Choosing a school for a child is one of the most important decisions a parent makes. Whether a child is enrolled in a Catholic, independent or public school, they deserve a high-quality education, nurtured by competent educators and school leadership teams.
The vast majority of private schools follow the many rules and regulations placed upon them, but when it comes to the small number that don't, bringing them into line is a slow, complicated process.
For non-government schools in the ACT, the regulatory framework is complex.
The ACT Education Directorate is responsible for registering a school and ensuring it complies with conditions set out in the territory's Education Act. As part of the registration process, schools must show they are financially viable, have a complaints policy in place and are adhering to their enrolment reporting requirements.
The federal Department of Education, Skills and Employment approves school proprietors in order to release funding per student. There's another set of compliance matters attached to this, including adhering to the Australian curriculum, participating in the national testing regime and reporting requirements.
Then there's the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission, which registers non-government schools as charities and has its own set of compliance rules. The Australian Securities and Investments Commission registers the schools as corporations.
Choosing a school is not like buying a pair of shoes. It's a big decision that's based on the information presented to parents before enrolment.
For work health and safety matters, WorkSafe ACT is the body that steps in to regulate workplaces, including non-government schools, while the ACT Ombudsman has the power to investigate matters that could be reportable conduct.
Finally, the ACT Teacher Quality Institute registers teachers in non-government schools.
Each body alone has a very defined role, a small piece of the puzzle which is meant to keep non-government schools accountable.
However, the framework largely relies on the goodwill of independent schools doing the right thing and voluntarily making amends if there are areas where they step outside the law. On the whole, most schools abide by the rules and deliver education to a standard where parents and students are satisfied.
The case of Brindabella Christian College has shown that the piecemeal system is clunky and slow to act when grave governance and staff and student welfare issues are raised.
Parents of children formally enrolled at the college have battled through a system where complaints are registered with the school but rarely investigated. Non-government schools are required to have a complaints policy under territory law, but there does not seem to be any requirement for them to follow it.
The parents' complaints have been escalated to the ACT Education Directorate, federal and territory education ministers, the ACNC and the ACT Human Rights Commission.
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Privacy and secrecy provision have prevented them from finding out about the status of any investigation at a federal level.
It's taken numerous freedom-of-information requests to get an insight into what steps the ACT Education Directorate has taken since tensions between the board and school community boiled over in July 2019.
Of course, some complainants may never be satisfied with an outcome that goes against their beliefs as to what should happen. But when there has been such a volume of complaints over a period of at least five years, it would be shocking if there was no validity to at least some of them.
Just because parents have chosen a private education for their children doesn't mean regulators should shrug their shoulders and point to the enrolment contract they signed as evidence there's nothing that can be done.
Choosing a school is not like buying a pair of shoes. It's a big decision that's based on the information presented to parents before enrolment. Changing schools when dissatisfied is an even more difficult decision for parents, as it requires uprooting a child from their familiar environment and friendship circles.
When things go wrong there should be a clear and transparent process to hold independent schools to account. Perhaps it's time to have a unified body to manage concerns when private schools go rogue.
- Sarah Lansdown is a Canberra Times journalist covering the education round.