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Let schools hire student welfare and pastoral care workers directly, RSA tells Labor

Si Gladman / 19 May 2022

The Rationalist Society of Australia has urged Labor’s education spokesperson, Tanya Plibersek, to remove the outsourcing arrangements and the inherent religious-based discrimination in the National School Chaplaincy Program (NSCP) if elected to government.

In a letter to Ms Plibersek (pictured) in April, RSA president Meredith Doig said federal funds would be better spent if public schools could directly hire student welfare and pastoral care workers under the program.

Dr Doig also noted that such a policy change would be in line with Labor’s National Platform, which commits the party to “reduc[ing] the use of contractors, casual, labour-hire and non-ongoing positions”.

“Student welfare and pastoral care workers should be hired by schools directly rather than through outsourcing arrangements. The current outsourcing model for the NSCP diverts federal funds to the support of the operations and profitability of religious labour-hire organisations,” she said.

Ms Plibersek has not responded to the letter.

Dr Doig also asked Ms Plibersek to remove the requirement that people employed under the program be approved or endorsed by religious groups. This practice results in religious-based third-party contractors refusing to employ non-Christians and in particular, non-religious people to the roles.

“This kind of religious discrimination is wrong and inconsistent with the multicultural and multi-faith makeup of the Australian community,” said Dr Doig.

“The RSA believes student welfare and pastoral care workers should be hired on merit and without regard to a person’s religious affiliation.

“The current NSCP rules, which require workers to be approved or endorsed by a religious group, are overtly discriminatory. Discrimination on the basis of religion or belief has no place in Australian schools.”

Before the last election, in August 2018, Ms Plibersek’s office informed the RSA that Labor would “again give schools the option to choose a secular student welfare officer under our National Student Welfare and Chaplaincy Programme” if elected to government in 2019.

The parents behind a 20,000-strong petition calling for changes to the NSCP to include secular youth workers have written to more than 350 candidates during the election campaign. One Labor candidate, Jason Brandon in the electorate of Kennedy, told them that his party was committed to giving schools the “option to choose either a professionally qualified secular student welfare officer or a chaplain with ongoing qualification requirements”.

Last month, The Guardian reported that Labor had indicated the same policy in a response to a Christian lobby group.

In her letter to Ms Plibersek in April, Dr Doig noted that Labor’s National Platform was committed to “secular government schooling” and ensuring that no Australian “[is] discriminated against … because of that person’s religion”.

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Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator at the Rationalist Society of Australia. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @si_gladman

Photo: Tanya Plibersek (Facebook)

Letter to Tanya Plibersek, Labor spokesperson for education, 19 April 2022

Dear Ms Plibersek,

On behalf of the Rationalist Society of Australia (RSA), I’m writing to you, as the education spokesperson for the federal Labor Party, regarding your party’s policy on the National School Chaplaincy Program (NSCP).

The RSA supports federal funding for student welfare and pastoral care services. We believe that all students deserve access to high-quality welfare and pastoral care services provided by qualified professionals. 

The current model for the NSCP results in the inclusion in job advertisements for student welfare worker roles in government schools a selection criterion requiring applicants to be Christian. This excludes qualified youth workers who are not religious or who belong to other faith groups. This kind of religious discrimination is wrong and inconsistent with the multicultural and multi-faith makeup of the Australian community.

The RSA believes:

  • Student welfare and pastoral care workers should be hired on merit and without regard to a person’s religious affiliation. The current NSCP rules, which require workers to be approved or endorsed by a religious group, are discriminatory. Religious discrimination has no place in Australian schools.
  • Student welfare and pastoral care workers should be hired by schools directly rather than through outsourcing arrangements. The current outsourcing model for the NSCP diverts federal funds to the support of the operations and profitability of religious labour-hire organisations. These funds would be better spent on allowing more schools to have federally-funded student welfare and pastoral care workers.

Both of these positions are in full alignment with the ALP National Platform. The ALP National Platform commits Labor to “secular government schooling” (p 32), ensuring that “No Australian [is] discriminated against … because of that person’s religion” (p 66), and “reduc[ing] the use of contractors, casual, labour-hire and non-ongoing positions” (p 111).

We note that in recent weeks, 20,000 Australians have signed an online petition calling for the removal of the religious-based requirement in the NSCP and for children in public schools to have access to the best possible wellbeing support.

The RSA agrees with the parents who launched the petition: this valuable federal funding should be applied to the best person for the job based on candidates’ relevant work experience and professional qualifications, not their religious beliefs.

A report in The Guardian on 13 April 2022 suggests that, if elected, Labor would permit schools to choose to have a pastoral care worker without any requirement for that worker to be approved or endorsed by a religious group. 

Could you please advise whether, if elected, Labor will change the NSCP rules to remove the requirement for student welfare and pastoral care workers to be approved or endorsed by a religious group?

However, without also requiring that student welfare and pastoral care workers be hired by schools directly, this step is unlikely to have any real-world impact. Almost all NSCP provider organisations are Christian organisations that refuse to hire workers without Christian affiliation. Labor’s position would permit a choice in theory without any mechanism for enabling that choice to be made in practice.

Could you please advise whether, if elected, Labor will change the NSCP rules to require student welfare and pastoral care workers to be hired by schools directly rather than through outsourcing arrangements?

The RSA would also welcome the opportunity to speak to you directly (in person or by Zoom) about these issues.

I look forward to your reply.

Dr Meredith Doig

President, Rationalist Society of Australia

All the more reason.