Education Legislation Amendment (Victorian Institute of Teaching, TAFE and Other Matters) Bill 2018
06 June 2018
It is my pleasure today to rise to contribute to the Education Legislation Amendment (Victorian Institute of Teaching, TAFE and Other Matters) Bill 2018. The bulk of this bill deals with changes to the Victorian Institute of Teaching (VIT) but it also enacts some changes to adult education institutes, most significantly the Centre for Adult Education. It changes some reporting requirements for TAFE and makes some amendments around university council appointments.
I would like to deal first with the changes around the VIT. I believe as legislators we have an obligation to absolutely ensure the protection of children in our care, whether that be in schools, in out-of-home care or in child protection. To the extent that this bill does that, it is to be commended. However, we do have a few concerns and I think the circumstances which have actually led us to this point with this legislation in front of the house are also certainly of some concern.
The Victorian Institute of Teaching is an independent statutory authority. It was first established in 2002. I believe that prior to last year it had been through only one formal review since it was established. The institute describes its functions as to regulate the Victorian teaching profession in the public interest.
Public interest, I think, is one of the very key tests here. The truth is that the bill has arrived before the house because the VIT in many ways failed to satisfy the community that it was carrying out its duties in the interests of that test and in meeting public interest.
That came to a head after the VIT allowed a teacher who was sacked from a school to keep his registration. When you go back and have a look at that example, the media reporting around the time talked about the fact that the school sacked him because he was showing students R-rated movies, he was paying them for massages and he was telling them stories about a whole range of things, including incest and priests urinating on a girl's dress. There were all manner of things that were just so beyond the realm of anyone who should be put in charge of young people.
It was a primary school, they were grade 4 students and, after a rather lengthy investigation, the VIT decided not to actually deregister him. That clearly was of huge concern to that school community, but I think it was also of huge concern to the broader Victorian community and it really led people to question whether indeed the VIT was applying the law as it stood and whether the framework which governs the VIT needed to be reviewed. It was of significant concern that it took them some two years after a complaint was lodged before they came to the conclusion that he should keep his registration.
One of the things I noted from that time and the public reporting around it was the Catholic Education Commission of Victoria saying that they also rely on the integrity of the VIT process when making employment decisions, so there are real issues not just for the public school system but also for Catholic and independent schools as well. As a result of that, Penny Armytage, who was formerly of course the Secretary of the Department of Justice, was commissioned to undertake a fairly thorough review of the VIT.
She consulted quite widely, and one of the things she noted was that stakeholders felt that the role of the VIT and its identity had become increasingly unclear over time. That is certainly consistent with feedback that I have had from a number of teachers and principals on a whole range of matters. Sometimes I think the VIT comes down with a big stick, and sometimes that is most certainly appropriate, but sometimes too it seems intent on applying the letter of the law and there does not always seem to be a great use of judgement, of which I have to say that case in Caulfield South that I referenced earlier is certainly an example.
More convincingly the review argued that amendments to the Education and Training Reform Act 2006 over time have actually, and I quote:
… resulted in a legislative regime for the VIT that is more complicated, confusing and difficult to administer than other, more modern professional registration and regulation regimes.
It pointed to the complexity of definitions that define the threshold at which the VIT should undertake disciplinary action, and those thresholds, as the regime currently stands, include things like continued fitness, suitability, misconduct, serious misconduct, competence, seriously detrimental effects because of impairment and the ability to practice, plus the threshold in relation to the conviction of a criminal offence other than a sexual offence. So there is most certainly a fair degree of confusion, dare I say it, in the current regime that this bill aims to address.
Principally the bill will align the VIT registration with the working with children check, which was recommended by Penny Armytage in her review, and it will also close what has become known as the notification gap. Until now, teachers who have been registered with the VIT have not been required to also satisfy the conditions of a working with children check. However, there has been no mandated notification of teachers working outside of a school who have had their registration cancelled or revoked, and that is what is known as the notification gap. Under the provisions of this amendment, registered teachers will be required to advise the Department of Justice and Regulation of the details of any organisations other than schools or early childhood services where they are engaged in child-related work, and in realigning the VIT registration with the working with children check the bill will enable the VIT to treat serious criminal charges and offences committed by teachers or applicants for teacher registration in the same way as the Working with Children Act 2005. We certainly welcome those changes. We believe that they are sensible and certainly that they do align with the Armytage review.
The categories that will now be introduced include a category A offence, which will result in the VIT automatically refusing or cancelling a teacher's registration. The offences included under category A include sexual offences committed by an adult against a child, including child pornography, as well as murder, attempted murder and rape offences, regardless of a victim's age. Clearly nobody who commits those offences should ever be let anywhere near children. Category B offences include serious sexual offences where the victim is an adult, manslaughter and other serious physical offences, serious drug offences, offences of failing to protect a child from abuse and failing to disclose suspected child abuse, and also category A offences committed by a person when they were a child.
Category C offences are offences where the conduct may result in the VIT refusing to grant registration if the VIT is satisfied that this conduct makes the person unsuitable to be a teacher and that it would not be in the public interest to register them. Category C is of particular interest because there have been far too many situations where a teacher has been dismissed by the Department of Education and Training only to be re-employed by the independent or Catholic sector, and that comes back to the point I was making earlier about the fact that the Catholic and independent sectors very much rely on the advice of the VIT when they are undertaking employment of teachers. Category C, we believe, poses an ongoing threat to students in Victoria because teachers who are dismissed for improper behaviour can still teach — they can still find another job and repeat their offence.
I do note that whilst many of the recommendations from the Armytage report are included in the bill, there are some disturbing omissions. We believe in particular that the fact that VCAT needs to hear matters of misconduct but this bill only refers category A offences to VCAT is of concern given that offences under both categories B and C include some very grave and grievous offences. We think that there are serious recommendations concerning governance that Penny Armytage highlighted to the government and a number of those have been omitted from the bill, which is a great concern because it does make me wonder just how seriously the government is taking her findings. In light of some of the incredibly serious cases that have been brought to the Victorian public's attention I think it is incumbent on the government to perhaps go back and re-examine particularly category B and C offences, which currently would not be referred to VCAT if concerns were raised about a teacher under those two categories.
The bill also makes several changes, as I mentioned earlier, around TAFE. Principally those changes relate to the fact that there is a provision to allow TAFE institutes to merge with adult education institutes. I initially had some concerns about this. However, I am satisfied by the department's explanation that it relates only to the Centre for Adult Education. A common board was established for two institutes — the Centre for Adult Education and Box Hill Institute — back in 2013, and I understand that the intent of this legislation is really to remove some duplicate reporting processes and to consolidate the finances of those two entities. I would point out that Box Hill, like most other TAFEs around the state, have certainly faced their fair share of challenges with declining student enrolments. I think it is important to make sure that there is transparency in the way those two institutes report to make sure there is not a conflation, I suppose, of their finances and, more importantly, their enrolment data — to make sure that how those two institutes are run is very clear. But I do note that the bill does specifically exclude Australian Multicultural Education Services, the only other adult education institution in Victoria, to make it very clear that the implications of this bill only relate to the Centre for Adult Education and perhaps any other adult education institute were it ever to be established in Victoria.
The bill also removes the requirement for TAFE institutes and adult education institutions to hold annual meetings. That was a requirement that we put in place for TAFEs back in 2012. I understand that a number of TAFEs have gone ahead with their required annual general meetings only to find that not many people turn up; however, I think this is something that should be closely watched. I do have concerns that the government has drastically reduced transparency around a lot of the TAFEs, and we know that a number of TAFEs are facing very significant problems, including some dire financial circumstances where they have relied on cash grants from the government at the end of the calendar year to ensure they return a surplus. In fact most of the TAFEs are in that situation. But also, for example, Federation Training has been incredibly late two years running in tabling its annual reports. In fact I think the 2016 annual report was tabled beyond the due date for the 2017 annual report, so Federation Training has faced significant financial challenges and significant governance challenges.
I think it is important that members of the public who are heavily invested in their TAFEs have the opportunity to go along and ask key questions of accountability and about how their TAFE is travelling. I do think that taking away the requirement for them to hold an annual general meeting is something that should be monitored. For example — and this is perhaps the most current example I could give — at the moment we have GOTAFE which has been forced to pay back $1.7 million that it has rorted, as we understand, from the Victorian government. We have had a CEO that has stepped down there, and the TAFE has been subject to a whole range of investigations by both the higher education and skills group within the department and more recently an independent reviewer. The government has released a sanitised four-page report, and there are a whole range of things taking place at GOTAFE that the community has not been made privy to and that staff have not been made privy to.
Removing perhaps one of the only opportunities where the public has the ability to go along and ask key questions of the board, I think, is not always a good thing, but we will maintain a watching brief on that particular issue.
Another provision in the bill confirms that the Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority (VRQA) has a function to deal with public complaints. That is a very sensible thing. I know that in our roles as MPs people often come to us with complaints about different agencies. I know that there is a degree of frustration from people when they make a reference to the VRQA and it is not followed through with. I think that that function, which is not currently spelled out, really does align with other regulatory bodies of a nature like the VRQA. It is sensible to define their role as being one that handles complaints from the public and places an obligation on them to actually follow them up.
Finally, the bill makes some changes around university council appointments by removing the requirement that those appointments be made by 31 December each year. Instead it allows the government to make those in a rolling three-year process. I understand that the rationale for that is around the difficulties of the Christmas–New Year period and getting in touch with people. That may be the case; however, I note that the Minister for Training and Skills has a terrible track record on university appointments. It was only two years ago or less than two years ago, shortly after her appointment to the role, that she stuffed things up fairly dramatically by attempting to install a whole bunch of her Labor mates to university councils, going back on decisions that had previously been made by the former minister. In fact this prompted a fairly unprecedented letter from all of the universities' chancellors, with the exception of Melbourne University, which all wrote to the Premier with some degree of consternation about the fact that she had gone back on her word.
In one instance the minister even tried to dump the former Monash vice-chancellor until someone told her that he had been appointed as the incoming chancellor of La Trobe University. This government certainly has a very embarrassing track record when it comes to university council appointments. I accept the argument that it is perhaps difficult when it comes to the Christmas–New Year period, but I would think that most people who put their names forward to sit on a university council would perhaps be attuned to the fact that notification may come through at some point. The government does not shut down over the Christmas–New Year period, so I would have thought that could be handled, but in any case I do not think it is a particularly bad thing to do that, and I understand that universities are fairly supportive of that decision as well.
We will not be opposing these changes. Again, as I said, we have some concerns that a number of the recommendations made by Penny Armytage in her very critical review of the VIT have not been picked up by this government, particularly those concerns around category B and category C offences. I do want to place on record my thanks to the department for their time in briefing both me and the shadow education minister on this issue. We do have a number of concerns, and I think this bill is an incredibly important one in terms of those changes to the VIT. Certainly the safety of children in the care of the state in whatever fashion that might be, whether it is in schools, whether it is in out-of-home care, whether it is in kindergarten or wherever it might be, should always be paramount and be at the forefront of our minds when we are considering these issues.