Victorian principals have been given until September to sign a legal document confirming their compliance with a new code of conduct.
The new standards – which were designed to prevent child abuse – are part of the Victorian Government's response to the Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Organisations, and its subsequent Betrayal of Trust Report.
There has been broad support for the new standards from the state’s principals, however, some are concerned that signing the document will expose them to potential charges of being knowingly non-compliant.
The process is being overseen by the Victorian Registration Qualification Authority (VRQA), which ensures the qualifications for educational staff throughout the state.
VRQA director, Lynn Glover, told the ABC that by signing a stat dec attesting to the truthfulness of certain statements, which they know to be false, principals may face criminal charges.
“However, signing a statutory declaration does not make you legally liable for abuse which occurs on school grounds,” Glover explained.
“As is the case now, and irrespective of whether a statutory declaration is signed, liability depends on whether reasonable steps were taken to protect a child.”
Berwick Lodge Primary School principal, Henry Grossek, told The Educator that principals already provide information regarding all of the policies and procedures.
“We can’t be too serious about the well-being of children. On that level, I fully support anything that maximises child safety,” he said.
“However, it is my view, and that of many of my colleagues, that it is professionally insulting for government school heads to sign a stat dec that says we’re telling the truth.
“Government school principals are beholden by enough regulations to protect children’s safety without signing this document.”
Grossek added that “the logical extension” of the stat dec means that principals cannot be trusted unless there is an external verification process.
“If that is so, shouldn’t we be signing statutory declarations on all of the other important compliancy processes we sign our names to?”
Grossek said that it was understandable that the VRQA were pushing for uniformity across all school systems, but problems would arise as government schools were at different points than the non-government schools in terms of compliance and accountability.
Meadowglen Primary School principal, Loretta Piazza, told The Educator that the stat dec was “completely unnecessary” and that not even the Victorian Department of Education supports it.
“Principals and school council presidents signed an attestation to say that they follow all of the processes and are working through all of the different requirements,” she said.
“The stat dec is totally unnecessary because we are senior public servants and as such should not have to sign a document to say we’re doing our job under threat of imprisonment if we don’t do what we say we do.”
Piazza said principals already have the Education Training and Reform Act 2006 which governs principals.
“We also have a contract which is currently being rewritten, so our obligations for meeting the standards are being rewritten into our contract. So the stat dec is total overkill.”
Victorian Principals Association (VPA) president, Gabrielle Leigh, agrees.
Leigh told The Educator that “a really strange outcome” from the VRQA was the requirement of a statutory declaration from every government school signed by the principal and school council president.
“The VPA has been in constant consultation as to how to get some kind of sense around this regulation coming from the new Child Safe legislation,” she said.
“The stat dec is around the completion of the child safe self-assessment action plan. It is a once-off process and vital that people fill in the assessment plan accurately.
“We did not consider you needed a stat dec to do that. It seems an overkill. However every principal in the three sectors in Victoria has been told it is a requirement by the VRQA. The only concession we achieved was an extension to the timeframe.”