The Albanese government will continue to require that many of the pastoral care roles in public schools be performed by Christian chaplains.
Although education minister Jason Clare announced that schools would have the option of choosing a secular wellbeing officer, the release of information from the federal Department of Education has done little to dispel fears that religious labour-hire firms would continue to dominate the supply of workers to the program.
In an answer to a question on notice from Greens’ Senator Penny Allman-Payne at Senate Estimates in November – and uploaded to the parliament’s website this week – the Department of Education said the chaplains funded under the newly named National Student Wellbeing Program (NSWP) would require “endorsement by a recognised or accepted religious institution”.
The Rationalist Society of Australia has repeatedly warned Mr Clare that, without changes to the outsourcing arrangements, public schools would have little real choice if taxpayers’ money continued to fund long-established third-party religious providers.
Most of these labour-hire firms only employ Christians, requiring that they be endorsed by faith institutions and be active in their local churches.
In its reply to Senator Allman-Payne, the Department of Education said that the new NSWP would give schools the option to choose either a professionally qualified student wellbeing officer or a chaplain.
“While the chaplain role requires endorsement by a recognised or accepted religious institution, the student wellbeing officer role does not. The Government is working collaboratively with states and territories on the changes to the program,” the statement said.
The Department of Education said the NSWP would be delivered and managed by state and territory governments through an Intergovernmental Agreement on Federal Financial Relations. However, an agreement for the NSWP is yet to be added to the government website.
“As such, state and territory education departments are responsible for delivering the program and have agency to make decisions about how the program operates within their jurisdictions. This includes decisions about employment processes and state-based program guidelines.”
Media reports prior to Christmas suggested the South Australian government had signed a new five-year $37.97 million agreement with the Commonwealth for student wellbeing services under the new NSWP.
In recent years, the RSA has reported on how the chaplaincy program breached the anti-discrimination laws of a number of states by preventing non-religious people from filling the roles.
Last year, Scripture Union in Queensland – the largest provider of Christian chaplains to public schools in the state – admitted to operating in breach of anti-discrimination laws by hiring only Christians for the roles.
In Western Australia in September last year, when asked if her organisation could employ Muslims, Tamsyn Cullingford, the Chief Executive Officer of YouthCARE WA, said her organisation only employs “people who align with our values” and that is “…Christians”.
The current agreement between the federal government and the states and territories expires in mid 2023.
Image: Jason Clare (Facebook)