March 17, 2015  |  Second Reading

Education and Training Reform Amendment (Child Safe Schools) Bill 2015

Mr HOWARD(Buninyong) — I am also pleased to add my comments with regard to this significant bill that is before the house. As a member representing areas of Ballarat East, it is particularly important that I add my comments in support of this bill. Well before the parliamentary inquiry of the Family and Community Development Committee took place last year, a number of residents from my electorate came to see me to discuss related matters. These residents were now men in their 40s and 50s, but they shared with me traumas and experiences that occurred when they were students at St Alypius Parish School in Ballarat East.

It was challenging for me as a local member of Parliament to try to support these men who had come to see me. They also told of the experiences of former fellow students of theirs, some of whom had taken their lives as a result of the trauma and ongoing frustration that they had met at many stages in their lives as a result of their experiences at school. These people should have been able to trust those around them, and they should have been able to learn and maximise their potential as young people. It was also challenging for me to discover that it was only many years after this abuse occurred that some of these men were finding their voice and becoming prepared to speak up, to share their past and say a lot more needs to be done by the Catholic Church, but also across the community, to address this issue.

I commend all of the members of that parliamentary inquiry. The experience of the inquiry would have been very confronting and challenging for them personally. I commend them for working through the processes and listening to the experiences being shared with them.

I also commend the former member for Oakleigh, Ann Barker. She identified the fact that the Victorian Parliament needed to take action to provide these people with the opportunity to share their experiences. She also wanted this state to take action to ensure that such situations could not happen again and that those people could have appropriate support to assist them into the future with the issues they were still trying to work through.

The Betrayal of Trust report, which was produced by the Family and Community Development Committee, makes many significant recommendations. As a result of that inquiry, many people across the state became aware of the issues of abuse that had taken place in the past and the extent and effects of that abuse. The federal Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse is making us aware of the extent of that abuse in other states, as well as exposing more information about what happened in this state.

The Andrews government is committed to continuing to address the recommendations of this report. It is important when a report such as the Betrayal of Trust report is released that it is not discussed for a short period of time and some limited action taken and then it is forgotten about. It is vitally important that we continue to reflect upon the issues raised by that report. As reflected in the changes introduced by this bill, we want to ensure that the report’s recommendations continue to be acted upon — that children at school, wherever they are, can trust those who have authority over them and that schools have an appropriate set of policies in place to help them both to become aware of any potential threat to students and to act upon issues that come to their attention. We must be vigilant in ensuring that no child can be abused in any schools.

The last two speakers in this debate have shared with the house that they are former teachers. I am also a former teacher, who worked in both the state and Catholic education systems. I would hope that the places where I taught were very different from those that have been referred to by the former students of St Alypius so many years before. However, we cannot afford not to be vigilant. We must ensure that our schools continue to be fully vigilant and that if there are opportunities for a child to be threatened in this manner, this can be picked up on immediately.

As earlier speakers have said, the bill follows up on two of the recommendations in the Betrayal of Trust report. Recommendation 12.1 is that the government implement minimum standards for maintaining child-safe environments for organisations with direct and regular contact with children. The government has a policy agenda regarding the development of minimum standards for a child-safe environment for organisations that work closely with children. Recommendation 16.1 is that the government review the procedures used by Victorian government schools for reporting and responding to allegations of criminal child abuse and identify a benchmark to apply to non-government schools as well as to government schools.

The bill provides further responsibilities for the Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority (VRQA) so that non-government schools must all report back to it to show they have sound policy development to ensure that all children are safe in their schools. The VRQA will have responsibility for overseeing those and for following up any circumstances where it thinks a school’s policy or any activity might be falling short of the highest standards that we must require in our schools.

It is a great pleasure to be a teacher. There are a number of members in this chamber who have been teachers in the past. It is a great joy to be a part of the development of our young children and to see at the end of a period of teaching them or of sharing our time with them that they have gained so much from their experience in school. To see them blossoming and going into adulthood is always a source of great pleasure. Many years past my teaching experience I continue to be delighted when young people, and sometimes some not quite so young people, approach me and say, ‘Mr Howard, I remember you taught me back at Sacred Heart’ or ‘You taught me at Kaniva High School’ or wherever I might have taught. They tell me what they are now doing in life, and it gives me joy that the people who are now making great contributions to our community came through schools I taught at and who remember me from those schools and are pleased to say hello to me again.

I want every child who goes through school to feel totally safe, and the bill goes some way towards achieving that. In wearing the badges that many of us are wearing today about bullying in schools, we know we have a responsibility as a government and as a broader community to ensure that there is no bullying and that children are not going to be abused in any way in our schools, so they can go to school and feel safe and supported and feel that learning is a joy and that their time at school is a great pleasure so they can blossom and go on to become great adults and make a contribution to our community.

To hear the accounts of some of those we have spoken to and whose cases are highlighted in the Betrayal of Trust report is heartbreaking, and we want to see that never happens again. I am pleased there is bipartisan support for this ongoing action. We want to make sure our schools are great places of learning and great places for children to always feel safe.