Separation of Department and Ministry ‘needed now’

Separation of Department and Ministry ‘needed now’

As Catholic schools reel in the wake of the recent Senate inquiries into child abuse allegations, there are calls for a fundamental change in the monitoring and accountability of the public school system.

David Roy, a lecturer in Education and Creative Arts at the University of Newcastle, told The Educator that independent accountability and a separation of the education ministry form the Department of Education “is needed now, for everyone’s benefit”.

“There is a dichotomy in the systemic running of NSW education and schools through the separation of responsibility,” Roy said.

“NSW has three basic school systems, Public, Catholic and Independent. However the issue lies within the separation of government oversight and the public system.”

Roy said that both “are one and the same – the Department of Education”.

“NSW Education Standards Authority [NESA], whilst monitoring all three systems has direct responsibility to deal specifically with misconduct issues in the Independent and Catholic systems,” he explained.

“When recent abuse allegations were revealed in both public and independent schools by the ABC 7.30 Report, NESA immediately dealt with the Independent school, whilst the Department of Education was left to internally investigate itself.”

Roy pointed to recent Senate Inquiries into institutional responses to misconduct, as well as the current Royal Commission, which he said “show the dangers of systems that self-regulate and the potential for systemic cover-up”.

“Public schools investigate themselves and the concern is that too often they appear to find themselves at no fault,” he said.

“If you contact any outside authority such as Family and Community Services or even indeed the police, you are informed that the Department of Education investigates itself, usually through the internal section of EPAC – Employee performance & conduct.”

Roy said it is EPAC that decides if a complaint should be reportable and thus investigated or only a matter for local area management inquiry.

“In effect this usually means a principal of a school investigates her or his own school. It is therefore of little surprise to find that often a principal will find little to no fault over how they run their own school,” he said.

In August 2016 when former NSW Education Minister, Adrian Piccoli, released information on cases of reportable conduct, multiple families and teachers found their reports of serious abuse and assaults on children were not listed as reportable.

“If the internal investigative body, EPAC, does not find unexplained bleeding to faces and adult bruising of children reportable there is clearly a problem in accountability and potential systemic cover-up that needs to be challenged,” Roy said.

“Recent media reports of the treatment of children in schools have alluded to concerns of this being the case within the NSW public school system.”

Roy said that with the “long-desired change of Minister for Education”, the time is now prescient to have a fundamental change in the monitoring and accountability of the public school system.

“There is a valid argument that the Minister for Education should have a separation from the public school Department of Education,” he said.

“Currently if you have an issue with the public school system, the highest authority to whom you can complain is the Minister and thus there will be no independent body until there is a separation between the Ministry for Education and the Department of Education.”

Roy said that he has too often had allegations of the previous Minister referring complaints back to the very people in the Department of Education to whom the complaint was about.

“Mr Stokes, the new Minister for Education has an opportunity to break this cycle of internal collusion,” he said.

“The benefits of such a separation would be to parents, staff and management – as well as the Ministry itself. Through removing the conflict of self-interest, all parties involved in the complaints process could have a greater assurance of transparency and that the findings are valid.”

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