Thursday, 4 June 2015

Tightening things up

From today's Age

Victorian principals have been hit with tough new restrictions on overseas and interstate travel as the Education Department responds to damning revelations at a corruption inquiry. As the fallout from the inquiry continues, the department has also ordered so-called banker schools to return unaccounted money to prevent further corruption.

Principals have slammed the tightening of travel rules, which they say bans professional development trips and punishes them for the bad behaviour of a few allegedly corrupt Department officials. The Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission inquiry heard that the department's sacked finance chief Nino Napoli, former acting secretary Jeff Rosewarne and his then wife went on a tax-payer funded trip to Britain. There have also been allegations of principals and a business manager globe-trotting across the world after signing off on false invoices for allegedly corrupt department officials.

The department's acting secretary Kym Peake emailed principals, school council presidents and business managers on Thursday, warning that travel will only be granted in "exceptional circumstances". "One of the issues raised during the hearings relates to school-based interstate and international travel as part of staff professional development," she said."This restriction on international and interstate travel undertaken by department and school staff takes effect immediately for all travel which has not already been approved."Staff will only be allowed to travel overseas if they can prove that the travel has a "direct economic benefit to Victoria," they are representing ministers or the secretary, or the state's reputation "with a significant partner" will be damaged. The department's secretary will now have to approve all travel for school staff.

But the restrictions will not apply to staff who accompany students on camps or sporting trips or for travel that has already been organised. Department staff have not escaped the crackdown and have also been banned from travel unless they meet the "narrow exemption criteria". They already have to seek approval from the secretary before they travel overseas for work. The department is conducting a review of travel in light of IBAC's revelations. The restrictions will remain in place until the review is completed around September, when new guidelines will come into effect.Victorian Association of State Secondary Principals president Judy Crowe said the changes appeared "punitive" and the department already a comprehensive process for approving travel. She said principals occasionally needed to travel for work so they could learn from the best overseas practice. This lifted student outcomes in Victoria, she said. "It seems a bit punitive that because a handful of people have done the wrong thing there will be greater restrictions imposed." She said the changes to travel would impact the morale of principals who were already feeling let down by the revelations.

Eaglehawk Secondary College principal Noel Claridge said the new travel rules were an overreaction to "a small number of people doing the wrong thing". "The vast majority of people in the department have a great deal of integrity and creating additional levels of compliance will only create a much greater workload for principals. "Mr Claridge considers himself lucky –he received approval to travel to Helsinki for an international principals conference just before the new restrictions came into effect. He will investigate why the Finnish public education system is considered one of the best in the world, and apply the findings to his Bendigo school. There have been some very dodgy trips overseas taken by principals, groups of principals and Regional parties to places like the UK, China, Bali, Paris, Canada etc. These have occurred in the past and not so past. If you think your trip overseas (who is paying for that by the way?) is of benefit to your school and the state education system then you should be able to defend it!

"We expect our students to be in the top tier of achievement, but that won't happen if we become an insular system. "In a separate email, Ms Peake told principals that from Tuesday all new payments to schools from the department and regional offices must be authorised by the deputy secretary. She said it was "critical that steps are taken immediately to address weaknesses in the financial controls." An ongoing audit of program co-ordinator schools – commonly known as "banker" schools – had identified an " insufficient awareness of, or compliance with" the rules. The department has also ordered banker schools to return unaccounted money to the department's head office. IBAC has identified about $2.5 million in potentially corrupt transactions between 2007 and 2014, with a large amount allegedly going to Mr Napoli's extended family. The money was inappropriately channelled through banker schools, which held funds for nearby needy schools.

The inquiry has claimed seven scalps so far, including Mr Napoli, former regional director John Allman and three principals, who have been suspended. The IBAC hearings will resume on June 22.

DET memo referred to above:

As you are aware, the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) is undertaking a public investigation into allegations of inappropriate conduct within the Department of Education and Training.

One of the issues raised during the hearings relates to school-based interstate and international travel as part of staff professional development.

A review of international and interstate travel undertaken by Department staff, including staff employed in schools, is being commissioned.  Following the completion of the review, which is expected by the end of September, revised International and Domestic Policy and Guidelines for school-based staff will be issued. 

Until the review has been completed, restrictions will be in place for new applications for international or interstate travel by staff.

All international and interstate travel by principals or any other school-based staff must be approved by the Secretary of the Department (except where staff are accompanying students on excursions or trips). Approval will only be granted in exceptional circumstances which meet the narrow exemption criteria outlined below.

This restriction does not apply to trips which:

•             have already received approval in accordance with Departmental guidelines and processes

•             are for staff accompanying students on sports trips, camps, and subject, language and cultural trips or similar events.

Principals should obtain the relevant approvals prior to booking trips and excursions.

Actions required

Principals and Business Managers should note the interim travel approving authority as above.

Any exemptions from the international and interstate travel restrictions must be approved by the Secretary. Applicants must demonstrate that:

•             the travel will contribute a direct economic benefit to Victoria

•             the travel is to represent the Minister or the Secretary in Commonwealth or State forums

•             there would be a severe impact on Victoria’s reputation with a significant partner if the travel is not undertaken. 

Schools seeking an exemption should email  attaching the completed Travel Request Approval form with “Travel Exemption Request” in the subject line.

This restriction on international and interstate travel undertaken by Department and school staff takes effect immediately for all travel which has not already been approved.

For more information about the Departmental guidelines and processes regarding international and interstate travel for staff, visit: Travel for Staff

Kym Peake 

Acting Secretary

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