In December 2017, the final report of the five-year Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse called for a national strategy, including better governance, to prevent child sexual abuse.
The Royal Commission found that numerous governance failures contributed to child sexual abuse in schools and urged a systematic overhaul of the culture, structure and governance practices, which had allowed abuse to flourish over many decades.
The inquiry also found that “inconsistent regulation between states and territories means children can have more or less protection depending on where they attend school.” It identified poor governance processes as another factor contributing to the risk of child sexual abuse in schools, particularly in non-government schools.
The Commission identified 10 Child Safe Standards to ensure child safety is embedded in institutional leadership, governance and culture.
Other recommendations relate to independent oversight of school registration authorities, a nationally consistent guideline on preventing and responding to child sexual abuse in all schools, and strengthening by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) of teacher registration requirements to better protect children.
Paul O’Halloran, a partner with law firm Colin Biggers & Paisley, which analysed historical case studies in the report, said they suggested governance failures. These included:
- Poor leadership and governance, a lack of accountability, and a culture that prioritised protecting the school over the children.
- Inadequate complaints processes, investigation and disciplinary action contributed to school leaders/staff failing to act on complaints or report matters to external authorities.
- The composition of school boards can contribute to poor governance, such as when boards are predominantly made up of school alumni with a personal stake in upholding the reputation of the school. In other cases, school boards were not informed about allegations and therefore could not be involved in responding to allegations.
- Poor human resource management practices.
- Individuals who were the subject of complaints not being disciplined/held to account.
- The nature of the online environment and how it is used also create risks that need to be identified to better protect children.
Brisbane Girls Grammar
This academically non-selective secondary school for girls was established in 1875. Its governing body, the Board of Trustees, is directly accountable to the Queensland Minister for Education.
The school has 1370 students, 210 staff, three campuses, $125m in current net assets (2017), $43.6m annual revenue (2017) and $2.2m surplus (2017). Company Director interviewed both the school principal and the chair of the school board.
Comment: Brisbane Grammar Girls Chair Elizabeth Jameson FAICD
“Everything from the Royal Commissions [into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry; and Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse] is saying to boards: ‘What are you doing about the culture?’ The Royal Commission into the Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was clearly about culture and what boards and schools were and weren’t aware of, what they turned a blind eye to, and what was tolerated or deemed acceptable.
“But how can boards ever get to understand culture if they’ve lived the ‘noses in, fingers out’ non-operational ethos? This approach is changing. Board members need to walk around the school, take part in school events and be known to parents and staff. If you’re not known, there’s no prospect they will talk to you if they are concerned about something. Over the 10 years I’ve been chair, my role has changed from mostly behind closed doors to a greater focus on stakeholder management with parents, staff and the community.
“The board is the keeper of the cultural flame. To help us understand the culture and level of trust across the school and ensure we remain fit for purpose, we invite parents and students to our strategy days and meet with our school groups and committees a couple of times a year. It also helps ‘take the temperature’ of the school community.
“A good old-fashioned dose of leadership is required in the governance space at the moment. Just because a group of stakeholders think you’ve made a bad decision, doesn’t mean you have. Provided your board and principal have checks and balances in place, and as long as you have heard and responded to your stakeholders’ views, you must stand by your decisions.
“With the governance crises over the past few years, a lot of organisations haven’t done that. They’ve sometimes held the line, but not explained their course of action. Or they have capitulated then lost stakeholder confidence.
“All board members, but especially the chair, must have a strong working relationship with the principal. (Principal) Jacinda and I have the ideal relationship — we’re friendly, but not friends.
SCHOOLS AND SEXUAL ABUSE
31.8% of interviewed survivors of sexual abuse
(2186 people) were abused at school
1069 schools had abuse occur
75.8% were private schools
24.9% were government schools
Source: Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse
“Being on a school board is a serious job. A lot of work and effort needs to go into board selection and recruitment. To get a really good cross-section of backgrounds, skills and demographics is hard work. A lot of people put up their hand to go on a school board, but they don’t necessarily fulfil the skillset required. Conversely, when you have to twist someone’s arm to fill a board seat, you’re probably better to leave it vacant.“
Comment: Brisbane Grammar Girls Principal Jacinda Euler MAICD
“We are dealing with ever greater scrutiny, demand for accountability, and increasing attention on governance processes, procedures and structures. A cacophony of voices is calling for education reform, but no unified voice about how to achieve it. We need evidence-based research and a rigorous program of implementation and sustained attention.
“The challenge in all of this change is staff morale and change fatigue. You’re dealing with a profession under fire. As a principal there is a need to stay positive and provide direction. The increasing prevalence of mental health issues is also having a wearing impact on teachers. They are dealing with an increasing prevalence of anxiety — a great deal of attention goes into making sure file notes are accurate and emails are responded to. We must be responsive to parent expectations, which are increasingly strident. Leading a school at this time requires you to have a clear sense of direction and the ability to remain steadfast in some areas and agile in others.”
”At the end of the day, if you’re thorough, honest and transparent, then trust is your best defence.” Jacinda Euler MAICD
“Royal Commissions show us where we need to focus and pay attention to our processes behind the scenes. All of these things bring greater layers of responsibility, but all in a positive direction. At the end of the day, if you’re thorough, honest and transparent, then trust is your best defence.
“In terms of boards and governance across all organisations and sectors, whatever the structure and process in place, the model only succeeds to the extent that you’ve appointed the appropriate people. Structures will rise and fall according to the calibre of directors. It is distressing to see a fellow school experiencing difficulty, however, there have always been such crises in schools. What is different now is the rapidity with which events unfold and the intensity of public scrutiny.
“Being a principal is extraordinarily challenging, but also a dynamic, interesting and deeply rewarding role. I hope that the intensifying demands do not deter others from pursuing it.”
Already a member?
Login to view this content