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 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 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 proof positive this scheme for nurturing talent works. But while parents listened with obvious enjoyment, they were also worried the government is about to destroy a good thing. The funding for the program will be axed at the end of the year.

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 Queensland’s version of the national Country Area Program introduced by the Fraser Government in 1977 under the Disadvantaged Schools Programs. It recognises students in isolated areas have less access to educational, social and cultural opportunities than metropolitan students. Queensland’s PCAP is an annual community-based program and unusually – and critical to its success – is intersystemic, jointly administered by the State and Catholic school system.

From 1982 eligibility was determined by eligible local government boundaries. Rural Queensland was divided into four geographical areas with local administration; each grew differently according to local needs. Itinerant PCAP teachers became devoted to the areas they served in. In 2008 there were 242 PCAP schools, many of them very small, enrolling 31,500 students. There are 48 local committees that decide where funds should go. These committees bonded rural communities as much as the programs they sponsored.

The Federal Government gave $6.4 million to PCAP 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 put on a balance sheet. The administrative bill of 26 per cent of the total budget had bean-counters in Canberra 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 and his consultation report had contradictory findings. Focus group meetings with stakeholders revealed flaws in the program including an onerous funding application process for even the smallest 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 good educational outcomes for isolated kids. He made 27 recommendations to the Minister for Education, and 20 were accepted in the final report.

The program will be axed at the end of 2011 and replaced by Rural and Remote Education Access Program (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 removed, the 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.

Without administrators RREAP will not be able to promote itself. Most people in the south-west know about PCAP – there are stickers everywhere. Here, PCAP is most synonymous with music and produces a huge amount of musically-talented kids, as Surat today showed. But it does much more. In the South-West, they run a 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 also intangible benefits like the confidence that flows on to other areas of learning and the discipline and responsibility a child takes on 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. PCAP is a great model for effective micro-local government. It cost money but it was ecumenical, it was 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 $1.6m 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 both a gentle push. As any parent in Surat could tell you today, it’s a false economy.

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