All schools that provide education to primary or secondary students must be registered in order to operate. To be registered and maintain registration, a school is required to meet certain regulatory requirements, which vary by jurisdiction, school sector and school type.
Because registration regimes, and the regulatory obligations they cover, are constantly changing, schools are increasingly expected to demonstrate ‘continuous compliance’ with their requirements.
Overview of the Registration Process
Through the registration process, registration authorities are able to uphold minimum standards for curriculum and operational activities amongst schools in their jurisdiction. These minimum standards do often vary between the government and non-government education sector, but in some jurisdictions such as South Australia, the same registration requirements are applied to both types of schools. Registration is not permanent and is generally renewed every five years or after a school experiences a structural change, such as adding a campus or a year level.
Government schools are established by statute and are operated under the authority of an Education Minister or their delegate. Government schools are administered and managed by state and territory education departments, including approving school boards, investigating complaints and inspecting school premises. For some government schools, quality assurance is performed by an independent school registration body.
Non-government schools in all jurisdictions must comply with certain legal and regulatory requirements, including those concerning incorporation, financial viability, school curriculum, staff qualifications and student safety/welfare. Usually the school registration authority will be an independent body, but in jurisdictions such as WA and ACT, responsibility for registration forms part of the functions of the education department.
Registration compliance requires ‘big picture’ compliance with many different obligations – registration authorities are essentially making an assessment of whether a school is doing everything it needs to, practically and legally, in order to be a school.
How Does Registration Vary Between Jurisdictions?
As discussed in our previous School Governance article, the registration requirements for schools vary significantly in their extent and stringency. Half of Australia’s non-government schools have undergone a regulatory upheaval, for example through the passage of new ‘education’ legislation in NSW, Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania. These legislative updates have each brought with them a reformed registration system. The only exception is the ACT which has had the same Registration Manual since 2015; representatives from the ACT Education Directorate have commented to School Governance that this document is still considered current but may be updated in the future.
The functions and resources of school registration authorities differ between states and territories, and this plays a significant role in how they manage school registration and their expectations for compliance.
Some, such as the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) and the Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority (VRQA), play an active enforcement role, by stipulating extensive evidence of compliance and continuously checking this evidence by conducting random and scheduled school inspections. Representatives from NESA have commented to School Governance that they deal directly with schools that are on the registration renewal program, which involves dialogue between schools and personnel from NESA.
Other authorities, such as those in the NT and the ACT, conduct a more passive monitoring role, meaning they consult with and guide schools on the best approach to safety and compliance and are likely to only intervene where there is a significant breach.
Some regulators have arrangements with school groups and systems in terms of compliance monitoring, enabling an approved authority to evaluate and report on individual school compliance with registration requirements. While this helps to streamline the registration renewal process, individual schools may be left uncertain as to the scope of their requirements.
For example, Catholic schools in Victoria are subject to a set of CECV Guidelines, which set out the Catholic Education Commission of Victoria’s expectations for compliance with the VRQA’s minimum standards. The CECV Guidelines assist schools to comply with the VRQA Guidelines, but the evidentiary requirements are more extensive in the CECV Guidelines.
School Registration Authorities and the Royal Commission
Despite this significant variation in how registration authorities operate, the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (Royal Commission) may cause these authorities to become increasingly accountable for the regulation of schools.
The Royal Commission published its Final Report on 15 December 2017, making 189 recommendations to help ensure the prevention of the sexual abuse of children in institutional environments.
In Volume 13: Schools, the Royal Commission made eight recommendations for how schools can improve child safety and reduce the risk of abuse. Recommendations 13.1 and 13.2 specifically identified school registration authorities as being the entities responsible for implementation, stating that:
- independent oversight authorities responsible for implementing the Child Safe Standards should delegate to school registration authorities the responsibility for monitoring and enforcing the Child Safe Standards in government and non-government schools
- school registration authorities should place particular emphasis on monitoring government and non-government boarding schools to ensure they meet the Child Safe Standards.
According to the Royal Commission, school registration authorities should be taking a ‘responsive approach’ to school compliance, consistent with best practice regulation.
As reported in School Governance last week, the Australian Government has made its official response to the Royal Commission, so far accepting 104 of the 122 recommendations. However, both of the recommendations above were merely ‘Noted’, with the Australian Government stating that these recommendations were a matter for state and territory governments, in effect rejecting any potential for a national registration standard to be put into place. This was despite the Royal Commission commenting that inconsistent regulation between states and territories means that children could have more or less protection depending on where they attend school.
Should Schools Anticipate Further Change to their Registration Requirements?
Because the Royal Commission’s recommendations relating to school registration authorities have been assigned as state/territory matters, the potential evolution in the approach of these regulators, and the impact upon schools, will depend upon jurisdictional responses to the Royal Commission.
While no school registration authority has taken the formal step of revising their registration compliance expectations in response to the Royal Commission, schools should already be considering whether their evidence of compliance relating to child protection would meet a registration requirement relating to the Child Safe Standards, or the Royal Commission’s broader recommendations.
Schools in jurisdictions such as the NT which do not already have registration standards that are specifically dedicated to both child protection and child safe requirements should anticipate these requirements being added more clearly into their registration obligations. NSW in particular would be a prime candidate for upcoming expanded child safety requirements, given the significant new child protection laws being proposed (refer to our previous School Governance article). Registration requirements concerning the NSW Principles for Child-Safe Organisations would likely assist schools with developing a framework for the new broad offence of ‘Failure to reduce or remove the risk of child becoming victim of child abuse’.
All registration authorities are likely to take on a more active role in confirming compliance, through more regular and rigorous inspections and increased evidentiary expectations. Schools should anticipate this, by proactively implementing internal Registration Compliance systems which:
- are responsive to regulatory change
- facilitate continuous compliance by all school staff
- meet the expectations and needs of their state/territory registration authority and its inspectors.