QLD education department misrepresents nature of school chaplaincy role in survey

Si Gladman / 20 July 2023

The Queensland education department appears to have misrepresented the nature of school chaplaincy roles under the new federally funded National Student Wellbeing Program (NSWP).

In the preamble to a survey sent to a school community and questioning respondents on whether they would prefer a chaplain or a student wellbeing officer, the department differentiated the kind of support provided in the roles.

While student wellbeing officers were said to “support general wellbeing of students”, the survey claimed that chaplains “support students to find a better way to deal with issues ranging from family breakdown and loneliness, to friendships and mental health”.

However, under funding agreement for the NSWP, signed earlier this year by all states and territories, the only differentiation between the roles is that chaplains are still required to have the endorsement of religious institutions.

The survey was branded ‘Department of Education’ and was hosted on an official government website. It is not yet known whether the same survey and preamble text was sent to other school communities.

The education department’s design of the survey conflicts with the state’s own policy guidelines for the program, which make clear that chaplains and student wellbeing officers perform the same roles.

The survey also appears to be inconsistent with the Public Sector Ethics Act 1994 (Qld), which requires Queensland public servants to be “honest, respectful and fair” when engaging with the community.

While the funding agreement removed reference to the chaplaincy role being a ‘spiritual’ one, the survey claimed that chaplains provided “spiritual and emotional support to school communities”.

The survey was held in the context of state schools now having, under the new NSWP, a choice between continuing to hire religious chaplains or choosing to employ secular wellbeing officers.

The survey asked respondents – identified in the survey as staff members, parents and caregiver, and P&C members – what role they would like to see employed at their school from 2024-27 and why. The survey closed this evening at 5pm.

RSA president Meredith Doig said the preamble of the survey clearly misrepresented the nature of the role.

“Education Minister Grace Grace needs to clear up how many school communities received this survey and explain to all those who took part that there is no difference in the roles performed by chaplains and secular student wellbeing officers under the National Student Wellbeing Program,” she said.

“School communities across Queensland are currently making important decisions about the people that they want to be working in their schools. Yet it seems that they cannot even rely on the state education department for accurate information about the chaplaincy and student wellbeing officer roles.”

As the Rationalist Society of Australia reported last month, the federal education department has confirmed that the roles are distinguished only by the requirement that chaplains be recognised through endorsement by a recognised or accepted religious institution.

The funding agreement specifically stipulates that “the NSWP is not a religious program and does not provide religious instruction or religious counselling to students”. It also states that “…chaplains and student wellbeing officers may be of any faith and of no faith…”

In the letter to secular advocates, the federal education department acknowledged that a worker’s religion had nothing to do with the work they do.

“Under the new program, Student Wellbeing Officers and Chaplains continue to focus on supporting the wellbeing of students and the broader school community through delivering pastoral care services as well as other wellbeing support services such as breakfast clubs, lunch time activities, excursions, volunteering activities and parent/carer workshops,” a spokesperson said.

Follow the latest developments in our campaign on school chaplaincy here.

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Photo by Taylor Flowe on Unsplash.

All the more reason.