School chaplains

In August, the High Court will hear Queensland parent Ron Williams’ constitutional challenge to the validity of the National School Chaplaincy Program (NSCP). The Commonwealth Ombudsman is also investigating the NSCP as a result of a recommendation made by the Northern Territory Ombudsman in her report on the NSCP’s operation in the Northern Territory (NT).

The NSCP is a voluntary program (for schools and teachers), providing up to $20 000 per annum to government and non-government schools to establish school chaplaincy services or augment existing services. The NSCP website explains the purpose and ambit of the program:
This voluntary program assists schools and their communities to support the spiritual wellbeing of students. This may include support and guidance about ethics, values, relationships, spirituality and religious issues, the provision of pastoral care and enhanced engagement with the broader community.
A Howard Coalition Government initiative, which had its origins in lobbying by four federal parliamentarians, the NSCP began in 2007 as a three-year program. However, in November 2009, Labor Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, announced $42.8 million for the NSCP’s extension until December 2011, for those schools that were then participating in the program. In the 2010 federal election campaign both major parties committed to extending the NSCP. Consequently, in the 2011–12 Budget, $222 million was provided to extend the NSCP to December 2014 to fund up to 1000 additional schools, with a focus on schools in disadvantaged, rural and remote communities, and to extend funding for schools that were already participating in the NSCP.

As the NSCP’s guidelines explain, schools and their communities decide what type of chaplaincy services will be provided under the program. This includes decisions about the religious affiliation of chaplains and whether secular pastoral care workers will be recruited. The guidelines differentiate chaplaincy services from assistance to students provided by school counsellors—the focus of chaplaincy services is on ‘spiritual and religious advice, support and guidance’.

The Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) does not require school chaplains to possess particular qualifications. Instead, the guidelines defer to the school. A school chaplain is defined as someone who is recognised by the school and the governing authority as having the skills and experience to deliver school chaplaincy services and ‘through formal ordination, commissioning, recognised qualifications or endorsement by a recognised or accepted religious institution or a state/territory government.’

All school chaplains have to sign and abide by the NSCP Code of Conduct which expressly prohibits chaplains taking advantage of their position to proselytise for their particular denomination or religious belief. Chaplains must also not provide professional or religious services for which they are not qualified.

Funding information on the NSCP website shows that 2689 schools have received funding and have a school chaplain. Of these schools, 71.9 per cent are government schools, 17.4 per cent are independent schools and 10.7 per cent are Catholic schools. However, the uptake has not been uniform across Australia. The uptake by Queensland government schools (633 schools), representing almost one-third of all government schools that have received funding, far outstrips that of any other jurisdiction or sector.

Other statistics provided in a DEEWR discussion paper, issued as part of the review of the NSCP and which is yet to report, show that just over half of NSCP funded chaplains are in primary schools, most work in schools in metropolitan areas (57 per cent), the vast majority are Christian and a quarter of low socio-economic status background schools receive funding under the program. In recent Senate Estimates hearings, DEEWR advised that only ten schools have a secular chaplain.

School chaplaincy services in government schools are not new. All states and territories, except New South Wales (NSW) and the Australian Capital Territory, had chaplaincy services in government schools prior to the NSCP. Victoria, for example, has had school chaplains since the 1950s and school chaplaincy services in Queensland government schools, which is the subject of the current High Court challenge, had their origins in ad hoc services in the early 1970s.*

Some state governments also provide financial support for school chaplaincy services. The Queensland Government is the most generous, providing $0.9 million per annum, and targeting schools in low socio-economic communities. The Victorian Government is providing $500 000 a year over the next four years for government school chaplaincy services, including $200 000 per annum to ACCESS Ministries for the administration and training of school chaplains. Limited support is provided by the Western Australian Government for critical incident chaplaincy services.

The continuation of the NSCP is testament to the positive reception it has received from many schools and to lobbying efforts for its continuation. As reported in the DEEWR discussion paper, school chaplains are seen as an integral part of the school community, providing a complementary support role to schools’ student wellbeing teams, supporting families and making connections between the school and its community. The Australian Primary Principals Association (APPA), for instance, has welcomed the NSCP’s recent extension, particularly the focus on schools in remote, regional and disadvantaged areas. The APPA President has reported that schools ‘speak enthusiastically’ of what the program has achieved:
Schools are increasingly expected to meet the needs of students across all areas of their development. Primary school principals recognise the significant need ... for sustainable support of social and emotional learning. The National School Chaplaincy Program offers school communities a valuable resource which impacts positively on the wellbeing of students and also supports the work of principals and teachers.
The NSCP is controversial. Concerns about the program, have been present from its beginning and are reported in the DEEWR discussion paper. Many of these relate to the religious (mostly Christian) background of school chaplains, the implications for the secular nature of government schools, the qualifications of school chaplains and the appropriateness of services provided by the chaplains. There is also the argument that funds would be better spent by redirecting the money to fund counselling and similar services delivered by trained professionals. The Australian Psychological Society has been joined by other professional organisations involved in the delivery of mental health services in calling for NSCP funds to be redirected to programs to deliver professional mental health and well-being services in schools.

Concerns about the administration of the program have been given credibility by the NT Ombudsman who, as a result of her investigation, found that policies and procedures were inadequate or non-existent in many areas. She highlighted, for example, the lack of a formal definition of a chaplain in the NSCP guidelines. One-on-one confidential services delivered by chaplains were another concern for the NT Ombudsman, who queried what services were provided during these interactions and whether they were appropriate.

There have been a number of complaints about school chaplains reported in the media. According to advice provided in recent Senate Estimates hearings, there have been 72 complaints relating generally to the issues noted above.

Lately, the issue of religion in government schools has also been drawn into the debate about school chaplains. All state and territory education legislation make provision for what is termed ‘special religious education’ in some jurisdictions. This is different to general religious education, which is part of the school curriculum and concerns education about the world’s major religions, what people believe and how belief affects lives. Special religious education (SRE) is education in the beliefs and practices of an approved religious persuasion by authorised representatives of that persuasion. It does not include chaplaincy services.

Similar to chaplaincy services, SRE is not compulsory—parents have the right to withdraw their children from SRE classes and schools must provide appropriate care and supervision for these students. In some jurisdictions there are also related policies covering school prayers and commemorations, religious observances and multi-faith services in schools. In NSW, ethics classes are offered as a secular alternative to SRE.

Dr Bryan Cowling, Executive Director of Sydney’s Anglican Education Commission, has voiced concern that the place of religious education in government schools and the distinction between chaplaincy services and religious education might be compromised by the NSCP. The term chaplain with its religious connotations, definition issues as to what is a chaplain and self-determined chaplaincy services and the lack of minimum qualification requirements are just some of his concerns in this regard. Cowling thinks that ‘the best response would be to put more money into more counsellors and particularly people trained in dealing with difficult situations’.

Allegations about ACCESS Ministries in Victoria, which delivers both chaplaincy services and religious education in government schools, have not allayed concerns about the blurring of the distinction between these two roles. Concern about the proselytisation intent of ACCESS Ministries has also been exacerbated as a result of a speech delivered by its Chief Executive in 2008 in which she declared, ‘We need to go and make disciples’. She also extolled ‘seizing the God-given opportunity we have to reach kids in schools’. According to DEEWR advice in recent Senate Estimates hearings, ACCESS Ministries maintains the distinction between its two services provided to government schools by ensuring that its chaplains do not provide Christian religious education in the same school. Nevertheless, DEEWR is conducting an investigation of the chaplaincy services provided by ACCESS Ministries.

The High Court challenge, combined with a possible investigation by the Commonwealth Ombudsman and the review of the NSCP, indicate that it is likely that there will be changes to the NSCP. Nonetheless, subject to the outcome of the High Court case, the NSCP is likely to continue. While the Minister for School Education, Peter Garrett, has confirmed that he is considering the issue of minimum qualifications, he has also indicated that the Government wants to expand the program:
... we want to take a program which has been very successful and very popular with schools, including government schools, non-government schools, and we want to expand it, because we know that it's a program which is well-supported by schools, and for the most part well-supported by parents. I'll look very closely at what issues have been raised in the consultation [as part of the evaluation mentioned above] that we've had, but I do happen to think that a minimum qualifications [sic] is an important issue. I guess my expectation is that whoever's working at a school environment, that they should have a level of appropriate training and qualifications.
*Articles published in the Journal of Christian Education, vol. 48, no. 1, May 2005, provide the history of school chaplaincy services in government schools.


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