Empowering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people: learning what works

With Polly Farmer Foundation , Perth, Western Australia

The challenge

The Polly Farmer Foundation (PFF) has been helping Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to complete school and move into successful post-school pathways for more than 25 years. The organisation’s flagship program, ‘Follow the Dream’ (FTD), provides academic, personal and practical support to more than 2,000 secondary school students in more than 100 schools in four Australian states. Around 250 people work on the program. 

There was already data showing that PFF students achieved good educational outcomes. 

To complement this, PFF wanted a set of useful and practical impact measures for its program that showed how it was fairing on a broader range of outcomes, and a set of tools it could use itself in the future to measure this. They were also interested in ways to better inform their Board about what activities were most effective and useful, as well as having information to show funders the impact of their investment. 

What we did

Our team worked with PFF staff and the Board to understand how the program worked. We listened to managers and teaching staff, as well as former students, to build up a picture of who PFF works with and what it does. We also reviewed the existing ways they and other programs were evaluating their performance, and what they considered the strengths and gaps in these methods. 

Through a collaborative process with alumni, staff and board members, we developed an Impact Framework – a bespoke set of outcomes and tools for measuring these – that collectively show PFF’s impact. The framework suggested a small set of replicable, focused outcome indicators, aligned to the areas of impact identified in PFF’s strategic plan. 

Once the framework was established, we collected data to provide a baseline measure against the  identified outcomes and indicators. Data collection activities included:  

  • Online surveys (215 responses across alumni, current students, family members, and program coordinators); and  
  • In-depth interviews with alumni who had finished the FTD program up to 10 years ago.

The surveys collected both quantitative and qualitative viewpoints, with students, family members and program staff all taking the opportunity to provide useful feedback on what they liked and what could be better about the program. 

“For our family we acknowledge that the current FTD Program Coordinator had played a major part in the development and journey over our child’s high school years, having the right person in this role goes a long way in assisting the best outcomes for the student, school and families.”

Follow the Dream family member

This baseline Impact Measurement provided, for the first time, specific information about not just the outcomes of the program, but the elements of the program that are most effective in contributing to these outcomes. 

These included: 

  • Having the right people in the program (especially in the program coordinator and tutor roles) and relationships between participants and others in their FTD learning community (i.e., other students, staff, and families);
  • Meeting and learning from other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people, in peer-to-peer relationships, as well as interactions with role models and mentors; 
  • Providing a safe and welcoming environment that supports strong connections to self, others, and culture, including the important role of the physical space that is dedicated to FTD in each school; and
  • In some instances, providing practical day-to-day support for students so they have the best chance of enjoying and engaging in school and feel motivated to set and make progress towards their goals.

“It is a safe place for me to study, a very comfortable environment, and without Follow the Dream I don’t think I would succeed in my school life.”

Follow the Dream current student

The evaluation also highlighted the importance of focusing additional targeted support on the ‘Year 13’ experience (the first year after leaving high school), which is a pivotal year for young people trying to maintain focus on the pathways that lead them to their chosen career and life goals.

“Without Follow the Dream, I wouldn’t have built my resume, finished year 12. I definitely wouldn’t have the life I have now if it wasn’t for Follow the Dream.”

Follow the Dream alumnus

Some alumni said they would like more opportunities to be involved in ‘giving back’ to the program through volunteering or working with current students – a suggestion that is currently being considered by the Board. 

The evaluation also confirmed that Polly Farmer students were not only attaining their academic goals, but a more diverse and ambitious range of aspirations beyond secondary school – with 100% of alumni saying the program helped them ‘Follow their Dreams’. 

While PFF knew they were having a significant impact, they had never had the data to show it – nor to understand what, exactly, about the program was leading to this outcome. This evaluation achieved both of these goals.

“[FTD] creates opportunities and experiences for Indigenous kids to feel empowered and embrace their Aboriginality.”

Follow the Dream alumnus

The impact

The PFF board and staff are excited to be able to more clearly demonstrate outcomes from the program, and share this with the community. The meaningful and evidence-based findings suggest some targeted improvements, which are likely to lead to even better outcomes and experiences for students. Before the report was even finalised, two sites had begun testing new ways of providing ‘Year 13’ – in time to help 2023 school leavers. 

The evaluation has also set up PFF to be able to effectively measure their own impact in a streamlined and meaningful way in the future, as the organisation now has all of the tools (including online surveys, interview guides, and data visualisations) to do so. 

Overall, the project has positioned PFF to continue, and strengthen, their support of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people in achieving their chosen aspirations in learning and life, while ensuring the organisation has the tools to adapt their programs to changing needs for years into the future.

Innovation Unit acknowledges the Whadjuk Noongar people as the Traditional Owners of the country upon which this project was conducted, and the Traditional Owners of the many lands where Follow the Dream is delivered. We acknowledge the importance of paying respect to their lands, their Elders past, present, and emerging, and the continuing cultural and spiritual practices of Aboriginal people.