Victorian Education Corruption Scandal: Our Children Deserve Much Better

Nino Napoli, disgraced Victorian Education Department bureaucrat, may be the public face of the most disgraceful and shameful episode in living memory in Victorian state education, but he is far from being the whole story.

The IBAC Inquiry has uncovered corruption on a breathtaking scale. Disturbingly it involves erstwhile highly respected senior bureaucrats and long serving principals. Many in education are appalled at the revelations that millions of dollars of public money has been siphoned off for private use. That the funds were earmarked for expenditure on disadvantaged children and needy schools renders the behaviour utterly disgraceful. More than a few principals and teachers have been reduced to tears.

Some of the culprits have already had their careers in education terminated. Many may have their day in court following the findings of the Inquiry. For the vast majority of honest principals, business managers and bureaucrats, not to mention the public at large, that day cannot come soon enough.

So, how did things come to this? Clearly we need profoundly better probity checks and balances at the top. The credibility of the Department of Education has taken a battering at the IBAC hearings and the restoration of confidence in our state education system must start at the upper echelons of the department. That, however, should not be the end of it. Sadly, school principals and administrative staff have become embroiled in the mess – either knowingly or unwittingly and our children are the sufferers.

Here in Victoria we have one of the most devolved public education systems amongst OECD countries with schools operating on multi-million dollar budgets. Yet the preparatory training that aspiring principals and business managers receive in school financial management is pitifully inadequate. For many, training in financial management amounts to little more than a couple of days of training by Education Department employees – ironically, training, much of which was developed by Nino Napoli.

The lucky few may have been provided with some valuable on-site practical training in their schools, but the truth of the matter is that it is in the areas of curriculum and welfare that most newly appointed principals are most skilled.

Business managers should, but most don’t, have qualifications in business accounting – a diploma at the very least. Learn on the job is in essence the mantra for our school leaders and business managers. The sad outcome of such an approach to training is too much ignorance and too little competence. In the early 1990s Victoria embarked on the path toward self-management under the Kennett Government’s ‘Schools of the Future’ program. It’s worth remembering that school principals were made managers virtually overnight – armed only with a two-hour briefing from the new regime and orders to sack cleaning staff and name teachers over-entitlement. Looking back now, it could easily be argued that we have never recovered from that brutal introduction to school management. Principals made mistakes then through a sheer lack of training and we have unsuccessfully been playing catch up ever since.

By comparison, Singapore, a country with a highly centralised state education system, and a consequent lower level of school management responsibility for school leaders, invests far more time and resources into the preparatory training of potential school leaders. Just to become eligible to apply for principal positions aspirants must undertake up to 12 months intense training. Here in Victoria, a four-year degree in education will suffice. It goes without saying that more financial management savvy school personnel would not be as susceptible to being duped by unscrupulous senior department officers, as has been claimed.

School financial audits have been watered down in recent years – schools are on a three year cycle for audits and these audits have become so narrow in scope that many are completed in less than a day. Little wonder then, that advice on corrective actions for schools to take on financial management too often comes too late to avoid a crisis. Money saved on the schools audit program is likely to be a false economy.

These are dark days in our public education system and the Andrews government is facing formidable challenges in rekindling confidence in our system. Cleaning up the mess is the first priority and ensuring that it never happens again is another. Banning interstate and overseas travel by school personnel, unless a direct economic benefit to Victoria can be demonstrated, is a disappointing start – it sends a strong message, that’s for sure, but as the IBAC Inquiry is demonstrating, the horse has well and truly bolted. The overwhelming majority of highly professional school staff are being punished for the misdeeds of the few.

We desperately need a new vision for Victorian public education – one that inspires confidence in its efficacy. Back in 1999, with the election the Bracks’ government we had an 18-month state-wide conversation on the future direction of education in Victoria before anything happened. Then in 2010 with the election of the then Bailleau government we endured another 18-month state wide stake-holders consultation process on the future of state education before the Napthine government took the wrecking ball to public education as we knew it.

Now we have the Andrews government announcing a two-month consultation process, inviting all Victorians to share their views on the future of our education system. Cynics may observe that governments are supposed to be elected on the basis of their vision for the future in the first place! Our children deserve so much better than they have been getting for far too long now.

Henry Grossek
Principal, Berwick Lodge Primary School
Author of Game On: Building the Education Revolution

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