School’s out – time for better governance and oversight in the education sector

One day a rooster, the next day a feather duster!

By LAURIE PATTON | 23 February 2020

The principal resigned, his deputy stood aside, but apparently the school board knew nothing.

ABC Four Corners recently aired a comprehensive report in which it stated: “A top Catholic boys’ school is facing accusations of a culture of cover-up, after revelations its principal and dean of sport gave references for a now-convicted child sex offender but gave no support to the victim during the court process”.

Where does accountability ultimately lie when school children are hurt and it’s their teachers inflicting harm or covering up for those who are?

This sorry saga begs the question, did the board members at St Kevin’s College, Melbourne know about activities now seriously damaging the school’s reputation? If they did know, what actions did they take? If they didn’t know then what’s the point of having a board if it is unable to safeguard the school and more importantly its students? A new chair has been appointed but the damage has been done.

Apparently, even the day before he resigned officials from Edmund Rice Education Australia – which oversees a national network of schools including St Kevin’s – were attacking the media for the attention the school was receiving and expressing support for the embattled principal.

Among the ongoing issues relating to St Kevin’s is an allegation by a former head of counselling that it “responded inappropriately and inadequately” when she raised allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct by a teacher in 2019. It has also been reported that two other teachers have been stood down while complaints against them are investigated.

St Kevin’s is not the only school making headlines. As the Sydney Morning Herald reported: ”A NSW boarding school’s web pages dedicated to a celebrated former teacher were erased soon after the institution faced questions over claims he inflicted physical and sexual abuse on students”.

I know a story about a Sydney-based independent school and its handling of a serious matter relating to the questionable behaviour of one of its more troubled students. In my opinion the principal should have done far more to limit the harmful impact on the student concerned and a number of other students affected by a series of incidents, which had not been adequately addressed by the school’s teaching staff. To reveal the details, however, would risk adding to much emotional distress already caused to the students involved and their parents.

I’ve previously raised the need for mandatory governance training in the NFP sector.  Too many people on its boards seem to think their role is just about looking after broad policy making and minding the money. But when laws are broken and administrations found wanting is it OK for board directors to avoid any responsibility?

The practice of stonewalling complainants alleging sex crimes by certain religious organisations was well vented in the child abuse Royal Commission. Too many people in high places seemingly choose not to investigate serious allegations involving organisations over which they have a duty of care.

What we have is a lack of oversight that needs to be redressed. In the case I just mentioned appeals to the NSW Education Department were met with the response that private schools are not under their supervision. Apparently the only recourse in such cases is to the school’s board, whose activities appear to be largely unregulated.

Responsibility for the regulation and oversight of schools is rather vexed to say the least, but especially in the non-government sector. Both federal and state government department and ministers administer what seems to be an overly complex and ineffective regime.

School boards are no doubt made up of very well-meaning people by and large. But as I noted in my appeal for better governance in the NFP sector, there are also those for whom board membership, especially at the more prestigious schools, is seen as a good look and possibly a way to enhance one’s public persona.

Clearly, it’s time something is done. Too many examples of failure to govern effectively are routinely coming to public attention. But just for the record, I’m not calling for another royal commission. We already resort too often to inquiries when what’s needed is action from those in charge. Let’s start by introducing better processes for selecting school boards and for ensuring they act in the best interests of their students not the institution.

(Laurie Patton is a former public servant, ministerial advisor, journalist and media executive.)