Whistleblowing Protection: Report shows schools need to improve

11 May 2017

The release of a significant report Strength of Organisational Whistleblowing Process – Analysis From Australia (the Report) based on research by Griffith University’s Professor A J Brown is a reminder to schools of the importance of having a whistleblower policy and how it can enhance a school’s culture once implemented.  Nathan Luker, General Manager of  Your Call Whistleblowing Solutions, provides crucial insight for schools regarding what they can learn from the Report.

What is the Report?

The Report was funded by the Australian Research Council and it follows on from the ASIC-sponsored Whistling While They Work report. Significantly, ASIC has recently endorsed the Report.   ASIC Commissioner John Price has stated, “the release of the new results provides an important new picture of where the strengths and weaknesses lie in current whistleblowing processes.”

The Report assessed the whistleblowing practices across 19 industrial sectors and jurisdictions, including public, private and not-for-profit (NFP) sectors.  The Report includes an assessment of the NFP education and training sector. Therefore, schools should be aware of its findings. This is particularly the case as organisations within the NFP education and training sector (who participated in the study) demonstrated the weakest whistleblowing processes compared to all other participating industries.

A reminder on Whistleblowing in Schools

School Governance has previously published a two-part series on the importance of schools having internal whistleblower systems:

Key points from those articles include:

  • whistleblowing is regulated by various state/territory and Commonwealth legislation;
  • schools are not immune to fraud and corruption and other inappropriate behaviour such as bullying and harassment – all of which can be more effectively managed through a whistleblower policy;
  • schools should introduce reporting procedures which create a safe and secure environment that encourages staff to make disclosures;
  • schools should adopt a form of whistleblower program or policy that is appropriate to its culture and particular circumstances; and
  • a school’s board and management must lead from the top to ensure that a whistleblower program operates successfully.

The timing of the release of the Report should encourage schools to review their current whistleblower policies and procedures.

What the Report found for the education sector

When it comes to whistleblowing protection, the NFP education and training sector was found to have the weakest whistleblowing protections compared to all of the other industries surveyed - it was 18th out of the 19 sectors surveyed (two sectors scored equal 13th).

The NFP education and training sector had a high score for the ‘remediation’.  According to Nathan Luker, this outcome is pleasing on the surface. The 'remediation' category is determined via how many of the three basic processes for seeking a whistleblower resolution were nominated as available.  The three processes are:

  1. mechanisms for ensuring adequate compensation or restitution;
  2. agreed alternative employment arrangements; and
  3. a process for managers or the organisation to apologise.

However, due to the low ranking under Incident Tracking, Support Strategy, Risk Assessment and Dedicated Support it is unknown if the presence of these three ‘remediation’ processes have any impact in schools on encouraging stakeholders to speak up in the first place OR if the processes were properly functioning when required.

Ultimately, the Report shows that "even when trying hard to encourage their staff to report integrity challenges, there is much that organisations can do, in all sectors and jurisdictions, to ensure whistleblowing processes are robust."

It is important to note, that NFP education sector and all other organisations surveyed need to make improvements how they approach whistleblowing and encouraging a speak up culture.

Useful Checklist from the Report

For schools who know that their whistleblowing processes can be improved, Table 2 on page 4 of the Report provides a useful checklist of questions a school can ask to test the strength of its whistleblowing processes.  Even if you believe that your school has a robust whistleblowing program in place, the checklist should still be reviewed as a useful auditing exercise. This is because the importance of a supportive whistleblowing culture cannot be underestimated.

Mr Luker advises that: “Whistleblowing acts as a barometer or early detection warning for issues within an organisation. Many times, information received via anonymous whistleblowing channels are simply the tip of the iceberg and upon further investigation, can reveal systemic problems at an organisation level. A best practice, robust whistleblowing process connects to an organisation’s values and demonstrates a no-tolerance environment to wrongdoing. Generally, people try to speak up before they decide to speak out.”

Other tips for schools

Other useful tips for schools from Mr Luker are:

  • The tone is set at the top. This tone for a 'speak up culture' within a school must be set at the top.  The school board, principal and other key members or employees must unite and recognise their duties to all stakeholders.
  • Establish multiple reporting pathways, both internal and external (including anonymous), to enable stakeholders to speak up without fear.
  • Develop a robust policy/procedure foundation surrounding the reporting pathways to ensure conflicts of interest can be mitigated and matters properly received, correctly handled/investigated and securely documented.
  • As part of an effective whistleblower program, schools will need to nominate a ‘whistleblower champion’.

The concept of a ‘whistleblower champion’ is important because he or she is responsible for the establishment, communication and review/measure of the school’s whistleblowing program.  As a part of their review, the champion will need to regularly report whistleblowing program statistics to the school board including ‘lead’ and ‘lag’ indicators or trends to identify operational/policy/procedural/ legal deficiencies and opportunities for improvement.

Clearly, culture is a big part of the success of any governance structure within a school.  As Dr Alec O’Connell, Headmaster of Scotch College, Western Australia noted in his article Don’t jump at shadows – back your culture, "culture is the habit of being pleased with the best and knowing why. It is a way of saying ‘this is how things are done around here' ." And while "cultural reform and/or reinforcement may well be the most difficult task facing a leader and their community" Dr O'Connell emphasises that "in challenging times, it is a non-negotiable imperative that we must be able to clearly articulate our culture."

Does your school have a supportive speak up culture? 

William Kelly

William is a Legal Research Coordinator at CompliSpace. He assists with drafting and reviewing policies and procedures, as directed, for CompliSpace clients as well as writing regular articles for the School Governance blog. William is a lawyer and an officer of the Supreme Court of Victoria.