Thursday, 7 May 2015

A message from the Secretary

This is part of an email sent out to Principals today from the Secretary of DET:

As you will be aware, public hearings started last week as part of the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC)’s investigation into Department.
I know principals work hard to ensure every cent of school budgets goes to students and that information coming to light about the alleged misuse of funds for public education are quite shocking. I share these feelings, and am determined to make sure this can’t happen again in the Victorian school system.
I am writing to you to outline the action we are taking as well as the supports we have available to any school affected by the investigation. I acknowledge that the IBAC process is new and complex and have included a brief overview of the investigation to answer some of questions you may have. I encourage you to share this letter with your leadership team. Other letters have been sent to your business manager and school council president.  
IBAC and Operation Ord
The investigation into the Department, known as ‘Operation Ord’, is one of IBAC’s first inquiries. IBAC was recently set up to investigate serious corruption in the Victorian public sector or police misconduct that IBAC believes is serious enough to constitute a criminal offence. 
IBAC is an investigative body and not a court. It cannot determine criminal liability. Following the investigation, IBAC produces a report with recommendations for the Department to consider, and may refer matters to a prosecutorial body, which will then determine if charges will be laid.
The Department does not know how long the public hearings will go for, nor how many witnesses may be called. Media is reporting that hearings could go until mid-June and involve approximately 60 witnesses.
The Department also does not know who will be called until the day of each hearing. Confidentiality requirements can prevent witnesses from discussing the investigation with others.  The legal and wellbeing support available to witnesses is outlined on the IBAC page on eduGate. It includes key contacts for initial legal advice and in-court wellbeing support from specialist psychologists.
In Operation Ord, IBAC is investigating the circumstances in which the Department, its employees and/or former employees designated certain government schools as ‘banker schools,’ and the alleged misuse of funds going through these schools. 
‘Banker schools’ is a term used by IBAC and the media to describe the unauthorised practice of transferring funds to a school to be used by Departmental officers to avoid procurement rules and scrutiny.  This is a practice outside of the framework for program coordination schools; a method for depositing funds into one school for the benefit of other schools in the local network. 
I’m sure you will appreciate that while the investigation is underway, schools and the Department are unable to discuss the evidence. 
Information about the IBAC investigation and the supports the Department has available for Department and school staff can be found the eduGate home page.  Should parents have any questions about IBAC and Operation Ord, you can refer them to theDepartment’s website or the IBAC website.
Department action and support
Needless to say, we are working closely with IBAC in this inquiry and will make changes to prevent this happening again.
The conduct we have heard about has no place in Department offices and our schools and is totally out of character for the vast majority of Department and school staff, who I know to be professional, hardworking and 100 per cent committed to education.
When employees fail to meet professional standards, we have a responsibility to take decisive action.
This action may include removing school staff from their duties to enable us to further investigate matters brought before the commission.  The decision to suspend a member of school staff is not a disciplinary measure, but a necessary step to ensure we can investigate allegations with minimal disruption to schools. Any investigation will accord with the usual Department processes, and affected individuals will be provided with appropriate supports. 
Watch the video at this site:
Interesting story from the Age today
This story is a personal view from Julie Szego about school funding published in the Age today.
 Recently I attended an open night at my daughter's future high school. The public school had once been in a downward spiral of miserable results, poor discipline and falling enrolments before a new principal started turning things round. Staff boasted about last year's school dux whose ATAR score got her into biomedicine. "We're improving all the time," a teacher beamed as we milled about the home economics lab. Despite the late hour dozens of students had come to serve us freshly-baked muffins and spruik their close-knit, proudly multicultural community. An older boy with a mop of hair over one eye said, "Best school ever!"
Driving home, I thought about the boy's jubilant endorsement and the sense of optimism and striving I had absorbed along with the muffins. Then almost on cue I passed billboards advertising private schools – images of children, immaculate in their uniforms, communing with musical instruments or poised above the bunsen burner, with slogans trumpeting their "inquiring minds," leadership or entrepreneurialism. The unmistakable message is that parents wanting to give their children every opportunity naturally covet such schools – one glance at these billboards and, like a chemical reaction, doubt seeped in.
The same message informs the last-minute booking website School Places, which offers hefty discounts for "Australia's leading private schools," under the promise, "sending your child to a private school just got easier."
And the same message underpins private school scholarships; the idea that only the very gifted can attend such schools for free has the paradoxical logic of both validating the high fees and creating an illusion of meritocracy or superior moral worth. Still, if I had a dollar for every parent I know sweating on the outcome of their child's scholarship exam, I'd be as rich as the elite schools themselves. Interestingly, the private school lobby likes to say that parents choose these schools for their "values." I'm not sure what values are at work in the scholarship system. The private schools would say they're bequeathing opportunities to less advantaged kids. But these schools cherry-pick kids whose achievements will advantage the institution by attracting yet more fee-paying students. The only "value" exemplified is the value of commerce, with students analogous to high-yield investments.
These schools are in the business of sowing doubt, gutting state high schools of aspirational families and shredding egalitarianism. That's not surprising; most businesses are driven by self-interest. But where Australia takes the cake for stupidity is paying these businesses for the privilege of undermining educational equity, and by extension, our nation's economic growth.
We've heard time and again private schools claim an entitlement to public funds on the basis they're "taking pressure off the public system." In truth, they're doing precisely the opposite. Luring high-performing students from the public system – whether by scholarship, other inducements or guilt-laced promotion – weakens the cultural mix at government schools, lowering expectations of the remaining students and transforming these schools into options of last resort. And these "residual schools" are punishing on the public purse, requiring more equity funding to compensate for the concentration of kids from low socio-economic backgrounds, and more money for remedial and other interventions.
In March, a report by the Need to Succeed group –comprising welfare organisations and public school educators — mined data on the My School website to find a steady drift from disadvantaged schools to advantaged schools in the five years to 2013. With this drift the gap in academic performance between the poorer and richer schools widened.
As a revelation, that's hardly startling. What's rarely discussed is how uniquely self-sabotaging Australian education policy has become. "Obnoxious" is the term Melbourne University Professor Richard Teese, an expert in school systems, uses. "There's no other system like it," he told me this week. Teese contrasts Australia's system of education funding to those in countries such as France, Spain and Belgium. In these countries, he says, Catholic schools get public funds – but with strings attached. These schools cannot charge fees and their doors must be open to everyone. No cherry-picking allowed.
If Australia's private schools were really "taking pressure off" the public system, they would target the kids from the bottom of the ladder. I don't mean kids from poor families whose parents place a premium on education. Instead, private schools would be taking kids born with fetal alcohol syndrome, with drug-addicted parents, with disabilities and learning difficulties. The kids in the child protection system. The kids who start school barely having opened a book, the odds stacked firmly against them.
But the bankrupt propaganda of the private school lobby does them no harm. Even as Australia's education ranking slides internationally, even as our Asian trading partners – with their generously resourced public education systems – overtake us, even as the "clever country" grows dimmer by the day, our politicians feed the hand that bites them.
The most illustrative case study: State Education Minister James Merlino's decision to lock in funding for private schools, irrespective of financial need and in contravention of the Gonski reforms. It's the sort of policy that makes you question modern Labor's raison d'etre. The minister's spokesman recently told The Sunday Age that since Labor was last in government, its commitment to Catholic and "independent" schools has "evolved." The word "evolved" suggests the spokesman sees Labor's promise to private schools as progress. We have it all backwards. Whatever the children in private schools stand to gain, in the long term this system of social apartheid short-changes us all.
Some arguments there I hadn't considered there.

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