Connected Communities Strategy: Interim evaluation report

This report was originally published 27 January 2016.

Image: Connected Communities Strategy: interim evaluation report

Summary

Context

The Connected Communities Strategy (hereafter referred to as Connected Communities) is a key component of the NSW Government’s plan for Aboriginal affairs, OCHRE (Opportunity, Choice, Healing, Responsibility, Empowerment). Connected Communities is intended to be a whole-of- Government commitment to working in partnership with 15 NSW school communities, to improve education and learning outcomes for Aboriginal children and young people.

The evaluation of Connected Communities will assess the implementation and effectiveness of Connected Communities in achieving its goals. The primary aim is to provide the feedback needed through the life of the initiative to support the continuous improvement of the initiative, and to build a strong evidence-base of the effectiveness of the initiative. The evaluation primarily aims to answer the following questions:

  • How well has the model of Connected Communities been formed and implemented and what variation exists across schools?
  • What were the outcomes and impact of components of Connected Communities?

This report presents findings related to the above questions at the mid-point of the strategy. The final evaluation report will be delivered in 2018.

Method

A mixture of qualitative and quantitative data was collected and analysed including:

  • Interviews with schools and community stakeholders during site visits to each school.
  • Interviews with managers responsible for the design and implementation of the strategy.
  • Internal documentation, press releases and other reports on the progress of the strategy to date.
  • Student performance data pertaining to school attendance, Best Start Kindergarten assessment, NAPLAN, student retention to Year 12 and Higher School Certificate Awards.
  • Responses from the Tell Them From Me student survey.
  • Responses from a mixed-method telephone and face-to-face survey administered to parents and guardians of students at Connected Communities schools.
  • Responses from an online survey administered to teachers at Connected Communities schools.

Evaluation findings – implementation to date

Table 1 provides an overview of the implementation to date of key features of Connected Communities relative to its original intentions.

Table 1: Overview of implementation to date of key features of Connected Communities

Key feature Intent Implementation

Recruitment of Executive Principals.

All recruited by the start of 2013.

5 of 15 recruited by start of 2013 school year, with 10 not operational until at least Term 3, 2014.

Recruitment of Senior Leaders and Leaders: Community Engagement.

Recruited shortly after Executive Principals.

12 of 15 recruited before the start of 2014. One school yet to successfully recruit for the role.

Senior Leaders and Leaders Community Engagement (function).

Strategic community engagement including parents/guardians and school reference groups, and other functions to support local implementation of Connected Communities.

Using diverse skill sets to support implementation of a number of key features of Connected Communities including supporting School Reference Groups.

Challenge for Executive Principals has been understanding the intended scope of Senior Leader and Leader role.

Inconsistent focus on strategic community engagement, in particular around parent/guardian engagement in discussions about student learning.

School Reference Groups.

Work collaboratively with the Executive Principal in the development, planning and shared decision making of each school’s Connected Communities strategy, as outlined in terms of reference.

School Reference Groups are not functioning to the full intent of the Terms of Reference.

Executive Principals and School Reference Group members are unclear about the scope of their role in decision making at the school.

Teaching Aboriginal language and culture.

All schools to establish a language and culture program.

Progressing well to date in consultation with local community.

Cultural awareness training (i.e. Connecting to Country)

All school staff to attend.

Delivered at least once in all schools but delayed until 2014 or 2015 in 12 of 15 schools.

Schools as hubs for service delivery.

Formation of interagency linkages to connect students and their families with services and programs to address barriers to success at school. These services might be physically or virtually delivered from the schools, as a hub and spoke model at various locations in the community or as part of a multiple site model where a group of schools each deliver an agreed range of services on behalf of the cluster.

All schools are connecting students with a range of health and dental services, although this was occurring at a number of schools before Connected Communities.

10 schools involved in interagency groups, although the effectiveness of these groups in bringing about meaningful outcomes for children is unclear.

Executive Principals are unclear what is required of them under this key feature.

All schools have inadequate counselling capacity to address student trauma-related needs.

Early years focus

Fee relief and infrastructure funding in communities without a Department-operated preschool.

Early childhood infrastructure projects funded in six communities.

Fee relief to be provided by new preschool funding model.

Further education and employment focus

Schools form partnerships with universities and TAFE.

All schools with secondary students, and one primary school, have partnerships with a university or TAFE.

Notwithstanding the delayed recruitment of Executive Principals at some schools, and the resulting delays in recruiting Senior Leaders: Community Engagement (SLCE) or Leaders: Community Engagement (LCE), there are many positive things happening in Connected Communities schools. All 15 schools are implementing, or working with their communities to implement, local Aboriginal language programs, have delivered cultural awareness training (i.e. Connecting to Country) to most staff, are attempting to incorporate Aboriginal content into mainstream units of work and have enhanced their early years focus where relevant. There are notable examples where schools have established enhanced early years transition programs and cultural resources and centres for students. A number of schools are also implementing a range of rewards-based attendance strategies for primary students. These may have contributed to an increase in attendance rates in some primary schools, although it should be noted that this increasing trend appears to pre-date the Connected Communities Strategy. Capital works funded under Connected Communities have also progressed as planned and are having a positive impact on the quality of the learning environments in a number of schools.

However, at this stage a number of schools are experiencing challenges and uncertainty around implementing the schools as service hubs model and establishing genuine school-community partnerships through School Reference Groups. While all schools are connecting students with health and dental services and trauma counselling, there is little evidence that schools are connecting parents and carers and other adult community members with support services to address home issues that are creating barriers to their children’s learning. This appears to be due to a lack of clarity from some Executive Principals around the requirements of the model, the necessary skill set to coordinate the model within schools, a lack of cooperation by other government and non-government agencies in some communities, and the competing priorities of improving the academic and quality teaching frameworks at schools to date.

It is also clear that School Reference Groups are not delivering the intended impacts at this stage due to challenges related to role clarity. Despite the Connected Communities Directorate developing standard terms of reference for School Reference Groups, there is uncertainty, and in some cases tension, around the roles of School Reference Groups in decision making at the school. This could potentially be addressed through further governance training for School Reference Group members including Executive Principals.

The role of SLCEs and LCEs is still embedding and being clarified in schools, making it too early to make a definitive judgement about the benefits of the role. At this stage the major common benefit of the role is coordinating School Reference Groups. Depending on the skill sets SLCEs and LCEs brought into the role, they have also been involved in implementing language and culture programs in schools, interagency working groups and coordinating community events. However, at this stage this appears to be somewhat at the expense of developing and leading strategic opportunities to increase parent and carer engagement in discussions about student learning. Given the importance of parent and carers in student outcomes, this appears to be an area where the role of SLCEs and LCEs needs to be refocused.

Evaluation findings – outcomes to date

At this stage of implementation it is too early to conclude with any confidence that Connected Communities is having an impact on student academic outcomes, although it is important to note that the data presented in this report only covers up to the midpoint of a five year strategy. There is some evidence of the beginnings of upwards trends in the performance of students in the Best Start Kindergarten assessment across Connected Communities schools as a group. There has also been a continuation of a pre-existing upwards trend in primary school attendance rates. There has been no improvement in the rate of attendance by secondary students across the schools as group at this stage of the strategy.

NAPLAN participation and the number of students at or above the national minimum standard for reading and numeracy have not shown clear signs of improvement since the start of Connected Communities. Depending on the year group being assessed, participation and attainment have either increased or decreased since the start of Connected Communities. Gaps between the performance of Connected Communities schools and all other NSW Government schools have not closed.

However, Year 3-5 and Year 7-9 value-added scores pooled across 2013 and 2014 indicate that 14 of the 15 Connected Communities schools are adding an average level of value to student attainment, relative to all NSW Government schools with greater than 20 per cent Aboriginal students. One school has improved its Year 3-5 value-added scores from 2011-12, where it was adding below average value to student learning. However, the Year 7-9 value-added score at one school has declined since 2011-12 such that the school has gone from adding average to below average value to student learning.

Since the start of Connected Communities, there appears to be the start of a declining trend in the Year 10-12 apparent retention rate for Aboriginal students (-8.3 percentage points between 2012 and 2014). At some Connected Communities schools the rate is below 50 per cent. Across Connected Communities schools Aboriginal students are also at least four times less likely to receive a Higher School Certificate than non-Aboriginal students. According to student responses from the Tell Them From Me survey this is in the context of approximately 75 per cent of Years 7-10 Aboriginal students having the aspiration to finish Year 12 and participate in post school education and training. This suggests that the aspirations of many Aboriginal students at Connected Communities schools are not being realised.

Evidence from the survey of teachers at Connected Communities schools suggests that there has been an increased focus on students’ Aboriginality since the start of Connected Communities. Importantly, this is reflected in survey responses from both student and parents and carers where the majority report feeling good about their culture at school, and in the case of parents and carers, also feel welcome at their child’s school. However, survey responses suggest that although a large proportion of Aboriginal parents are engaging in community events held at the school, the majority of schools are still experiencing major challenges engaging Aboriginal parents and carers in discussions about their children’s learning. The challenges appear to be more pronounced with the parents and carers of secondary students and according to teachers there has been no improvement since the start of Connected Communities.

Conclusions

At the mid-point of Connected Communities, the appointment of Executive Principals has undoubtedly had a positive impact on the learning environment at the majority of schools. Executive Principals have also demanded high expectations from teachers and set clear and consistent expectations for student behaviour. However, a long-term solution to address the educational disadvantage of many students across Connected Communities schools requires an effective whole-of-government response to the economic and social disadvantage experienced by the families of students. Many of these issues are beyond the abilities of schools to address alone. Therefore, for Connected Communities to be successful there needs to be clarification about the intent and framework for the schools as hubs model, and appropriate support from both senior and frontline levels of key government and non-government agencies.

It is probably only realistic that the focus of service connection within schools is around students, which is currently the case at most schools. However, as several schools are demonstrating, schools can have a leading role in working together with other agencies around community and social development. In communities where the current level of interagency coordination is ineffective and accountability for outcomes poor, Connected Communities schools can play a leading role in improving the effectiveness of interagency coordination.

The other challenge for addressing the educational disadvantage of students across Connected Communities schools is increasing the engagement of parents, and in particular Aboriginal parents, in their children’s learning. Given the evidence about the importance of parental involvement in student outcomes it is imperative that Connected Communities schools devise innovative strategies to engage more parents in both discussions with teachers and their children about learning. There is a strong case that this should be a major focus of SLCEs and LCEs.

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