A FEDERAL government program that stopped welfare payments to Aboriginal parents whose children missed too much school has failed to produce sustained improvement in school attendance.
An official evaluation of the trial’s first year shows it did not improve the attendance rate, and had little effect on lifting enrolments.
Between the program’s inception in January 2009 and August this year, 380 people had welfare payments, such as the Newstart allowance or disability pension, suspended for an average of 21 days, and one had them cancelled for failure either to enrol their children or to ensure regular attendance.
The program ”did not demonstrably improve the rate of attendance … overall, nor was any effect apparent at any stage of the attendance process in 2009,” the evaluation says. Even after the program was tweaked in the second year and produced a spike in attendance, the improvement was not sustained.
The School Enrolment and Attendance through Welfare Reform Measure (SEAM), was trialled in six Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. The federal government has a bill pending to introduce a third version in mid 2012, that gives parents more help before benefits are suspended or cancelled.
As well, the government will expand the trial to a further 16 communities, including schools in Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, and Katherine.
The Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations has released the evaluation to the Herald in response to a request.
The Greens senator Rachel Siewert, who has opposed the penalty approach, had also called for the report to be made public.
The evaluation shows the threat of stopped payments brought forward school enrolments that mostly would have happened anyway – for example, from March to February. But it had no impact on the bigger problem of children leaving school part-way through the year. Only 40 per cent of the children who enrolled after a notification letter was sent to their parents stayed enrolled for the full year.
The program’s ”poor” performance in improving attendance was due in part to the reluctance of school principals to dob in parents to Centrelink.
The report said it was ”not clear” how the program could address the reasons for chronic absenteeism, which included cultural obligations, clan conflict and violence, transport and health problems. ”Tailored case management” was the most critical factor in reducing absenteeism, it said.
Under the scheme’s second version, implemented in 2010, children’s attendance records were relayed to Centrelink, bypassing the principal. A departmental evaluation of the early stages, based on samples as small as 56 children, shows the change led to improved initial attendance for about 80 per cent of the children whose parents were sent a letter threatening payment suspension, ”although many of these improvements were slight”.
The Herald has learnt, however, that the improved attendance was not sustained due to Centrelink’s inability to provide the necessary support to families.
The scheme’s proposed third version will allow the territory government to take the running with its new approach that requires principals to convene formal ”attendance” conferences with persistent problem families, social workers and others. ”Attendance plans” will be drawn up.
If improvement is not evident after 28 days, families will be referred to Centrelink for payment suspension, and other families can be fined.
The Minister for School Education, Peter Garrett, said payment suspension would be used as a last resort when parents had rejected repeated attempts to discuss the barriers to their child’s attendance and assistance to resolve them.