Evaluation of the Cluster Management Trial
This report was originally published 01 May 2017.
Not-for-profit volunteer-managed preschools are governed by parent management committees (‘management committees’) on a decentralised and independent basis. The management committee is responsible for all the regulatory, financial and employment responsibilities of the preschool. Owing to frequent turnover of management committee members, the burden of dealing with these matters often falls on the service director, which can have an impact on the time available for engaging with children, families and staff.
Cluster management is a practice whereby a cluster management provider is responsible for the overall management of a number of preschools in a given area, which are organised into groups, or clusters. Cluster management was introduced on a trial basis in NSW in order to reduce the pressures on management committees and improve the governance and service delivery of volunteer-managed preschools, as well as the professional development of their employees. Four clusters, each composed of 10 preschools, began receiving the services of cluster management providers for an 18-month period from January 2015.
The Cluster Management Trial (‘the Trial’) evaluation aimed to ascertain:
- how the Trial had been implemented
- which aspects of the Trial worked effectively and which aspects could be improved
- the effects of the Trial on the management of preschools in terms of their governance, time management, training and professional development
- whether the Trial resulted in perceived improvements to preschool management and service quality
- whether the Trial resulted in improvements to preschool management and service quality as measured by the National Quality Standard (NQS).
Data for the evaluation was gathered through interviews with preschool directors, management committee members and preschool staff. Stakeholders from the Department of Education’s (‘the Department’) Early Childhood Education and Care Directorate (ECECD) and from the cluster management providers involved in the Trial were also interviewed. Information was also gathered from a quarterly report provided by cluster management providers that outlined the activities they initiated with services, the time spent per activity and the person to whom the support was directed. In addition, statistical analyses of NQS data were done to determine whether cluster management affected preschool management and quality as measured by the NQS. Analyses were conducted using data from the overall NQS ratings, and preschools participating in the Trial were compared to control preschools that had not participated in the Trial.
Interviews were conducted at 20 of the 40 preschools participating in the Trial, with five preschools per cluster. Interviews took place in November and December 2015, approximately one year into the Trial. The director of each of the 20 preschools was interviewed and where possible, one or two members of the management committee, and up to three members of staff. Interviews were generally conducted face-to- face on a one-to-one basis. In total, 20 directors, 25 management committee members and 30 staff were interviewed. Also, seven staff from cluster management providers and three from ECECD were interviewed.
Due to the relatively small number of interviews, only descriptive analyses were used to report the results and no statistical analyses were conducted. Note also that the information derived from interviews in this report is based simply on the perceptions of those interviewed and has not been quantified independently. It summarises the opinions of those interviewed and may, therefore, present a biased viewpoint.
Planning and context
The approach used to trial cluster management in NSW involved a cluster management provider providing support to preschool volunteer management committees and service directors. Preschools that were not-for-profit, and had a community-based volunteer management committee were eligible to participate. The approach used, which is based on providing support, is less likely to provide a long-term solution to issues associated with frequent turnover of management committee members and the loss of knowledge about preschool governance associated with this turnover. Also, due to the eligibility criteria used, the preschools that participated in the Trial varied in terms of their management and quality as measured by the NQS. Hence the Trial did not exclusively target preschools that were struggling or most in need of support.
Implementation of the Trial
The Trial funding covered four clusters with ten preschools per cluster. A total of 40 preschools therefore participated in the Trial. Two clusters were located in metropolitan areas and two in regional areas. Specifically, these were the Sydney metropolitan, Newcastle metropolitan, New England and Central Western areas of NSW. Three cluster management providers received funding for the four clusters, with the Sydney metropolitan and New England clusters managed by the same provider.
Cluster management providers each took a different approach to deliver personalised support to preschools, with each provider indicating that the funds allocated were sufficient to support a group of ten preschools.
In general, preschool directors received the most support from cluster management providers, followed by members of the management committee and then preschool staff. All the directors (n=20) and most of the management committee members (91.3%, n=23) believed the support they received from their cluster management provider was useful. The level of support directors and management committee members received from their cluster management provider varied according to the type of activity or issue. At least 70 per cent of directors (n=20) and 50 per cent of management committee members (n=25) felt they received support for the following issues:
- regulatory compliance and quality assurance
- risk management, legal processes and liabilities
- management and employment of staff
- training and professional development of the preschool director, management committee and staff
- business planning
- managing the PFM funds.
Some areas of support did, however, overlap with the Department’s Operational Support Program. Hence support from cluster managers in some areas was not provided due to the overlap with the Operational Support Program.
Information collected quarterly from cluster management providers showed that the amount of time they spent supporting preschools for activities and issues such as governance, compliance, policies, employee management and business planning varied greatly by provider, by preschool and by quarter.
The Department’s ECECD believed that the cluster management providers generally built good relationships with the preschools, however, there may have been more in-depth assistance in some areas than originally intended. As a result, preschools may not have gained the skills necessary to become self- sufficient in their management practices.
Cluster management providers indicated that they provided support and/or information to encourage preschools to attract and support children from target equity groups, including children from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, culturally and linguistically diverse, low socioeconomic status and/or rural and remote communities. However, during the Trial, only a small proportion (16.7%, n=18) of the preschools that responded to questions about equity groups introduced specific initiatives related to these groups. Some preschools already included such groups and, in certain cases, it was not possible to encourage participation because the preschools were already at capacity, or their local community was too small to attract extra children.
Feedback about the Trial
A number of common themes became apparent when interviewees described the aspects of the Trial that worked well for them. Note that interviewees were asked an open-ended question about aspects of the trial that worked well for them. The percentages provided illustrate the proportion of interviewees that mentioned a particular aspect and does not necessarily imply that the aspect did not work well for the remaining interviewees. Of those who responded to questions about what worked well for them in the Trial, 85.0 per cent of directors (n=20) and 56.5 per cent (n=23) of management committee members noted that having a cluster manager who was professional, knowledgeable and readily available helped the Trial to work well. Networking with other directors and preschools also worked well for many of the directors interviewed (70.0%, n=20), but fewer of the management committee members (17.4%, n=23). One-to-one, individualised support, including site visits was also considered to work well by about half the directors (55.0%, n=20) and about one-third of the management committee members (34.8%, n=23). About one-third of the directors (30%, n=20) and management committee members (34.8%, n=23) considered the professional development and training offered by the cluster management provider to work well for them, particularly the governance training for the management committee. The training was particularly successful because it was often provided at no cost to the preschool. Support with policies and templates was also considered to work well by a minority of directors (20.0%, n=20).
Stakeholders from ECECD and the cluster management providers generally agreed with preschool directors and management committees about what worked well in the Trial. In addition to the above factors, stakeholders believed that flexibility in the delivery of the Trial, the willingness of preschools to participate in the Trial, working with the preschool to plan the support needed, and understanding the local community were also important in helping the Trial work well.
Few issues arose when interviewees were asked about aspects of the Trial that could be improved. The most commonly reported issue was the large distance between preschools in the cluster or between preschools and training locations. Distance was problematic for 40.0 per cent of directors (n=20) and 12.0 per cent of management committee members (n=25). This continued to pose a problem despite meetings and training being organised in various locations within the cluster. Stakeholders from ECECD and from cluster management providers agreed that distance was an issue. They also added that the approach used for the Trial did not provide a long-term solution to the issue that the transient nature of the management committee results in a loss of knowledge about preschool governance.
All directors (n=20) and almost all management committee members who responded to questions about sustainability (91.7%, n=24) believed that at least some of the changes implemented during the Trial would be sustained in the long-term. This applied particularly to changes made to the preschool’s governance, training, policies, procedures and budgeting. Networking with other preschools within the cluster was also seen to be a long-term change, although not all directors agreed that it was sustainable. Changes in the management committee or director were considered a risk to continuity and sustaining changes. Directors and management committee members commented that to sustain changes made during the Trial, it would be helpful to:
- continue networking
- support and assist management committees to ensure they have the necessary knowledge to run a preschool
- provide training for management committee members, especially at the start of each year when a new management committee is elected.
Effects on preschool management and service quality
Of the directors who answered questions about the way they spend their time, a small proportion (15.8%, n=19) indicated that cluster management had reduced the amount of time spent on administrative activities. Half (52.6%, n=19) indicated that cluster management had reduced the amount of time spent working on compliance with regulatory requirements and about two-thirds (63.2%, n=19) spent less time organising training and professional development. Some directors felt they spent more time on administration (26.3%, n=19) or compliance with regulatory requirements (10.5%, n=19) because suggestions made by cluster managers led to increased workloads. About two-thirds (68.4%, n=19) of the directors who answered questions about the way they spend their time indicated that they were able to spend more time on improvements to service quality under cluster management.
Of those who responded to questions about their professional development, the majority of directors (78.9%, n=19) and management committee members (91.7%, n=12), and just over one- third of preschool staff (39.3%, n=28) indicated that they had more opportunities for training and professional development under cluster management. Almost all of the directors (94.1%, n=17) and staff (92.0%, n=25), and all of the management committee members (n=15) who participated in training considered it useful.
Improvements to preschool management and service quality as measured by the NQS
Analysis of data derived from overall NQS ratings were analysed for 20 preschools participating in the Trial and 23 control preschools. The analysis found no evidence of an effect of the Trial on preschool management and service quality as measured by the NQS.
Perceived improvements to preschool management and service quality
When preschool directors, management committee members and staff were asked their opinions, they believed that preschool management and service quality had improved. Specifically, of those who responded to questions about the management of their preschool, the majority (80%, n=20) of directors, management committee members (96.0%, n=24) and staff (76.7%, n=30) believed that the overall management of their preschool improved under cluster management. Similarly, of those who responded to questions about the quality of their preschool, around two-thirds of directors (63.2%, n=19) and management committee members (60.9%, n=23), and three-quarters of preschool staff (76.7%, n=30) believed there was an improvement in service quality under cluster management. Note that the above information regarding perceived improvements to management and service quality summarises the opinions of those interviewed and may present a biased viewpoint. It should be interpreted with caution.
Overall, cluster management was considered a positive initiative by those involved. Preschool governance, time management and professional development were generally reported to improve during the Trial. Networking among preschool directors was considered a very successful part of the Trial. Many preschool directors, management committees and staff also perceived improvements to the overall management and service quality of their preschool. Analysis of preschool’s NQS ratings, however, found no evidence of an effect of the Trial on preschool management and service quality.
While the Trial generally operated as intended, there were few issues that could be improved. Specifically:
- Some directors reported an overlap with the Operational Support Program offered by the Department.
- The large geographical distances between some preschools in a cluster posed challenges for networking and training.
- The Trial did not address the issues that parent management committees are sometimes difficult to engage and the transient nature of the management committee results in a loss of knowledge and information about preschool governance from year to year.
- Some directors and management committee members reported that participating in the Trial led to an increase in their workload.
- Factors such as changes to management committee members, a change in director and the lack of a facilitator for networking were considered a risk to sustainability of changes made during a period of cluster management. Also, due to receiving in-depth support through cluster management, preschools may not have gained the necessary skills to become self-sufficient in their management practices.