Education and Training Reform Amendment (Child Safe Schools) Bill 2015

Written on the 16 April 2015

14 April 2015
COUNCIL 

Second reading 

GEORGIE CROZIER (Southern Metropolitan)

 

I am pleased to rise to speak on the Education and Training Reform Amendment (Child Safe Schools) Bill 2015. I have been listening to the contributions to the debate that have highlighted the importance of the bill. We have heard speeches on a number of pieces of legislation that relate to the Betrayal of Trust report that I had the privilege of tabling in 2013, and this bill covers another area that will be legislated when it goes through the house this evening. Teachers and those who look after our children have a huge responsibility when children are entrusted into their care. They are in a unique position of responsibility when conducting themselves as teachers and others looking after children and early childhood settings.

Currently Victorian schools and early childhood services are required to report criminal child abuse to police under a joint protocol with the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education and Training to protect the safety and wellbeing of children and young people. The committee of which I was a part found that in other areas, in some of the independent schools, the same processes and the same guidelines and procedures were not followed. The committee identified that, for instance, in the Catholic Education Office procedures do not require allegations of criminal child abuse by a staff member to be referred immediately to police.

We were quite concerned about that considering what was being applied in the state system, and we wondered why it was not being fulfilled in the independent school system. Our finding was that Catholic and independent schools were not expected to meet the same requirements as government schools in responding to suspected sexual assault of children and that there was no clear guidance for any schools regarding other forms of criminal abuse. That was a significant finding.

The committee felt that the procedures applied under the guidance of the then Department of Education and Early Childhood Development to government schools should be extended and applied to all schools throughout Victoria. Hence recommendation 16.1 that the Victorian government review the department's procedures for responding to allegations of all forms of criminal child abuse within all Victorian schools and identify a benchmark that could be applied more broadly to non-government schools.

The bill before us this evening partly addresses those concerns and a number of other things. Firstly, it amends the Education and Training Reform Act 2006 to establish a regulatory framework for schools to implement in future the Victorian government's response to recommendations 12.1 and 16.1 of the Betrayal of Trust report. The bill also enhances the Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority (VRQA) regulatory powers with respect to schools. Lastly, the bill makes a number of technical statute law revision amendments to rectify incorrect references to provisions and other errors.

As others have stated, the bill strengthens the statutory powers and responsibilities of the VRQA, which will strengthen schools regulation. That will be a good thing because it will enhance the protection of children within our school system. I think the bill reflects the findings in our report and applies it to those recommendations.

In relation to funded organisations and prescribed minimum standards, our findings went to standards for teachers and how funded organisations and registered professionals are expected to meet the standards relating to child-safe practices that vary considerably across sectors such as early education teaching and community services. As I said earlier, it goes to the point that teachers and those who have responsibility for and care of our children hold a unique position where they are responsible for ensuring that the requirement to maintain safe environments for children is adhered to.

As I have said, stemming from recommendation 12.1, the new standard will require schools to develop, in accordance with a ministerial order, policies, procedures, measures and practices for managing risks associated with child abuse. The requirements may include implementing minimum standards for child-safe environments in schools and developing policies and procedures for responding to allegations of child abuse that arise in a schools context.

Recommendation 12.1 recommends that the Victorian government review its contractual and funding arrangements with education and community service organisations that work with children and young people to ensure that they have a minimum standard for ensuring a child-safe environment, including the following principles. They include a statement of zero tolerance of criminal child abuse, principles to guide decisions, procedures on the employment of new personnel, a risk management approach and processes for reporting and responding to allegations of criminal child abuse. These principles are significant because they highlight the minimum standards that the community expects. Furthermore, it recommends that the Victorian government consider the potential for extending a standard for child-safe environments to other organisations or sectors that have direct and regular contact with children.

As I have already highlighted to the chamber, this bill makes reforms in relation to recommendations 12.1 and 16.1 of the report which will strengthen existing powers. The bill will give greater protection to children and will give greater confidence to the Victorian community in relation to how our children are cared for while under the care of teachers or childcare workers or within other community services organisations that care for our children.

I will not say too much more because I think everybody is supportive of this bill, and I am very pleased that is the case.

Today I have made two contributions, and in both of them I have referred to the Betrayal of Trust report. I again acknowledge all the people who came before our inquiry. However, I will highlight one particular submission and one particular individual who came before us - a very brave woman who was a teacher. I will quote part of her submission. She faced great difficulty and is an extraordinary woman. She had great care for the children she had responsibility for, and this is how she explained her experience to us:

 

I was a teacher and teaching years 5/6 for the first time. I discovered that the parish priest was sexually assaulting students who begged me for protection. When I reported this, I was subjected to significant covert bullying and subversive alienation and lost my job and teaching career as I was excluded from further teaching posts. A previous principal, and another teacher who had both objected to the priest's behaviours with the children prior to me coming to the school, also lost their careers, six years before I did, for speaking out and fighting for the safety of the children.

 

I think that highlights the commitment by teachers who really want to make those environments safer places for the children they have responsibility for and the difficulties that come up. These standards and greater powers will give teachers and our education and childcare facilities greater comfort knowing that there is a reporting mechanism, there are obligations and there are community expectations.

After I tabled the committee's report, the same witness to whom I have referred sent me a wonderful email, and I will conclude my contribution by reading part of it:

 

Emotions were very close to the surface as survivors, supporters and committee members came together. Tears spilled from reddened eyes, heartfelt handclasps and hugs were shared. To witness the gentlemen committee members so visibly overcome moved us deeply in our shared pain and sorrow at the unnecessary suffering mingled with relief of laying down our burdens. Momentarily held united as if suspended, a watershed moment, a moment in history, sighs of relief could be heard. The years and decades as each lone voice, silenced, or crying in the wilderness, working hard in small action groups, gathered momentum, till our voices were heard, have paid off.

Today our voices have been truly heard. We lay down our burdens.

Tomorrow is a new day. A new era has arrived.

 

I think this bill partly assists what our witness was saying.


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