Poll shows support for ACT model of pastoral care in schools, opposition to religious hiring

Si Gladman / 06 December 2023

Most Australians back the Australian Capital Territory government’s model of hiring school pastoral support workers directly instead of through third-party providers that require religious credentials of applicants, new polling has shown.

Research conducted jointly by the Australia Institute and the Rationalist Society of Australia reveals that 56 per cent of people support their state or territory hiring pastoral support workers directly – rather than through a third-party agency – to ensure applicants are not subject to conditions that may be imposed by agencies, including religious credentials.

Just 16 per cent of Australians oppose the policy position, while 28 per cent don’t know or are unsure.

Bill Browne, the Director of the Democracy and Accountability Program at The Australia Institute, announced the findings at the Secularism Australia Conference in Sydney on Saturday.

In November, The Australia Institute surveyed a sample of 1,379 people on the hiring conditions for pastoral care workers in public schools.

Among the other results:

  • Seven in 10 Australians (71 per cent) did not know the federal government funded a program in which people providing pastoral care services to students were hired on the basis of religion.
  • Two in three Australians (66 per cent) agreed that pastoral care workers should be employed on the basis of qualifications and experience only, and not be required to have the endorsement of a religious group.

In October, the ACT government assured the Rationalist Society of Australia that no religious-based discrimination would take place in the employment of workers to its public schools under the National Student Wellbeing Program (NSWP).

The ACT’s approach demonstrates that states and territories can accept federal funding under the NSWP and, at the same time, ensure discrimination does not occur in the hiring of these positions in public schools.

In all other states and territories, however, religious discrimination remains a systemic feature of the NSWP, with the usual recruitment practice requiring that qualified youth workers hired through third-party religious providers be Christian and have religious credentials to be eligible for the roles.

In a letter to the RSA, the ACT’s education department said that recruiting wellbeing officers directly ensured that the roles would not be “subject to any religious conditions included as part of employment with an agency”.

Mr Browne said the polling suggested Australians wanted pastoral care workers in public schools to be “the best-qualified person for the job, not someone hired on the basis of their religion”. 

“Most Australians do not know that the federal government funds roles in public schools that are restricted on the basis of religion, and when they find out, they do not support it,” he said.

RSA president Meredith Doig said the Albanese government, if it were serious about combatting religious discrimination, would stop this overtly discriminatory program instead of turning a blind eye.

“It’s time to stop our schools being used as mission fields for institutionalised religion and return our schools to being genuinely secular,” she said.

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Si Gladman is Campaign & Communications Coordinator for the Rationalist Society of Australia. He also hosts ‘The Secular Agenda’ podcast.

All the more reason.