The objective of the audit was to review the effectiveness of the department's administration of the PSPI. To achieve this, the ANAO considered the department's program planning and design, service delivery arrangements and monitoring, review and reporting activities. The decision which resulted in the replacement of ASSPA with PSPI was a policy decision of the Government and, thus, was beyond the scope of this audit.

Summary

Introduction

While Indigenous educational outcomes have been steadily improving, indicators demonstrate a continuing level of inequality.1 In 2005, the percentage of Indigenous students achieving reading, writing and numeracy benchmarks for Years 3, 5 and 7 was between 14 and 33 per cent lower than for non-Indigenous students. The percentage of Indigenous students attaining Year 12 certificates2 in 2006 was 38 per cent lower than for non-Indigenous students.

The Parent School Partnerships Initiative (PSPI), together with the Homework Centres program3, form the Australian Government's Whole of School Intervention Strategy. These programs come under the umbrella of a suite of Indigenous Education Programs which are designed to reduce disparities in educational outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. Within this context, the role of the Whole of School Intervention Strategy is to encourage Indigenous parents and communities to work with schools and other organisations to implement parent and school-based initiatives to improve outcomes. The PSPI is seen as a key initiative for involving Indigenous people in education decision-making, which is a major goal of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Policy.4

The PSPI provides grants to organisations for initiatives that address local barriers to education for Indigenous students. Grants are accessed through a competitive submission based process. The PSPI funds a broad range of initiatives, such as attendance officers, nutrition projects, incentives and awards, community liaison, parent advisory committees, school to work transition initiatives, and literacy and numeracy projects. Grants approved in the first part of 2007 ranged in value from $200 to $628 000. The average grant is approximately $25 000.

PSPI is administered by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR). DEEWR was established on 3 December 2007. During the fieldwork for this audit, the former Department of Education, Science and Training (DEST) was responsible for managing the PSPI. This change did not affect the conclusion and recommendations in this audit report.

The Australian Government has committed $86 million to the PSPI for the quadrennium from 1 January 2005 to 31 December 2008. This includes an original allocation of $62.5 million, an additional commitment in 2006 of $5 million for Early Childhood Education to increase preschool enrolments5, and a further reallocation of $18.5 million from the Homework Centres. The Government requires at least 50 per cent of the PSPI's funding to be used in remote areas, where the disparities in education outcomes are greatest.

The PSPI replaced direct assistance to Indigenous parent-based committees, provided on a student per-capita basis under the Aboriginal Student Support and Parent Awareness (ASSPA) program, with a competitive, application-based process. While this reduced the level of certainty regarding access to funding, PSPI projects were expected to have a stronger focus on educational outcomes with the potential to access increased funding compared to that previously available under the ASSPA.

The significant program changes from the ASSPA program to the PSPI required the department to carefully manage stakeholder expectations through the transition. In addition to the reduced level of certainty regarding access to funding, stakeholders raised several concerns with the department prior to and after the establishment of the PSPI. These included the cessation of direct funding of Indigenous parent bodies, previously available under the ASSPA program, which could reduce Indigenous involvement in decision-making. There was further concern about the limited capacity of applicants in some remote areas to compete in the submission process.

This audit was conducted in response to a request from the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations and Education References Committee. This followed the Committee's own review of the implications for schools of the amendment to the Act. The Senate Committee's report Indigenous Education Funding, Final Report (June 2005) was critical of Indigenous education funding, including the nature of the changes from the ASSPA program to the PSPI and the department's administration of the PSPI during the early stages of the program's implementation.6

The Committee's report was based on public submissions, meetings with stakeholders and hearings across Australia. The report affirmed that ‘The committee learned very little about the likely operation of the PSPI during the course of this inquiry, probably because no one is quite sure of how it will work'7. This audit, conducted after the Committee reported, was able to examine the PSPI's operation.

Audit objective and scope

The objective of the audit was to review the effectiveness of the department's administration of the PSPI. To achieve this, the ANAO considered the department's program planning and design, service delivery arrangements and monitoring, review and reporting activities. The decision which resulted in the replacement of ASSPA with PSPI was a policy decision of the Government and, thus, was beyond the scope of this audit.

Further, the audit did not review administration associated with the Government's Northern Territory Emergency Response, announced on 21 June 2007. The Emergency Response has not significantly affected DEEWR's administration of the PSPI.

Overall audit conclusion

The PSPI has a budget of $86 million and is a significant component of the Australian Government's $1.1 billion quadrennium commitment to the Indigenous Education Programs under the Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Act 2000. The PSPI is the Australian Government's key strategy to involve Indigenous people in educational decision-making to address local barriers to education.

DEEWR has committed $66.3 million in the first three years of the funding quadrennium. This resulted in the approval of funding for 2650 projects over nine funding rounds to mid-2007. At the time of audit fieldwork, three funding rounds were yet to be completed to allocate the remaining $19.7 million for the quadrennium period to the end of 2008.

DEEWR's administration of the PSPI has funded a large number of initiatives aimed at addressing local barriers to education. Of the committed funding, 48 per cent has been granted to remote areas, consistent with a target of 50 per cent. However, the department has found it difficult to measure the program's effectiveness and contribution to the achievement of outcomes from the Indigenous Education Programs. This is because, in planning the program, the department did not develop objectives that were distinct and measurable from other elements of the Indigenous Education Program.

In planning the implementation of the program, DEEWR developed program guidelines to communicate funding priorities to staff, applicants and advisory committees involved in the project assessment process. The department also developed specific strategies in recognition of the need to assist those in remote areas to prepare competitive applications and to ascertain additional information from stakeholders to inform decision-making. However, these activities were conducted as discrete activities, rather than as part of a coordinated planning process. As a result, the guidelines have provided limited support to applicants from remote areas applying for assistance under the PSPI. There was also limited coordination with other government agencies responsible for delivering services to Indigenous Australians.

DEEWR provided State and Territory Offices with broad direction to administer the PSPI, which allowed for each State and Territory Office to take account of their different circumstances and priorities. Therefore, State and Territory Offices developed different administrative arrangements for the PSPI. This led to inconsistencies in Indigenous engagement in project decision-making and project monitoring arrangements.

Significant differences have emerged across State and Territory Offices in terms of expectations of projects warranting funding. These range from a tendency to fund more immediate needs to a preference for funding more strategic and sustainable projects and outcomes. These differences provide DEEWR with information to assist with the program's development.

DEEWR has already addressed a number of monitoring and reporting issues in response to ANAO findings. More focused program objectives would assist the department to address the current difficulty with measuring the program's effectiveness and contribution to the Indigenous Education Programs, and be commensurate with the resources allocated to this part of the Indigenous Education Programs.

This audit has identified that DEEWR has addressed some of the concerns raised in the Senate Committee's review. The audit has identified areas for improvement around the PSPI objectives, planning, communication and service delivery. These improvements are directed towards providing a clearer focus for the PSPI and allowing DEEWR to better shape its administration of the program. Analysis of projects showing greater potential to make a noticeable difference in reducing local barriers to education for Indigenous students will inform such improvements.

Key findings by chapter

Program planning (Chapter 2)

DEEWR's planning for the PSPI did not involve a detailed assessment of the reasons for inequitable educational outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. This would have assisted the department to determine the discrete contribution of the PSPI to the overall outcomes sought from the Indigenous Education Programs. Consequently, there is an overlap in the PSPI objectives and those of other elements of the Indigenous Education Programs. As a result, DEEWR experienced difficulty in establishing performance indicators for the PSPI. This limited DEEWR's ability to identify and measure program outcomes to assist in its decision-making.

DEEWR identified remote areas as the greatest area of need for the program. The department employed a program-wide strategy to assist applicants in remote areas who had least capacity to compete for funding. In response to stakeholders, DEEWR discontinued the strategy within the first year of the program. The strategy has not been replaced.

In order to promote innovative solutions to local barriers to education, the department intentionally provided broad direction on the initiatives that could be funded. However, the broadness of the guidelines left administrators, applicants and assessors unclear as to what could be funded. Clearer direction on the outcomes sought from the program would assist in addressing the continuing uncertainty amongst stakeholders.

DEEWR established a process to consult with stakeholders on project decision-making. However, the department would also benefit from a process to engage stakeholders earlier in the process, during project development. Other government agencies, particularly those involved in Indigenous Coordination Centres, advised that consultation during project development would result in project proposals that better coordinate service delivery and/or avoid duplication of effort.

The department completed a risk assessment after the program commenced. Had this been completed prior to commencement, DEEWR may have averted or reduced the effect of issues that arose during program implementation.

Program delivery (Chapter 3)

DEEWR successfully promoted the PSPI at the beginning of the program. This involved additional funding rounds in 2005 to give applicants adequate opportunity to apply, within the context of the introduction of a competitive submission-based process. Revisions were made to the application form to place greater emphasis on Indigenous parental and community involvement.

The department established advisory committees to obtain additional information from key stakeholders to inform funding assessment decisions. However, State and Territory Offices implemented different requirements in terms of the membership, terms of reference, and processes and procedures of advisory committees. The various requirements led to differences in the effectiveness of the advisory committees in improving the decision-making and, ultimately, the program's performance. DEEWR advised the ANAO that it has raised such issues with relevant State and Territory Offices which agreed that future processes could be improved.

DEEWR was responsive to stakeholder concerns about the early implementation of the program. This involved streamlining and automating most program processes, which included removal of the two-stage application process, and reducing the delays to project commencements caused by the lengthy funding announcement process.

Nevertheless, DEEWR State and Territory Offices experienced challenges with program implementation. There was considerable variation in administrative approaches and, associated with this, a lack of consistency in State Office expectations of the nature and sustainability of projects. DEEWR could improve the effectiveness of the PSPI by:

  • determining and addressing the reasons for the reduced number of competitive submissions across regions. An example of the decline in project applications was evident in one of the regions visited by the ANAO during fieldwork. There, the DEEWR Regional Office received 27 applications in 2005, 15 in 2006 and two in the first round for 2007;
  • providing greater direction to State and Territory Offices (based on a detailed needs assessment that identifies barriers to education, as discussed earlier) to improve consistency in project funding decisions;
  • strengthening requirements for Indigenous engagement to improve the identification of local barriers to education and the development of solutions;
  • analysing State and Territory Office approaches to program delivery to assess project sustainability and the potential to produce long-term improvements in educational outcomes; and
  • improving project monitoring arrangements, in order to manage project results and determine the appropriateness of milestone payments.

Program reporting and outcomes (Chapter 4)

DEEWR's monitoring of the PSPI indicates that the program is likely to achieve the Government's requirement that 50 per cent of funds be spent in remote areas. A program review was conducted to inform improvements in the administration of the PSPI for the remainder of the quadrennium. An upgraded Management Information System has improved DEEWR's capacity to monitor program outcomes.

However, DEEWR's budget for spending the PSPI across the quadrennium was $1.2 million less than the amount of program funds approved by Government. In response to the ANAO finding, DEEWR revised the program budget allocations to include the shortfall. In 2006, the department proposed to increase PSPI to $86 million. This involved a reallocation of $18.5 million from the Homework Centres program.

DEEWR used a different methodology to allocate the additional $5 million approved in 2006 to extend the PSPI to Early Childhood Education. The department did not take account of the numbers of children not enrolled in preschools, which affected the methodology for allocating funding to States and Territories.

The department could more accurately report on the level of funding that the PSPI attracted from other sources. This would allow the department to determine the extent to which the program has met the Government's priority for the Indigenous Education Programs to accelerate Indigenous education outcomes by attracting more state, territory and non-government mainstream school funding. The Department is reconciling its public reporting of funding commitments with DEEWR's datasets, in response to the ANAO finding that funding commitments were underreported.

Recommendations

ANAO made three recommendations to assist DEEWR improve its administration of the PSPI. DEEWR agreed with these recommendations.

DEEWR's response

The PSPI was introduced in 2005 as one element of the Whole of School Intervention Strategy (WoSI).

PSPI funds are used to focus on a range of strategic interventions – from school based initiatives to improve attendance and retention through to nutrition projects and community liaison – providing additional support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parents to actively engage in educational decision-making.

The department believes the flexibility of this program in supporting local projects is a key initiative for engaging parents and communities in improving the educational outcomes of Indigenous students.

PSPI funding is granted through a competitive submission based process, a change from the per-capita funding model of previous programs. The department notes that PSPI community based projects receive funding well above that provided under the former program. The average PSPI grant is approximately $25 000 compared to less than $5000 under the Aboriginal Student Support and Parental Awareness program.

The ANAO refers to data which shows that WoSl providers contributed $74.2 million to these projects, against the $82.0 million committed through the program. The ANAO notes that the department is close (47.8 per cent) to achieving the Government's target to spend 50 per cent of PSPI funding in remote areas.

Since the introduction of PSPI, the Department has sought to be responsive to stakeholder concerns about the early implementation of the program. This has involved the streamlining and automating of most program processes, the establishment of advisory committees to inform funding assessment decisions and reducing delays to project commencements.

In this report, the ANAO has captured a number of additional areas where refining the operational policy supporting program delivery may lead to improved outcomes. These recommendations will also be considered in the context of developing program settings for 2009–2012.

Footnotes

1 Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs, Australian Directions in Indigenous Education 2005-2008, 2006, p. 4, available from <http://www.curriculum.edu.au/verve/_resources/Australian_Directions_in_I... [accessed 4 May 2007]

2 The figure measures the proportion of Indigenous and non-Indigenous students enrolled in Year 11 who went on to attain a Year 12 certificate.

3 The Homework Centres element of the Whole of School Intervention Strategy involves $37.8 million over the quadrennium. Homework Centres provide a supervised after-school hours environment which encourages Indigenous students to complete their homework and to study.

4 The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Policy was endorsed by the Australian, state and territory governments in 1989 to achieve equity in educational outcomes for Indigenous students. The policy was formerly known as the Aboriginal Education Policy. Commonwealth of Australia, National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Policy (AEP), DEEWR, <http://www.dest.gov.au/sectors/indigenous_education/programmes_funding/p... 4 May 2007].

5 The Honourable Julie Bishop MP, Strengthening Early Childhood Education for Indigenous Students, 4 August 2006, available from <http://www.dest.gov.au/ministers/media/bishop/2006/08/b001040806.asp> [accessed 5 March 2007].

6 The Senate Employment, Workplace Relations and Education References Committee, Indigenous Education Funding, Final Report, June 2005, available from <http://www.aph.gov.au/SENATE/committee/eet_ctte/indigenoused/report/inde... [accessed 5 March 2007].

7 ibid, p. 6.