Sunday, June 05, 2011

Reap what you sow: The axing of PCAP

There was much to admire in Surat today at what might possibly be the region's last Mid Winter Music Carnival. Every year hundreds of kids and some enthusiastic parents, gather in one of the region’s towns, march around the central streets behind a marching band pumping out Waltzing Matilda, and end up at the local shire hall where they break up into individual bands and play a free concert. This year it was Surat’s turn to host the carnival. There were over a hundred musical kids on stage who were proof positive this scheme for nurturing talent works. But while their parents listened with obvious enjoyment, they were also worried the dead hand of government is about to destroy a good thing. The funding for the program is about to be axed at the end of the year.

The full name of today’s carnival is the PCAP Mid Winter Carnival and is sometimes shortened as PCAP Winterfest. PCAP is an acronym for the Priority Country Area Program. It is the Queensland version of the national Country Area Program introduced by the Fraser Government in 1977 under the Disadvantaged Schools Programs to recognise students attending schools in isolated areas have less access to educational, social and cultural opportunities than metropolitan students. Queensland’s PCAP is a community-based program and unusually – and critical to its success - is intersystemic, that is, jointly administered by the State and Catholic school system.

From 1982 eligibility under the program was determined by eligible local government boundaries. Rural Queensland was divided into four geographical areas with local administration; each grew differently to each other as local needs were cared for.In South West Queensland 80 per cent west to an area wide program, rather than to individual schools. Itinerant PCAP teachers became devoted to the areas they served in. In 2008 there were 242 PCAP schools across Queensland, many of them very small, enrolling 31,500 students. There are 48 local committees that sit to decided where funds should go. These committees had high level of community involvement as social events and bonded rural communities as much as the programs they sponsored.

The Federal Government provides the funds to PCAP and gave $6.4 million in 2008. The cost of administering the program in wages, committee meetings and operational costs is $1.6m. While the PCAP has good educational outcomes in the bush, they are difficult to manage on a balance sheet. Moreover, the administrative bill of 26 per cent of the total budget was very visible and had bean-counters in Canberra and Brisbane worried. The 2008 Queensland Council Amalgamation and COAG insistence on more “accountability” from the states gave the cost conscious Queensland Government the opportunity it needed to claw back some of that funding.

They called in former Education Department bureaucrat Frank Rockett to review the program and his consultation report had contradictory findings. Focus group meetings with stakeholders revealed a number of flaws in the program including an onerous fund application process for even the smallest dollar amounts, occasional trips for entertainment rather than educational purposes, and a bucket of funding money for wider community groups. But Rockett also acknowledged the vital role it played in forging community ties and getting good educational outcomes for isolated kids. He made 27 recommendations to the Minister for Education, 20 of which were accepted in full in the final report.

The program will be axed at the end of 2011 and replaced by Rural and Remote Education Access Program, to be known as RREAP. Eligibility will be based on the Australian Standard Geographical Classification used in the Health industry bringing in a total of 347 schools and 54,850 students. The administrators will be sacked, teachers will be based in schools not paid by the program and funding will be tied to learning outcomes. The administration will be divested to the schools themselves – adding to their already large workload. According to Rockett, the School Principal “is clearly held accountable for school performance just as the manager of a business or the Chief Executive Officer of a large company are equally held accountable.” But there is no one the school CEO can turn to with knowledge of the program’s many small but vital services nor it is clear what will happen to all the instruments PCAP currently owns.

Without administrators RREAP will also not be able to promote itself. Most people in the south-west know about PCAP – there are stickers everywhere in the community promoting them. In the south-west, PCAP is most synonymous with music and produces a huge amount of musically-talented kids through the program, as Surat today showed. But it does much more. They run their own bus to events around a huge district, they charter other buses to take people to regional competitions in Toowoomba and they subsidise dance teachers to drive 200km to help children learn ballet in St George. There were other benefits that couldn’t be measured on the bottom line such as the confidence that flows on to other areas of learning and the sense of discipline and responsibility a child takes as a musician. As one parent told me today, her son was sick but didn’t want to miss playing as “he was the only saxophonist in the group”.

PCAP was introduced in the Joh era and some might call it pork-barreling, subsiding educational outcomes for a particular area. In Queensland parliament in September 2009, Current LNP leader-in-the-house Jeff Seeney called it “an important source of funding for country area schools in order for them to provide the extra opportunities that larger schools take for granted.” I would go further than that. PCAP is a great model for effective micro-local government. It cost money to run but it was ecumenical and rooted in the community. It inspired kids to be musicians and parents to be volunteers and it had value-added services based on unique local needs. The Government will save $1.6 million on the empty swings of administrators but may lose more on the busy roundabouts of harassed principals and demotivated volunteers with no paid support staff to give them a gentle push. As any parent in Surat could tell you today, it's a false economy.

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