Education and Training Reform Amendment (Regulation of Student Accommodation) Bill 2020

Mr KENNEDY (Hawthorn) (14:30): I rise to speak on the Education and Training Reform Amendment (Regulation of Student Accommodation) Bill 2020. As a former school principal and assistant boarding housemaster I appreciate the benefits for the many students across Victoria who attend boarding schools. Students from a wideranging geographical area come together to be educated. Hawthorn’s largest boarding school is Scotch College, with 160 students living across three separate
houses—70 per cent of borders are from rural Victoria and New South Wales, while the other 30 come from across the world. Often relationships form across age groups. Rural and suburban students form long-term friendships that benefit the state as they move into adult life.

Here I might mention two very fine alumni in the member for Kew and the member for Burwood, who both attended Scotch College. Dedicated staff in these places form meaningful bonds to assist students learning outside regular school hours, and for some their backyards are immaculate sportsgrounds which they use on weekends and after school.

Between 1970 and 1975 I served as assistant housemaster at Sydney Church of England Grammar School, more commonly known as Shore. I worked in Hodges House, one of their four boarding houses. I became during those six years very much aware of many of the benefits of boarding school life. However, of course, it was not always the case, and it certainly was true that it did not always suit many, many students. Indeed, when I was growing up, I remember that if we were naughty, we were threatened with ‘I will send you to boarding school if you don’t behave’. Fortunately that was not the only way in which boarding school was regarded.

However, when I looked around in those days, it is true that there was a very relaxed atmosphere. Sometimes, for example, a power point could be left exposed for months in a boarding house because everyone told everyone, ‘Don’t put your finger on that power point’ for obvious reasons, and so on. So you could say that some things were done in a very relaxed and friendly way, but they were not always ways which were safe.

Benefits then, however, are only possible when safe practices are put in place. Important work was done by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse; it made recommendations to improve the safety of boarding houses for students that this bill seeks to implement. The royal commission identified that boarding schools can be a high-risk environment for students, and unfortunately in Victoria some school boarding premises have been the sites of historic cases of child sexual abuse and accidents of various kinds.

Currently there are no government regulations that directly monitor the compliance of school boarding premises with the Victorian child safe standards. The bill will expand the regulatory powers of the Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority, the VRQA, to ensure that this is no longer the case. The VRQA will now have powers to regulate school boarding premises and require these premises to be registered with them. It is important to note that the bill is clear in defining what school
boarding premises are. The bill broadly defines them as:

… premises at which school boarding services are provided or intended to be provided by a person for a fee or reward …

This is important as it excludes arrangements such as private residences, students staying with family members, camps et cetera, which are already regulated for compliance with the Victorian child safe standards. While currently there are no private operators running boarding premises in Victoria, unlike  throughout the 19th century, the bill does include provisions to ensure that the registration requirements will also apply to any school building premises which are proposed to be operated by a
private provider in the future.

This bill will also include the ability of the VRQA to further prescribe minimum standards for registration of school boarding premises. Minimum standards will be consistent with and similar to those for schools already set out in the Education and Training Reform Act 2006. These include enrollment policies; student welfare; governance of the school; probity of the proprietor and any person responsible for managing the school; and the processes for review and evaluation of the school. After the passage of this bill the department will commence work on developing the necessary amendments to the regulations which will prescribe the bulk of the minimum standards for registration of school boarding premises.

As a former principal I know the hard work that goes into preparing schools for the process of registration. I know, for example, the enormous amount of time and individual effort that is put into ensuring a productive time for students who are boarders. Having said that, there is no way we can say, ‘Oh, well, because of that we can’t complain’, or, ‘We can’t accept lower standards of one kind or another’. By linking wherever appropriate and practicable the requirements and review processes with those already used by the school for registration, the bill seeks to reduce the additional regulatory burden on schools. I think that is important to note, to codify these things as well rather than having some sort of very vague list.

The VRQA will align review of schools with those of associated boarding premises to provide a commonsense approach to this. These are simple measures that also seek to reduce the financial burden of any changes. Should a school be found to be non-compliant, the bill also sets out the process for review and grants the VRQA the necessary enforcement powers to ensure compliance. Powers provided to the VRQA include imposing interim conditions on the registration of the premises before completing a review; imposing conditions on the registration of the premises in other circumstances, including after completing a review; prohibiting the premises from accepting any new boarders; requiring the provider to report on the non-compliance to parents of boarders at the premises; and suspending or cancelling the registration of the school boarding premises. Actions taken against providers must be in the interest of the boarders or the greater public, and the provider will be given the opportunity to make a submission to the VRQA and the minister to show cause why any action proposed by the VRQA should not be taken.

It is important to note that the registration requirements for school boarding premises will apply to all schools, including government, Catholic and other non-government schools. Therefore, as part of preparing the bill, extensive consultation was conducted in 2019 with schools that have boarding premises, the Australian Boarding Schools Association, the Catholic Education Commission of Victoria Limited and Independent Schools Victoria. There was in-principle support amongst these organisations.

It is important for the house to throw its support behind this bill as the amendments to the regulations need to be developed and made in time for commencement by term 1 2021. Schools associated with existing school boarding premises who were consulted during the development of the bill are expecting these amendments to commence in term 1, and there should not be a delay. We all know in the running of organisations like this the importance of preparation, and there is no difference when it comes to boarding schools. Most importantly, though, if this bill is not passed, we will not be able to acquit the recommendations of the royal commission in the time frames that affected schools expect. I commend this bill to the house as worthwhile regulation of a very important feature of Australian educational life