SRE is a self-regulating system
According to correspondence FIRIS has received from the NSW Department of Education (the Department) (see Appendix 1 below), the Crown Solicitor advised the previous Minister for Education that under the current provisions of the NSW Education Act 1990 (the Act) –
‘the Minister does not have the power to control the content of SRE’.
FIRIS has also been advised by the Department that the Act does not give it control over the content of SRE either (see Appendix 2 below).
In addition, FIRIS has also been informed by the Department that the Act does not give the Minister or the Department control over who is authorised to deliver religious instruction in SRE (see Appendix 2 below). In accordance with the Act, the Special Religious Education Procedures (the Procedures) state that the recruitment, training and authorisation of personnel to deliver SRE is the responsibility of each individual approved provider [p. 7].
The 2015 Review of SRE and SEE in NSW Government Schools (the 2015 Review) stated that the procedures related to SRE “set out what is essentially a form of self-regulation for the delivery of SRE in government schools” [p. xvi]. Given that it is a self-regulating system, the reviewers believed that SRE providers have “a responsibility for transparency to parents, the Department, school communities and the wider public, through publication of important information and the provision of regular monitoring.” [p. xix]
The ‘Annual Assurance’
Given that the Minister for Education and the Department have no authority over the content of SRE lessons or the selection and authorisation processes used by SRE providers to choose their personnel, when it comes to monitoring SRE providers, the Department must rely on an ‘annual assurance’ from providers that they are doing the right thing.
This includes relying on the word of SRE providers that they are complying with the Child Protection (Working with Children) Act 2012.
Therefore, the Procedures state that SRE providers must submit to the Department an Annual Assurance form. The Assurance requires SRE providers to declare –
- that all of their instructors have obtained Working with Children Check (WWCC) clearance numbers and that evidence that they have done so, including verification of clearance, is kept on record.
- that they have in place a system of authorised initial and ongoing training for their instructors that includes training in classroom management and child protection. The Assurance states that this information is to be published on the providers’ websites.
- that an outline of the authorised age appropriate curriculum scope and sequence used in schools is provided to the public via a website, and that their instructors are teaching the curriculum with sensitivity and in an age appropriate manner. The Assurance states that curriculum scope and sequences must be provided in sufficient detail for parents/caregivers to understand what is covered in SRE lessons.
SRE providers must also enter on the form –
- a link to the home page of their website
- a direct link, or direct link(s), to their page(s) where their curriculum scope and sequence(s), training information and authorisation processes and complaints handling procedures can be found.
If these requirements are not followed, the Department claims – “Approved providers will lose their approved provider status if the responsibilities outlined in the annual assurance are not addressed.” [p. 3]
Therefore, in order to assess the robustness and integrity of the Annual Assurance process as a risk and quality control measure, FIRIS has audited the annual assurance forms of SRE providers submitted for the 2020 school year. Copies of the Assurances were obtained via a request for information in accordance with the Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009.
The audit focused on the dates of submission of the Assurances and the information provided in ‘Section 1’ and ‘Section 2’ (as identified by FIRIS below) on page four of the Assurance.
Furthermore, in order to assess the veracity of the information provided in Section 2, FIRIS audited all of the websites of the 100+ approved SRE providers.
The audit report and its appendices can be found here –
Compliance with submission date
The audit identified that, of the 100 Assurances provided by religious organisations and released to FIRIS by the Department, 18 were not submitted by the due date (28 January 2020). Dates of late submissions ranged from 29 January 2020 to 5 March 2020.
It should be noted that the information provided by the Department’s Information Access Unit did not include the Assurances of four religious organisations included in the list of approved SRE providers dated 12 February 2020. Given that the latest Assurance provided to FIRIS was dated 5 March 2020, FIRIS assumes that these four organisations had not submitted their Assurance by that date.
When comparing these results to the history of amendments to the SRE provider list, FIRIS could not find clear and consistent evidence that the failure of providers to fulfil their responsibility to lodge the Assurance by the due date resulted in the loss of approved provider status.
These findings are consistent with FIRIS’ audits of the 2017 and 2018 annual assurances.
Of the 107 religious organisations included in the Department’s list of approved SRE providers in NSW Government schools on 17 January 2017)
- 23 failed to submit an Assurance by the due date (27 Jan 2017) and, of these providers, 6 submitted their Assurance more than five months after the due date
- 3 did not submit an AA for the entire 2017 school year yet did not have their approval revoked by the Minister or the Department
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 (29 January 2018)
Compliance with the provision of information
In the section of the 2020 Assurance requesting the address of an SRE provider’s website home page (Section 1 above)–
- 72 providers correctly entered the address of their website home page
- 25 providers entered an address of an SRE related page elsewhere on their website, rather than their home page address.
- 3 providers did not enter a webpage address (as required).
However, regardless of what was, or was not, entered in section 1 of the Assurance, of the 97 providers FIRIS could audit completely, only 43 providers entered information in section 2 which enabled access to their curriculum scope and sequences, training and complaints processes.
In consideration of the number of SRE providers who failed to complete the Annual Assurance correctly, and, in consideration of the amendments made to the list of approved providers since 12 February 2020, FIRIS did not find clear and consistent evidence that the Department holds SRE providers accountable for not completing the Assurance correctly or for failing to ensure the information provided demonstrated that they were meeting their obligations as outlined in Assurance and the SRE Procedures.
With regards to SRE providers, FIRIS believes that the ongoing failure of so many providers to complete the Assurance correctly and to fulfil their obligations outlined in the SRE Procedures demonstrates either a lack of willingness or an inability to follow simple procedures. In either case, it calls into question whether the parents and carers of students in NSW public schools should trust that they are complying with child protection legislation.
The seeming lack of action taken by the NSW Department of Education in response to –
- failure to submit an Assurance by the due date
- incorrect completion of the Assurance
- failure to comply with the simple requirements of the SRE Procedures
– is evidence the annual assurance process is an ineffective and thus inadequate risk management strategy which exposes students to an unreasonable and intolerable risk of abuse and subsequent harm.
FIRIS believes that a review of the provisions for SRE in the NSW Education Act 1990 should be commissioned and undertaken to determine whether those provisions meet contemporary community and government expectations, particularly in relation to matters relating to child wellbeing, protection, and safety.