Victorian schools are being threatened with deregistration if they fail to sign a controversial statutory declaration that they call “professionally insulting”.
Last year, the Victorian Education Department gave principals until September to sign documents committing to new standards aimed at eliminating child abuse.
The process is being overseen by the Victorian Registration Qualification Authority (VRQA), which ensures the qualifications for educational staff throughout the state.
Now, principals are seeking legal advice over the matter, hoping to have the request – which they fear will expose them to potential charges of being knowingly non-compliant – revoked.
And the stakes are high. Principals refusing to sign the statutory declaration have been sent letters advising them that their schools may be deregistered if they fail to comply.
The Department's letter, which has been distributed to several principals across Victoria, reads:
“This poses a significant risk to schools. As a statutory authority, the VRQA are required by law to de-register any school where students are deemed to be at risk through the school's non-compliance with the minimum standards for registration.”
However, despite the increasingly tense stand-off, one principal – speaking to The Educator on the condition of anonymity – said they were confident of a positive outcome.
“We don’t believe this will escalate because we are confident we can put forward a successful legal challenge,” they said.
“In the worst case scenario, we will write on the bottom of the stat dec: ‘This has been signed under duress’ and it will not be a legal document.”
The principal added that it was their understanding that senior bureaucrats in Department agree that the state’s school heads should not have to sign the document.
‘A blunt instrument approach’
Berwick Lodge Primary School principal, Henry Grossek, told The Educator that he wasn’t surprised by the VRQA’s threat to de-register schools, but said he was “bitterly disappointed” that the Department had “chosen that approach to dealing with the complexities of the matter”.
“In my opinion it shows a blatant disregard for the very genuine concerns that those principals feel over the issue, and might I add - many, many more who will have signed the document with grave reservations,” he said.
“It's hard not to view the Department's actions as a blunt instrument approach to a situation that could well have been avoided in the first place with a more nuanced approach; one that acknowledges the differences between the school sectors in their existing compliance and accountability obligations.”
Grossek said that if the VRQA doesn't back down on its threat to deregister the schools of principals who don’t comply with the requests, it will be a “no-win situation” for all involved – and that includes the Department itself.
“I suspect that the Department will be forced into a corner not of its liking, probably suspending principals in the first place for not obeying a lawful instruction, rather than de-registering schools,” he said.
“My view is that the threat to de-register schools may be a tactic designed to wedge principals and their school councils, something the Department would know only too well that principals would be loath to have occur.”
Grossek said that if that scenario were to play out, he would expect that industrial action by principals would be on the table.
“No-one wants that. If the Department were to actually de-register schools, that would escalate the situation even further,” he said.
“At the end of the day, the Department are caught between the VRQA and schools, and that will have to be resolved at a higher level, or else the Department will bear the brunt of principals’ discontent.”
Principals recognise standards as 'highest priority'
VRQA director, Lynn Glover, said the vast majority of school principals recognise the importance of giving the implementation of the Child Safe Standards the highest priority.”
“The VRQA appreciates the cooperation and support of principals in ensuring the child safe standards are implemented and that good practice can be disseminated across the three sectors,” Glover said in a statement.
A spokesman for the Victorian Education Department told The Educator that the VRQA is making sure all schools meet the requirements of the Child Safe Standards.
“As part of meeting the Child Safe Standards’ the principal and school council president of all schools – government, Catholic and independent - are required by the VRQA to sign a statutory declaration,” the spokesman said.
“A statutory declaration provides documented assurance that they will implement the standards and that the information they provided to the VRQA was true and correct."