Fairness in Religions in School (FIRIS) has released its report containing concerning findings that far-too-many providers of Special Religious Education (SRE, aka ‘scripture’) in NSW public schools are failing to meet NSW Department of Education policy requirements related to child protection and parent/caregiver access to information.

The provisions for SRE in the NSW Education Act 1990 create a system which is self-regulated by providers because the NSW Minister for Education (the Minister) has no authority over the selection and authorisation of SRE instructors, the content of SRE curricula and lessons, or the instruction methods used.

Therefore, when it comes to matters related to child protection and child safety all the Department can do is ask SRE providers to give their word that they have child protection systems in place and that their lesson materials are age-appropriate and are being followed by their instructors. This is done by requiring SRE providers to submit a written Annual Assurance to the Department of Education that:

  • they have procedures to ensure compliance with the Child Protection (Working with Children) Act 2012 and that they:
    • have evidence that instructors approved to teach SRE in public schools have obtained a NSW Working with Children Check (WWCC) clearance
    • keep copies of WWCCs on record.
  • only authorised materials and teaching methods will be used and that:
    • lessons will be taught sensitively and in an age appropriate manner
    • a copy of the age appropriate curriculum and/or the curriculum outline used in schools is provided to the public on a website.
  • a system of accredited initial and ongoing training for volunteer teachers includes training in classroom management and child protection issues is in place.

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In February this year, FIRIS wrote to the Department and, in accordance with the Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009, obtained copies of all Annual Assurances submitted to the Department for the 2017 and 2018 school years.

An audit of the Annual Assurances was conducted and found that for the 2017 school year:

  • of the 107 religious organisations included in the Department’s list of approved SRE providers in NSW Government schools (17 January 2017):
    • 3 did not submit an Annual Assurance for the entire 2017 school year yet did not have their approval revoked by the Minister or the Department
    • 23 failed to submit an AA by the due date (27 Jan 2017) and, of these providers, 6 submitted their AA more than five months after the due date
    • 8 did not provide a URL identifying the location of their authorised curriculum in the appropriate space provided on the document.
    • only 4 provided a URL direct to a curriculum outline / scope and sequence document.

For the 2018 school year:

  • of the 107 religious organisations included in the Department’s list of approved SRE providers in NSW Government schools on 24 January 2018:
    • 27 failed to submit an Annual Assurance by the due date (29 January 2018)
    • 45, including three who did not provide a URL at all, did not meet the requirement to provide the online location of information regarding child protection training
    • one provider did not enter a URL in the appropriate space provided on the document for a location of their authorised curriculum
    • only four provided a URL direct to a curriculum outline / scope and sequence document.

The failure of far-too-many providers to lodge an Annual Assurance before the due date at the beginning of both 2017 and 2018, and the omissions and inconsistencies in information demonstrates that far-too-many of the 100-plus providers have little interest in or respect for accountability, and that the current system of self-regulation of SRE is woefully inappropriate, particularly as a significant aspect is compliance with the Child Protection (Working with Children) Act 2012.

That three providers who seemingly failed to lodge an Annual Assurance for 2017 were allowed to provide SRE in NSW Governments throughout the 2017 school year calls into question the efficacy of the annual assurance process.

These findings are also concerning given that both the Department and scripture providers appealed to the annual assurance process in response to a number of the recommendations of the 2015 review into SRE and SEE, in particular those recommendations related to the provision of online curriculum information.

It has been a requirement of the Department’s Religious Education Implementation Procedures (REIPs) since June 2013 that providers of SRE ‘make lesson content accessible on a website or at least provide a program outline and curriculum scope and sequence documents.

In December 2014 the independent reviewers of SRE and Special Education in Ethics (SEE, aka ‘ethics’) commissioned by the Department found that only just 39% of SRE providers had curriculum information accessible on a website.

FIRIS’ first audit in June 2016 also found that 61 of the then 105 providers (58%) did not have the required information available at the web address provided by the Department.

When the Department had this brought to their attention they replied that the information did not need to be at the web address provided by them, but rather just on a website, so since then FIRIS audits have involved simply looking to see if parents can at least find the name of the curriculum being used so they can do an internet search.

In mid-February this year, FIRIS conducted an audit based on the Department’s list of approved providers dated 16 February 2018. This audit identified that of the 107 approved providers, 14 allegedly failed to even identify or mention the curriculum used by their instructors. Of these 14 alleged non-compliant providers, 12 had not been found compliant in any of FIRIS’ four previous audits.

This is not good enough! It seems that the Department has no problems not only not providing a direct link to a provider’s curriculum on their website but also not even ensuring a provider at least mentions which curriculum it uses on its website. In a Schroedinger-esque piece of policy writing, these 14 providers may or may not be fulfilling their obligations, and the Department can dismiss complaints that parents and caregivers have no way to make an informed decision as to whether their children should be exposed to the instructors and the content of the lessons of these 14 providers.

Scripture providers have had over five years to meet the simple requirement to have their curriculum information available on the internet. It must also be noted that FIRIS’ audit did not consider the quality of information provided, which in many cases is extremely inadequate.

With regards to compliance and quality, it is clear that many providers are not interested in ensuring time-poor parents and caregivers can make an informed decision regarding their children’s participation or non-participation in SRE. The independent SRE reviewers ARTD Consultants should not have had to restate the requirement (as one of their recommendations):

All providers to place in the public domain their curriculum scope and sequence and that this be in sufficient detail for parents/ caregivers and schools to be able to understand what is covered in SRE lessons. [Rec. 18]

Despite the Department’s SRE Consultative Committee supporting this recommendation and stating that ‘SRE Providers agree to post on their websites a direct link to the syllabus outlines of SRE Program(s) they authorise for use by their SRE Teachers’, FIRIS’ February 2018 audit found that, out of the 250 links to the 65 different curricula used, only 80 (32%) were directly linked to either a curriculum outline, syllabus outline, or a scope and sequence document.

Even in the case of the most used curriculum, only 4 out of the 53 links provided take parents directly to the curriculum outline. The rest require parents to navigate through the publisher’s main website or other websites, and one even takes parents to a completely different curriculum.

All of the information above calls into question the SRE Consultative Committee’s response to Recommendation 18 that ‘most SRE Providers already comply with this condition of the Annual Assurance Letter to the NSW Department for Education.’

FIRIS’ audits paint a very different picture.

The veracity of the Department’s oft-repeated statement in correspondence to FIRIS that its personnel continue ‘to work closely with providers of SRE in relation to their responsibilities and expectations’ is also highly questionable.

That the Department has little interest in holding SRE providers accountable is demonstrated by the apparent failure to verify the information provided in the Annual Assurances per se, and the failure to withdraw approval to the three providers who failed to submit an annual assurance for the 2017 school year.

In consideration of FIRIS’ findings – of failures of far-too-many SRE providers to meet the simple requirements of the annual assurance process – the NSW public should have little confidence that SRE providers are capable and/or willing to fulfil their obligations in a self-regulating system and that the NSW Department of Education is overseeing and managing child-protection and safety during the time allocated to SRE, and that it is failing to adequately mitigate existing and foreseeable risks of various forms of abuse of NSW public school students.

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