The federal education department says religious endorsement is still required for some workers employed in the new National Student Wellbeing Program to “confirm their faith”.
This is despite the federal government’s own guidelines saying the new program is not a religious program and the federal education department acknowledging that a worker’s religion has no bearing on the work they do.
In a letter to secular advocates, Rachel O’Connor, the department’s Assistant Secretary for Student Engagement, Wellbeing and Closing the Gap Branch, said the religious requirements distinguished the roles of student wellbeing officers and chaplains in the NSWP.
“Their roles are distinguished only by the requirement that Chaplains are recognised through endorsement by a recognised or accepted religious institution, as determined by the jurisdictions, as a means of confirming their faith,” wrote Ms O’Connor on behalf of education minister Jason Clare.
The education department’s letter was in response to questions directed to Minister Clare by parent groups from a number of states.
In April, Fairness In Religions In School (FIRIS) groups in New South Wales and South Australia, Queensland Parents for Secular State Schools and the WA Public School Alliance sent a joint letter to Mr Clare seeking an explanation as to why chaplains working under the NSWP required “endorsement by a recognised or accepted religious institution”.
In their letter, the groups noted that the federal government’s new Project Agreement with states and territories specifically stipulates that “the NSWP is not a religious program and does not provide religious instruction or religious counselling to students”.
The Project Agreement agreement also states that “…chaplains and student wellbeing officers may be of any faith and of no faith…”
The secular advocacy groups asked Mr Clare to advise on what the endorsement by religious institutions pertained to in the context of the NSWP being a non-religious program.
“…what aspect, qualities, attributes and/or affiliations or associations of a candidate chaplain are the religious institutions required to consider and/or confirm in determining whether to endorse someone as a school chaplain?” they asked.
Ms O’Connor acknowledged that a worker’s religion had nothing to do with the work they do. She said that the student wellbeing officer and chaplain roles provided the same services and were required to have the same minimum qualifications, including competencies in mental health and making appropriate referrals, and providing pastoral care, and/or working with youth.
“Where a Chaplain is of no faith, the jurisdiction may wish to reclassify the person to be a Student Wellbeing Officer. The importance being that there is continuity of service for the students and school community,” she added.
Image: Jason Clare (Facebook)