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Second Reading: Education and Training Reform Amendment (Regulation of Student Accommodation) Bill 2020

Mr HIBBINS (Prahran): I rise on behalf of the Victorian Greens to speak to the Education and Training Reform Amendment (Regulation of Student Accommodation) Bill 2020. This bill is bringing school boarding premises under the remit of the Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority (VRQA), ensuring that boarding schools must comply with the Victorian child safe standards. These changes are implementing the recommendation from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

I would like to start by acknowledging the work of the royal commission and of course more importantly the incredible bravery and strength of survivors who shared their stories with the commission. We saw extraordinary courage by those who responded to the commission to tell their stories, and I thank them for their contributions that have resulted in change and are resulting in changes just like the legislation before this place.

This bill is implementing recommendation 13.3, which recommends that state and territory governments, through school registration authorities, place particular emphasis on monitoring boarding schools to ensure they meet child safe standards. This is because the royal commission found that boarding schools are places of high risk for child sexual abuse. In a closed residential school environment it is easier for perpetrators to be alone with children where there is a lack of privacy and limited supervision. Children cannot easily leave the school or go home to their families. They are spending 24 hours a day at school on the boarding premises surrounded by adults who are part of the institutions that are harming them.

The royal commission also noted that many private and religious boarding schools, which make up the overwhelming majority of boarding schools, had an institutional culture that heightened the risk of abuse and discouraged the disclosure of abuse, where they prioritised their own reputation and financial interests over student wellbeing and had governance structures that were in place that shielded perpetrators and avoided accountability. There has been or there is little to no external oversight of boarding institutions.

While schools must be registered with the Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority, the boarding premises that they operate are not subject to any registration requirements, and while schools are already registered and monitored for compliance with child safe standards, boarding premises are not as they do not strictly fall within the definition of ‘school’ as currently defined in the Education and Training Reform Act 2006. Every child in Victoria should be able to access a high-quality education where they are safe at school regardless of the type of school they attend, and the law has been failing in its duty to keep children safe in boarding schools.

The royal commission heard from a disproportionate number of survivors who were abused in a boarding school setting. Almost one in three survivors who reported abuse in a school setting said the abuse occurred in a boarding school setting. By failing to prevent this abuse our regulatory system failed, which allowed children to be harmed and abused in our educational institutions, and we must do better. So the Greens are pleased to see the implementation of this recommendation in the bill to improve the oversight and regulation of boarding schools in Victoria.

In detail, the bill expands the powers of the Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority to regulate school boarding promises in Victoria. While schools and other education and training providers are already registered with the authority and monitored for compliance with child safe standards, boarding premises are not. The child safe standards apply to all Victorian organisations that provide services or facilities to children and include standards about governance and leadership, codes of conduct for appropriate behaviour with children and reporting and responding to incidents of abuse. Every institution that is entrusted with the care of our children should be following and upholding these standards, including boarding schools. So we are pleased to see the bill is bringing boarding premises under the remit of the VRQA to ensure that there is proper oversight and monitoring of boarding schools’ compliance with the child safe standards.

Under the new framework set out under this bill, schools operating school boarding facilities must register both the school and its boarding facilities with the authority, and in order to be registered boarding premises will be required to meet minimum standards. The bill specifies a few of these: no corporal punishment, an anaphylaxis management policy and the managing of child abuse. I understand that standards are likely to include standards around acceptance policies, student welfare and the governance and probity of the provider. Really what I hope these standards go to is the heart of the culture that enabled abuse to occur in our boarding schools and ensure that at these schools the safety and wellbeing of students is paramount.

The framework set up under the bill allows a person to make a complaint to the authority if they believe that a boarding school is failing in his duty to comply with the minimum standards or with the Education and Training Reform Act or the regulations. The bill also gives the authority the ability to enforce compliance with the minimum standards and child safe standards. Registered boarding premises will have to undergo periodic reviews by the authority, and schools who do not meet these regulatory standards are in breach of these rules and could have conditions imposed on the registration of their boarding premises or be closed.

The Greens know that there is more work to be done to implement the full recommendations of the royal commission, but, as I said, we are pleased to see recommendation 13.3 being implemented by this bill today, and we wish it a speedy passage through both houses of Parliament. We will continue to call for the full implementation of the royal commission’s recommendations to ensure that the voices of sexual abuse survivors are heard by those of us in this place and that we take action to ensure that all of our children are safe, including at school, including at boarding schools. We support this bill.

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