Nowhere is the ridiculousness of the out-of-date 19th Century provisions for Special Religious Education (SRE or ‘scripture’) in the NSW Education Act 1990 more evident than in the number of religious organisations approved to provide SRE in NSW Government primary and secondary schools.
The current list of SRE providers identifies 100 providers.
Each provider has the authority to develop its own curriculum and lesson content and to select and authorise the instructors who deliver the lessons.
When it comes to accountability, all the Department can do is to rely on the word of providers that they are doing the right thing. SRE providers do this by submitting an annual assurance that their curriculum is taught in an age-appropriate way and that they have child protection systems in place.
Previous audits conducted by FIRIS have revealed the gross inadequacy of this strategy for managing the risks that come with SRE.
The 2015 Review of SRE also found that “neither providers nor the Department monitors compliance in any systematic way.” [p. xviii & p. 42]
Therefore, the parents, caregivers and citizens that make up FIRIS have to do it for them.
One important task taken up by FIRIS is monitoring the changes to the list of approved providers.
Now, one would think that the removal of a provider’s approval to deliver SRE would be something taken quite seriously given the risks related to child protection and child safety.
Reasonable members of the NSW public would expect that the Department would be doing whatever it could to prevent unauthorised adults gaining access to NSW public school students.
But this is not the case.
Over the course of 2018 there were 17 versions of the list of approved providers released by the Department with 27 amendments made over the course of the year.
Of the 27 amendments, ten involved the removal of a provider from the list, and another four involved the temporary removal of a provider from the list for periods ranging from approximately 14 to 35 days.
On 19 November 2018 FIRIS wrote to the Director, Early Learning and Primary Education asking him to provide FIRIS with information regarding the measures taken by him or the Department to communicate to principals the amendments made to the list of approved providers. In particular, FIRIS wanted to know if and/or how principals were informed of the removal of a SRE provider from the list, enabling them to ensure that only authorised representatives of approved SRE providers are accessing NSW public school students.
After waiting three weeks for an answer, on 11 December 2018 FIRIS wrote to the Secretary of the Department.
On 14 January 2019, given the seeming failure of both the Secretary or the Director to respond, FIRIS wrote to the NSW Ombudsman.
On 15 January 2019, FIRIS received the following response from the Director, Early Learning and Primary Education –
It seems that the Director required over six working weeks to come up with the answer that it is the responsibility of time-poor and overburdened principals, teachers, parents and caregivers to monitor the list.
FIRIS does not understand why the Primary Principals’ Association or the Secondary Principals’ Council tolerate the Department’s transferal of the responsibility onto their shoulders thereby exposing them to professional risks.
FIRIS would also like to think that the Parents and Citizens Federation of NSW would be concerned that the Department relies on parents and caregivers using a reactive complaints process to manage the risks related to child protection and child safety resulting from the lack of a systems-wide response.
It is obviously too much for a reasonable person to expect, in this age of electronic mail and distribution lists, that the Director or his delegate send a bulk email informing principals that a SRE provider has had their approval withdrawn.
A reasonable member of the NSW public would be justified in questioning whether the Department has learnt any lessons from the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse, particularly given that one of the providers removed from the list was an Anglican Diocese.
A reasonable member of the NSW public would also be justified in questioning whether the Department is doing its utmost to fulfil its duty of care to all NSW public school students.