Principals’ rejection of religious chaplains a blow for school chaplaincy program

Si Gladman / 16 December 2022

Principals of public schools in a local government area of Western Australia have rejected the funding of religious chaplains in their schools, asking instead for the money to go directly to their schools to allow them to choose their preferred provider.

At a meeting of the Bayswater City Council late last month, it was revealed that 58 per cent of principals in the area wanted the council to give funding to schools without requiring that schools must utilise a religious-based chaplaincy provider.

That compared to 33 per cent of principals who supported giving funding to the schools specifically for chaplaincy services, and just eight per cent who supported giving the money directly to chaplaincy providers.

After a long-running debate in recent months over whether to stop directly funding Christian chaplaincy provider YouthCare as part of an effort to ‘top-up’ the National School Chaplaincy Program, the City of Bayswater ruled in favour of directly funding schools to choose their own provider.

The survey result – gathered as part of the research that helped inform council’s decision – is a major blow to the claim by religious lobbyists and politicians that the school chaplaincy program is widely supported in school communities. The development follows the resounding vote in September by all of Western Australia’s Parents & Citizens groups in favour of governments funding the employment of professional non-clinical student welfare officers instead of religious chaplains.

The report provided to council at the 22 November meeting also revealed concerns from the Youth Affairs Council of Western Australia (YACWA), the state’s peak non-government youth organisation. The organisation told Bayswater coucillors that chaplaincy services “may not be appropriate for all young people” due to the religious nature of the chaplaincy roles.

“For example, we have heard that perceptions of faith-based affiliation or proselytising may impact young people’s willingness to engage with chaplains. In addition, the most recent evaluation of the Chaplaincy Program has issues in its methodology that make it difficult for YACWA to definitely recommend it as an effective mechanism to provide pastoral care,” the organisation said.

Rationalist Society of Australia president Dr Meredith Doig said the survey results demonstrated that the claimed popularity of the school chaplaincy program was a myth.

“Clearly, principals and school communities just want governments to fund the best people for the job, instead of requiring that these workers be appointed because of their church affiliations,” she said.

“The game is up for the National School Chaplaincy Program. It’s about time governments put the interests and the wellbeing of our nation’s children ahead of the interest of religious lobby groups.”

The report presented to the council meeting said the survey results confirmed that “schools would prefer to receive funding directly for a provider of their choice”. It quoted one principal as saying their school would “prefer the flexibility as we can then choose programs and providers as fits best purpose for our student needs.”

The council voted to re-direct $40,000 between four of its 13 public schools based on the greatest need.

The outcome resulted in Maylands Peninsula Primary School – whose community voted overwhelmingly to remove the religious requirement in the program earlier this year – losing part of its funding from the council.

On ‘The Secular Agenda’ podcast earlier this month, Rosemary Lynch, of the WA Public School Alliance, said the Maylands Peninsula school had been unable to fill its vacant pastoral care position, largely because of there being a lack of secular providers approved by the state’s education department.

Earlier this year, more than 20,000 people signed a petition calling for the governments to fund youth workers instead of faith workers in public schools. The petition said that schools should be responsible for making the appointments to these roles, rather than third-party religious providers.

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Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator at the Rationalist Society of Australia. You can contact him at sigladman@rationalist.com.au or follow him on Twitter at @si_gladman

All the more reason.