NSW Education grilled over school connectivity upgrade troubles

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NSW Education grilled over school connectivity upgrade troubles

Project realigned after PwC review.

Executives from NSW’s Department of Education have been grilled over problems with a $365 million project aimed at improving connectivity in rural and remote public schools across the state.

The project, called the rural access gap (RAG) program, was funded in the 2020-21 budget to upgrade infrastructure and other tools at schools, as well as improve access to digital teaching.

Around $85 million was released from the digital restart fund for the program’s first year, with a further $70.5 million allocated during 2021-22.

As part of the program, Telstra is upgrading fibre connectivity to more than 2000 schools across the state, which is expected to result in a tenfold increase in internet speeds.

iTnews understands Telstra is on track to complete its role in the program by April, as expected.

But at a budget estimates hearing on Wednesday, it emerged that the department had realigned its own GAP team last year following a review by PwC.

Greens MLC David Shoebridge said the report, which has not been made public, “pointed out problem after problem after problem” with the project.

He also alleged the Education department's project team, including the project director, were “sacked” by chief information officer Sandie Matthews following the report.

Chief operating officer David Withey rejected that “characterisation”, suggesting the roles were on a “contract basis” and were simply not renewed.

“We have made a number of changes as people’s contracts have come to the end and we are using a number of contractors in this program,” he said.

Withey said changes to the project were made after the report was received, but was unable to tell the committee whether contracts in the project team were signed before or after the report.

“A number of issues were raised in the health check report and in line with approaches to many significant capital projects, we have then mitigate the issues that have been raised,” he said.

“We are now on track with the completion of all of the recommendations of that health check report, and the project is in a healthy state.”

Executives took on notice a question about when the project team changes occurred, and said they plan to release other information on the department’s response to the report.

Shoebridge also raised questions over the cost benefit analysis performed prior to the funding of the project.

“Minister, you know there was no cost benefit analysis as part of the program, and that was identified as a pretty gross failing by PwC, wasn’t it? he said.

“'I’m not sure why there's an issue with investing in digital infrastructure and opportunities for regional students,” education minister Sarah Mitchell replied.

“There was a business case submitted as part of this and usual processes were followed.”

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