Your school’s checklist for 2021: New Schemes and requirements

There is no doubt that 2020 has been eclipsed by COVID-19 and the shift to remote learning (and back) for schools in Victoria. However, as we approach COVID-normal, schools need to start looking ahead and preparing for the year to come. Next year brings with it significant new legal requirements for schools, many of which were postponed from this year. Regulators will become less lenient and forgiving of schools using COVID-19 as an excuse for being unprepared.

As schools begin their final term, we have set out some of the key changes that schools in Victoria need to factor into their planning for 2021.

Child Information Sharing Scheme

In the first half of 2021, registered schools will be captured by the second phase of the Child Information Sharing Scheme (CISS) as Information Sharing Entities (ISEs). The change is set out under the proposed Child Wellbeing and Safety (Information Sharing) Amendment Regulations 2020 (Regulations) and allows the sharing of information about children and parents to better support children and families and prevent harm. You can read more about the CISS generally at our previous article.

The application of the CISS to schools was delayed due to the impact of COVID-19 and will now occur by July 2021. The implications for schools are significant, particularly as they are not familiar with the similar Family Violence Information Sharing Scheme. The CISS will allow schools to share and request information with other ISEs in a manner that would previously have been a breach of privacy laws.

Schools will also be able to contribute and request information from a centralised Child Link Register which includes a key set of factual information relating to children in Victoria. The CISS will have significant child safety, privacy and regulatory implications and risks for schools. Schools need to begin upskilling their staff and preparing to participate in the CISS.

Updated Guidelines

The Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority (VRQA) has released updated Guidelines to the Minimum Standards and Requirements for School Registration (Guidelines) commencing on 1 January 2021 for new school registrations or 1 July 2021 for existing registered schools.

Some of the key changes include:

  • New requirements for:
    • ELCs;
    • Not-for-profit record keeping and procurement; and
    • board processes regarding conflicts of interest;
  • requiring schools to embed details of grooming offences into their child safety policies and procedures;
  • clarifying evidence requirements relating to governing body structures and details; and
  • clarifying the process for schools seeking to amend registration details.

Schools should refer to the VRQA’s updated Guidelines and ensure that they are taking steps to be compliant by the required dates. This is particularly important as the VRQA is due to release their updated strategic plan from 2021 onwards and it is anticipated that compliance reviews and audits will continue to be an area of focus for the regulator.

Amendments to the Child Safe Standards and the Ministerial Order 870

At the end of 2019, a review of the Victorian Child Safe Standards (Standards) was completed and recommended amendments to the Standards to align with the National Principles for Child Safe Organisations (National Principles). The Standards are applied to schools through the Ministerial Order 870.

It is anticipated that the Standards will be amended in 2021 to align with the National Principles, with the Ministerial Order 870 to be amended shortly after this. While it was recommended that organisations be given 12 months to comply with any amended Standards, schools should be cognisant of this upcoming change. It aligns with the continuing focus on child safety and scrutiny of organisations that fail to keep children safe.

Registration of boarding schools

The Education and Training Reform Amendment (Regulation of Student Accommodation) Bill 2020 (Bill) has passed the Legislative Assembly and is now with the Legislative Council where it is likely to pass. The Bill will expand the VRQA’s powers to include school boarding premises, including requiring boarding schools to register. The VRQA will have the power to take compliance or enforcement action against school boarding premises if they fail to comply with the Child Safe Standards or other requirements.

While the initial date for these changes was the beginning of 2021, this is now likely to be delayed. Once the Bill is passed, all boarding schools will be required to go through a registration process and then subject to five-yearly reviews.

How we can help

The significant upcoming changes demonstrate an ongoing prioritisation of child safety with many of the changes implementing the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

To mitigate the risk of regulatory scrutiny and prepare, we recommend that schools take the following next steps.

  1. Compliance planning – schools need to consider the above changes in their planning for 2021. Consider the key dates by which compliance is required and the steps that your school needs to take to meet the deadlines. Ensure that your risk and compliance teams are keeping updated on developments and responding appropriately.
  2. Policy review – many schools have delayed their policy reviews as a result of COVID. Given the upcoming changes, this needs to be prioritised, particularly your privacy policy in response to the CISS and your child safety documents.
  3. Set child safety strategy – child safety will continue to be a significant area of change and scrutiny by regulators. Schools need to implement a child safety strategy which is driven from the top. Now is a good time to review your strategy or put one in place to ensure it encapsulates the changing environment, the impact of COVID-19 and remote learning, and the upcoming legislative changes.
  4. Training – as schools return, it is important that training programs are resumed. To prepare for the upcoming changes, schools need staff to understand their baseline child safety and privacy obligations. Leadership teams should also be upskilled to implement the upcoming changes.

For more information or guidance regarding the upcoming changes, please do not hesitate to contact us.