The New South Wales Department of Education has told the auditor-general it will be able to report on its efforts to improve student wellbeing in secondary schools, but not until a year from now, while secretary Mark Scott assures her its “Tell them from me” student surveys have been “extremely successful” overall.
The main KPI for student wellbeing in NSW high schools is the proportion of students who report “a sense of belonging, expectations for success and advocacy at school” through the survey, according to the report.
Auditor-general Margaret Crawford observed the department had yet to report whether wellbeing is up or down, or even a baseline figure, despite this being a strategic priority for the period 2018-2022. She also found the department could stand to make it much easier for individual schools to play their parts in the wellbeing framework.
Crawford reports an array of tools and online systems have created duplication in reporting and is “overburdening” some schools. She finds implementation of the wellbeing framework is hindered because it is disconnected from the main planning and reporting framework, but the department is onto that.
The auditor felt the policy looked reasonably well designed and resourcing appeared to be fairly well targeted. But she can’t give Scott any grade at all for his department’s “progress in improving student wellbeing” until he reports against the KPI, based on the survey results.
“The Department’s development of wellbeing policy, guidance, tools and resources has been transparent, consultative and well researched. It has drawn on international and domestic evidence to support its aim to deliver a fundamental shift from welfare to wellbeing at the school and system level.
“However, the key performance indicator to monitor and track progress in wellbeing has yet to be reported on despite the strategic plan including this as a priority for the period 2018 to 2022. This includes not yet reporting a baseline for the target, nor how it will be measured.”
The audit found resourcing for wellbeing programs was “mostly well targeted” but could be improved in some ways, such as by forecasting demand for school counsellors and psychologists in the workforce separately to general teaching staff.
Reporting at the school level “is of variable quality and needs to improve” and although schools are making efforts to implement the various “policies, guidelines and resources” provided by the department with approaches “tailored to meet the needs of their school community” the implementation of the wellbeing framework at system-level looked “incomplete” to the auditors.
One key task is to link the policy framework for wellbeing with one focused on general “school excellence” although Crawford notes the department is aware and is addressing this.
“We found evidence of overburdening in schools for addressing student wellbeing — in the number of tools, online systems for information collection, and duplication in reporting,” she adds.
After several years of reforms, the DoE “should consolidate its efforts by reinforcing existing effective programs and systems and addressing identified gaps and equity issues, rather than introducing further change for schools. In particular, methods and processes for complex case coordination need improvement.”
Crawford reports the surveys were not exactly embraced with open arms at some schools, among a raft of additional findings, and suggested these variable responses could introduce bias in the results.
“The survey has a mixed experience in schools with some schools we visited reporting low participation and low value from the survey participation and reporting. The survey is long, and the schools we visited had a range of response rates (41–91 per cent), limiting its effectiveness as a tool to monitor whether the Department’s wellbeing programs are effective.”
Mark Scott responds
While supporting seven of eight recommendation, and supporting the other in principle, the secretary maintains the “Tell them from me” surveys are going reasonably well in his response and offers to “add some contextual data” to Crawford’s observations.
“While it is true some schools achieve low participation rates among their students, we believe the surveys on the whole have been extremely successful,” writes Scott in his response letter.
He presents two figures: the average participation rate of schools — “around 70%” — and the proportion that saw less than 40% of their students fill out the surveys — only 10% of schools across the state.
“On average, students take around 15 minutes to complete the surveys, which we believe is an appropriate commitment given the importance of the data collected.”
Scott says “the increasing take up of TTFM indicates broad and strong support of the survey” and expects 90% of public high schools will complete it this year, and pledges to provide them with continued support in making high school a bit easier on students. The public will know in a year if several years of work in this area has been successful.