While the spin-masters in the SRE lobby attempt to focus conversations about Special Religious Education (scripture) in public schools on ‘values’, FIRIS believes that the far more pressing matter of child protection and child safety should be at the centre of the discussion.

On Tuesday 29 May 2019 in the NSW Legislative Council Mr David Shoebridge did exactly that when he asked the NSW Minister for Education Mrs Sarah Mitchell the following question –

Given the findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, why will the Government not require school principals to sight current working with children checks for priests, ministers and other religious figures before they are allowed to enter schools and to take control of children during scripture lessons?

For the transcript see here.

The Minister responded by stating –

The management of those requirements for providers of special religious education, including special ethics education, are outlined in the department’s Religious Education Policy. Under the policy, it is the responsibility of approved providers to verify the Working With Children Check of all scripture and ethics teachers

For a transcript see here.

Mr Shoebridge’s then raised some concerning issues regarding the Department’s processes and the Minister’s response.

Mr Shoebridge noted that “all employees and all volunteers who work with children in New South Wales public schools are required to show the principal a Working With Children Check, except those persons who are taking special religious education classes.” 

He then added –

For some special reason there is an exception for them and they are not required. Principals are not being provided with Working With Children Checks for those teaching special religious education. Why is this an issue? It is an issue because the organisations undertaking special religious education are expressly telling principals that they are not entitled to ask for Working With Children Checks for the ministers, priests and other religious people going into classrooms and dealing with children unsupervised. That is what happens with special religious education—it is unsupervised. (emphasis added)

Mr Shoebridge provided the Minister with an example from the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine for the Catholic Diocese of Parramatta who sent a letter to principals in the Diocese which said –

As in previous years all SRE volunteers have their WWCC numbers verified by the Diocese of Parramatta and whilst SREs will show their IDs, they are not required to provide their WWCC number nor the 100 points of ID expected of other volunteers to the school.

Mr Shoebridge pointed out that the diocese is insisting upon the right to get into classrooms and teach unsupervised without showing principals Working With Children Checks.

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FIRIS would also like to share another letter from the Catholic Diocese of Wollongong also reminding principals that they have no right to request to see the WWCC clearance numbers of SRE instructors.

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Let this sink in –

Principals, parents and caregivers of children in NSW public schools are expected to trust an organisation that has catastrophically betrayed the trust of the NSW, Australian and international community.

The fundamental problem here is the provision for SRE in the NSW Education Act 1990 which does not give the Minister or the Department  control or authority over the selection and authorisation processes used by SRE providers to engage their instructors. Therefore, they must rely on little more than the word of SRE providers in the form of an Annual Assurance.

In consideration of this reliance, Mr Shoebridge asked whether the Minister had “been made aware that the annual assurance reports that are to be provided by those religious institutions are often late or non‑existent and that those annual assurance reports are meant to be the checks for working with children?

The Minister responded –

With regard to the Working With Children Check annual assurance process for government schools, I inform the member of the following: The department sends the annual assurance by email to approved providers in term four. This must be returned before the start of term one the following school year. Approved providers will lose their approved provider status if the responsibilities outlined in the annual assurance are not addressed. (emphasis added)

In typical Department of Education style, the Minister simply paraphrased back to Mr Shoebridge the Special Religious Education Procedures which states –

The department’s SRE and SEE Officer will send to approved providers the annual assurance via email in term 4. This must be returned before the start of term 1 of the following school year. Approved providers will lose their approved provider status if the responsibilities outlined in the annual assurance are not addressed. [p. 7]

But FIRIS has already pointed out the fact that the Annual Assurance process is a grossly inadequate control measure in response to the risk of all forms of harm and abuse to NSW public school students.

In consideration of FIRIS’ audits of the annual assurance process, Mr Shoebridge then pointed out to the Minister –

To suggest that there is a protection for children through the assurance program is also wrong. Fairness in Religions in School [FIRIS]—which has done some really admirable work checking this—looked at the assurances being provided by those religious organisations, because those assurances are meant to guarantee to the department that the people going into the schools actually have Working With Children Checks. A report by FIRIS states:

An audit of the annual assurances submitted to the department for the 2017 and 2018 school years … identified that:

  • Of the 107 religious organisations included in the department’s list of approved SRE providers in NSW government schools, 3 did not submit an AA for the entire 2017 year and 23 failed to submit it by the due date. Of those providers, 6 submitted their AA more than five months after the due date.
  • 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 AA by the due date and 45, including three who did not provide a URL at all, did not meet the requirement to provide online location of information regarding child protection training.

There is no assurance. People are teaching unsupervised without Working With Children Checks.

See here for a full transcript of Mr Shoebridge’s statement.

FIRIS would like to add that on 5 February 2019 FIRIS lodged a request for copies of the 2019 Annual Assurances (AA) received by the Department by the due date of 29 January 2019. The requested information was released to FIRIS on 28 March 2019 and it revealed that of the 100 providers on the Department’s list dated 23 January 2019 –

  • There was no evidence that 10 providers submitted their assurance by the time the Department started to act on FIRIS’ request for information (28 Feb 2019).
  • 7 providers submitted their assurance after the due date.
  • One provider submitted an assurance without any of the required information.

The fact that there is no evidence that the failure to submit an Annual Assurance has resulted in the temporary or ongoing removal of approval to provide SRE, casts serious doubts on the integrity and effectiveness of the Department’s already inadequate and limited measures to ensure children are safe during the provision of SRE in NSW public schools. No Annual Assurance means that the Minister does not even have the word of providers that their instructors have undergone Working With Children Checks.

FIRIS also thinks that NSW parents and caregivers should be aware of the Department’s unwillingness to be transparent regarding the Annual Assurance process.

The independent 2015 Review of SRE and SEE recommended that the Department be more transparent regarding the approval process for SRE providers and that it publish relevant information on its website. However, FIRIS’ request for a blank copy of the 2019 AA form was only answered following a complaint to the Secretary of the Department based on advice received from the NSW Ombudsman. In its response, the Department stated that it released the document under the condition that FIRIS would not disclose it to third parties or publish it in any format.

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FIRIS does not understand why a blank copy of a departmental document related to child protection should require a ‘gag order’. FIRIS believes that the contents of the documents SRE providers are expected to sign as part of the ongoing approval to deliver SRE should be freely available to the public.

In consideration of all of the above, FIRIS believes that there is something seriously wrong with this situation. How can it be that principals cannot make reasonable requests aimed at fulfilling their duty of care?

FIRIS believes that the NSW community should not continue to allow a situation in which the Education Act requires the Minister, the Department and principals of NSW public schools to rely on little more than the word of religious organisations, particularly the Catholic Church, when it comes to matters of child protection and safety.