What Question Should Governing Bodies be Asking their Management about Child Protection in Their School?

12 March 2020

The Preamble to the National Principles for Child Safe Organisations states: “a child safe organisation is one that creates a culture, adopts strategies and takes action to promote child wellbeing and prevent harm to children and young people”. Principle 1 states that: “Child safety and wellbeing is embedded in organisational leadership, governance and culture”.

Governing bodies of an incorporated body and ‘advisory boards’ are both tasked with enabling a school to achieve the best outcomes for its students and staff, and the school. Maximum child safety and wellbeing is definitely a ‘best outcome’.

High functioning governing bodies do this by identifying the school’s priorities through strategic planning and enterprise risk management. Along with their accountability for capital works and master planning, the finances and overall resourcing of the school, they know that they are also accountable for the safety of all students, staff and visitors.

In addition, governing bodies must ensure that the school vision and mission are met and that the total educational package of the school reflects the needs of students. They are responsible and accountable for the culture of the school and must ensure that the principal leads the school’s culture.

The school principal, therefore, holds a key role in the school regarding the embodiment of the school culture. It is the principal’s role to ensure that the vision and mission of the school, as directed by the governing body, is inculcated into all activities and into the very fabric of the school.

So, when things go wrong and a school is placed in the media spotlight for issues in relation to their child protection culture and practices, it is useful for that school and for all of us concerned with the safety of children, to evaluate our own organisational culture, systems and practices to ensure that these work better in the future and are subject to continuous improvement. Additionally, if governing bodies are ultimately accountable for the culture of their school and for the safety of the children who attend the school, it is worth considering the sorts of questions governing bodies should be asking of their principals and senior staff regarding child protection.


Culture and Child Safety Risks for Schools

School Governance has produced many articles regarding the crucial role that governing bodies play in schools in order to develop and maintain a robust, transparent and valid child safe culture. These articles have included,

The Glossary of Education Reform notes:

The term school culture generally refers to the beliefs, perceptions, relationships, attitudes, and written and unwritten rules that shape and influence every aspect of how a school functions, but the term also encompasses more concrete issues such as the physical and emotional safety of students…

Australia’s main corporate regulator, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) recently defined culture as “a set of shared values and assumptions within an organisation. It represents the ‘unwritten rules’ for how things really work.” Despite being a corporate regulator, ASIC’s definition of culture can apply to the school environment. A common colloquial definition of culture is “the way we do things when no one is watching”. When a school's culture is not positive, certain behaviours may be tolerated which ultimately harm the school and the members of the school community. Such behaviours can have financial and reputational consequences for the school as well as cause immense harm to students.

In the CompliSpace White Paper, 12 Key Risks for School Boards in 2019 we noted that, with the conclusion of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (Royal Commission) and COAG’s endorsement of the National Principles for Child Safe Organisations, there is now a national focus on creating and embedding a child safe culture in all schools.

In addition, the Royal Commission’s report, The role of organisational culture in child sexual abuse in institutional contexts suggested “that stakeholders of institutions that provide services to children and young people pledge to introduce a culture in their organisations that is the opposite of one that…facilitates child sexual abuse.” Leaders are encouraged to “behave in ways that convey the suggested culture; by training staff members to embrace such a culture; and by engineering cultural artefacts and practices that symbolise this culture.”

The White Paper noted two examples of Key Strategic Risks in Child Safety for schools:

  • Failure to adequately plan and provide resources to meet future changes to child protection laws and policies and to meet increased community expectations in relation to child protection.
  • Failure to develop, resource and effectively implement strategic objectives associated with the enhancement of child protection measures and the development of a child safe culture at the school that work towards best practice in institutional child protection.


How Can a School Mitigate Against These Risks?

The approach to child protection has shifted from a series of obligations and tasks mandated by law, to an all-encompassing culturally-driven approach designed to ensure that protecting children from abuse is embedded in the everyday thinking and practice of school leaders, staff and volunteers.

Embedding a child safe culture will require schools to have a comprehensive child safe program rather than simply having a set of policies aligned with key pieces of legislation. A program in this sense is a comprehensive set of policies, procedures, assurance systems, training, monitoring and reporting that is integrated and coherent.

Such a program should be integrated into the governance and risk frameworks of the school, aim to assist the school to create changes in staff behaviour and require a ‘top down’ commitment by school management to promote ‘end to end’ compliance and organisational cultural change.

The governing body should, on a regular basis, ask for a report which outlines how the school is actively working towards creating a child safe culture in the school. Every activity of the school should be examined through the lens of “Does this support and embed a child safe culture?”.

There is a range of information that the governing body should receive and consider which may help inform any review of the extent to which the school is developing and embedding a child safe culture. Some of this information includes the:

  • number of reports received: staff, students, volunteers, community members regarding child protection mandatory reporting, reportable conduct, staff misconduct, staff breaches of the school code of conduct etc.
  • number of complaints received from students, the school community that involve staff, visitors, volunteers or contractors relating to allegations of misconduct/unprofessional conduct.
  • number of times students are consulted and provided with information in relation to the school’s child protection policies and practices, including how to make a complaint.
  • frequency and quality of training provided to staff, volunteers and contractors in relation to child protection obligations and the school specific child safe practices
  • frequency of review of the school’s child protection policy suite in light of incidents and also the frequency of regular cyclical reviews.

Schools are required to communicate their child safety program, publish their child safety policy and their child safety code of conduct, a student code of conduct, an adult code of conduct, develop robust child safe human resources practices, provide comprehensive child protection training, implement risk management practices and controls, and ensure that any strategies include the empowerment and participation of the children and age appropriate student education.

Furthermore, governing bodies also need to task their principal with reviewing human resources policies to ensure that they are best practice in relation to child safety. This includes recruitment screening for suitability, background and referee checking, supervision and performance monitoring and induction and ongoing training.

And finally, governing bodies need to be assured that these processes are in place and are actually being done.

It is NOT sufficient for governing bodies to say, “we have policies for these matters”. They need to have assurance and be shown evidence that what they say the school will do is actually being done.

The principal should, without hesitation, and without stress, be able to show evidence of the school’s commitment to, and accountability for, child safe practices. After all, that is clearly the role of the principal.

Craig D’cruz

With 37 years of educational experience, Craig D’cruz is the National Education Lead at CompliSpace. Craig provides direction on education matters including new products, program/module content and training. Previously Craig held the roles of Industrial Officer at the Association of Independent Schools of WA, he was the Principal of a K-12 non-government school, Deputy Principal of a systemic non-government school and he has had teaching and leadership experience in both the independent and Catholic school sectors. Craig currently sits on the board of a large non-government school and is a regular presenter on behalf of CompliSpace and other educational bodies on issues relating to school governance, school culture and leadership.