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Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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Changes to the National School Chaplaincy Program


As foreshadowed in a previous FlagPost, the Minister for School Education, Peter Garrett has announced changes to the National School Chaplaincy Program (NSCP). From 2012, the NSCP will be transformed into the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program. Schools will be able to employ ‘either a chaplain or a secular student welfare worker’ and tighter administrative controls will be introduced. This announcement appears to have appeased some of the NCSP’s proponents and addressed some of the concerns raised by its critics.

The NSCP’s expansion and the introduction of minimum qualifications, benchmark standards for service providers, and improvements to the complaints management system draw on the Government’s ‘community consultation’ and recommendations made by the Commonwealth Ombudsman from his inquiry into the NSCP.

Under the existing program schools can employ secular pastoral care workers but the program does not provide for services by school counsellors and similar professionals—the current guidelines state that the focus of current chaplaincy services is on ‘spiritual and religious advice, support and guidance’. The new program will assuage previous arguments by the Australian Psychological Society and other related professional organisations that funds would be better spent by redirecting the money to fund counselling and similar services delivered by trained professionals.

The more stringent administrative arrangements are a result of criticism that the current program guidelines do not specify minimum qualifications or standards and reports that chaplains have delivered counselling and welfare services for which they are not qualified. The guidelines for the new program have not yet been released but it is reasonable to expect they will set minimum qualifications for both school chaplains and student welfare workers.

It is conceivable that the program’s expansion to include welfare workers may increase demand. It will be interesting to see whether those states and territories without a tradition of school chaplaincy services (see previous FlagPost) and which have had the lowest uptake of the NSCP, take greater advantage of the program under the new arrangements. Most notable in this regard, given its size, is the NSW government school sector which has had the lowest uptake of all government school systems. According to information on the NSCP website, only 47.7 per cent of the NSW government school sector has received funding compared to a national average of 71.9 per cent for government schools.

The ‘additional’ funding of $222 million which has been announced is a re-announcement of a 2011–12 Budget measure. The latest announcement reaffirms the budget commitment that this funding will be provided over three years for currently participating schools and for up to 1000 additional schools, targeting disadvantaged, regional and remote communities.

The announcement has been welcomed by key stakeholders, including the Australian Primary Principals Association, the Australian Secondary Principals Association and the Independent Schools Council of Australia (ISCA). In his response, ISCA’s Executive Director, Bill Daniels, welcomed the announcement as allowing schools ‘the choice in determining the services that best suit the needs of their school communities’. The Australian Education Union, while maintaining its antipathy to the concept of school chaplains, nevertheless considers the new program is ‘a step in the right direction’.

The Australian Christian Lobby and the Shadow Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, have voiced opposition to the program’s extension to include welfare workers. The Shadow Minister considers the change as diluting the NSCP. He has also reaffirmed the Coalition’s commitment that ‘the chaplaincy program will continue in its current form’.

It will be interesting to see how those involved in the High Court challenge to the NSCP, which still looms over the program’s future, will respond.

As explained in a recent article, the argument before the High Court is based on the premise that the funding agreement for chaplaincy services between the Commonwealth and the Scripture Union Queensland (SUQ) is invalid because it goes beyond the executive powers of the Commonwealth. The Queensland plaintiff acknowledges that section 51 of the Constitution permits the Commonwealth to enter into contracts with Australian trading or financial corporations for goods and/or services. The questions to be answered are whether the SUQ can be classified as a trading corporation and whether the contracts provide ‘benefits to students’; that is, whether the benefits to students must be ‘direct financial benefits – not services supplied through a contract with a third party’. The plaintiff also argues that the NSCP is in breach of section 116 of the Constitution which prohibits the imposition of any religious test as a qualification for any ‘office or public trust’ under the Commonwealth.

The High Court has yet to rule on the matter.