of SEAM. Such information is relevant to assessing the day to day operation, including whether activities are being delivered as planned. However, and despite the three and a half year trial, aspects of the administrative design for the new model of SEAM still do not facilitate the collection of appropriate and complete performance information. This issue is highlighted within both the enrolment and attendance elements—information is not collected on child enrolments or school attendance levels before and after SEAM activities. As a result the impact of these activities in terms of expected change is not readily identifiable.

22. Evaluations of the SEAM trial have observed that the trial’s impact on school enrolment was unclear, and that while there were some small improvements in school attendance levels, these often proved temporary. In 2012 the Queensland Government elected not to proceed with SEAM as it did not consider that the model had been effective in that jurisdiction. While some anecdotal evidence was provided to the ANAO that SEAM in the NT is having some positive effects, it will be important for PM&C to finalise the development (commenced by the former DEEWR) of an appropriate performance measurement approach so as to be able to more firmly establish the impact of the measure. In April 2014, PM&C acknowledged that SEAM’s existing performance reporting measures had limitations. PM&C advised that it intended to work with NT DoE and DHS to develop an enhanced performance framework, noting that this would require agreement from NT DoE and DHS to provide richer and more detailed performance data.

Summary of agency responses

23. PM&C, DHS, NT DoE, and the Department of Education provided formal responses to the audit, which are included in Appendix 1. Summary responses by PM&C, DHS and NT DoE are provided below.

Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet considers the audit report from the ANAO to be a balanced report, noting that the audit took place during the early stages of SEAM’s rollout.

PM&C accepts the recommendation outlined in the ANAO audit report to improve the consistency and application of SEAM. In April 2014, PM&C held a Bilateral Meeting with the Northern Territory Government to assess SEAM’s capacity to address the attendance of all children in a timely manner and to develop a clearer approach for targeting SEAM resources. PM&C will continue to work in collaboration with the Northern Territory Government and the Department of Human Services to improve the consistency and application of SEAM through the development of performance targets, an agreed strategy for targeting SEAM resources and an enhanced performance monitoring framework.

Department of Human Services

The Department of Human Services welcomes this report and considers that implementation of its recommendation will enhance the administration of the Improving School Enrolment and Attendance through Welfare Reform Measure.

The Department of Human Services agrees with the ANAO’s recommendation and will work closely with both the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Northern Territory Department of Education to progress.

Northern Territory Department of Education

The Northern Territory acknowledges that the objective of the audit was to assess the effectiveness of the administration of the Improving School Enrolment and Attendance through Welfare Reform Measure (SEAM) by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) and the Department of Human Services (DHS) from its commencement in 2013.

The audit’s primary finding with regards to strengthening SEAM implementation is based on PM&C, DHS and the NT Department of Education (NT DoE) working collaboratively to maximise SEAM outcomes. The Australian National Audit Office recognises that reasonable arrangements have been established to support collaboration between Australian Government and Northern Territory Government agencies and suggests there is scope to develop a clearer approach to the targeting of SEAM resources including in relation to the contribution of other school attendance initiatives.

The Department of Education considers SEAM to be an integral part of the suite of measures employed to improve school attendance. NT DoE is supportive of measures that will align SEAM with other school attendance initiatives including our own Every Child Every Day and the Australian Government’s new Remote Schools Attendance Strategy.

The NT Department of Education supports further collaboration with PM&C and DHS in implementing the following actions identified in the report:

  • expedite enrolment data collection
  • assess SEAM’s current capacity and explore opportunities to improve capacity
  • develop an agreed approach to targeting SEAM resources
  • finalise service level agreements between agencies.

The audit notes that there is some anecdotal evidence that SEAM is having some positive effects and suggests that it is important that PM&C develops an appropriate performance management approach in order to establish the impact of SEAM. To this end NT DoE is committed to working with PM&C and DHS to develop an enhanced performance framework including the provision of richer and more detailed performance data where appropriate.

In summary, NT DoE acknowledges that implementation of SEAM has to date occurred in two of the four scheduled phases and is just one year in to the ten year application of SEAM in the Northern Territory. Much has been learned over the course of the past year and NT DoE looks forward to further collaboration with Australian Government agencies to improve SEAM’s effectiveness through strengthening key aspects of service delivery and performance reporting arrangements.

Recommendations

The ANAO has made one recommendation directed towards PM&C strengthening its program implementation.

Recommendation No. 1

Paragraph 3.19

To improve the consistency of the application of SEAM processes aimed at improving school attendance levels, and to seek to maximise and sustain their impact, the ANAO recommends that, in consultation with the Northern Territory Department of Education and the Department of Human Services, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet:

  • assess SEAM’s current capacity to address all children who meet the criteria of the attendance element, in a timely manner;
  • develop a clearer approach to target SEAM resources to achieve its objectives.

PM&C response: Agree.

DHS: Agree.

NT DoE: Agree.

Footnotes

[1] COAG Reform Council, Education in Australia 2012: Five years of performance, Sydney, COAG Reform Council, 2013, pp. 22 and 57.

[2] Senator the Hon. N Scullion, (Minister for Indigenous Affairs), ‘Government unveils plan to get remote Indigenous children back to school’, media release, Parliament House, Canberra, 20 December 2013.

[3] Northern Territory Government, Report of the Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse, Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle “Little Children are Sacred”, Northern Territory Government, Darwin, 2007, p. 18.

[4] The Hon J Macklin, (former Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs), Second Reading Speech House Debate Social Security and Veterans’ Entitlements Legislation Amendment (Schooling Requirements) Bill 2008, House of Representatives, Canberra, 4 September 2008, p. 7207.

[5] The SEAM attendance process may be commenced only if the child records 10 or more unauthorised absences over the course of the previous ten weeks; equivalent to less than 80 per cent attendance.

[6] In this report references to ‘parents’ also includes single parent situations.

[7] The Commonwealth Department of Education advised that the development of the performance reporting framework was delayed due to the redirection of resources to focus on program implementation.

[8] Early results in improving the numbers of parents and children subject to attendance processes are promising—NT DoE recorded that 162 compulsory conferences were conducted in the first school term in 2014. NT DoE advised that, in the context of very remote communities and a highly mobile population, it is important to recognise activity undertaken by SATOs in the lead up to conferences being held. This activity includes: liaising with schools to review case files; confirming a child’s identity; scope checks; validating attendance data; locating the family; and attempting to deliver compulsory conference notices. For example, NT DoE advised it had made 404 failed attempts to deliver notices in the first school term in 2014.