Restricting welfare and pastoral support roles to religious chaplains undermines secular public schooling and the quality of care provided to school children, the Rationalist Society of Australia has told new education minister Jason Clare.
In a letter to Minister Clare (see letter below), RSA president Meredith Doig has urged the Albanese government to make much-needed reform to the controversial National School Chaplaincy Program (NSCP).
If the government continues the program – a media report prior to the election suggested Labor would – then it should at least remove the religious-based discrimination in the program and remove outsourcing arrangements with religious labour-hire firms, Dr Doig said.
The RSA outlined these same suggestions in a letter to Labor’s previous education spokesperson Tanya Plibersek prior to the May election.
Dr Doig told Minister Clare that the inherent religious-based discrimination must be removed to allow all qualified and experienced welfare and pastoral care workers to apply for roles funded under the program, irrespective of their faith or non-faith beliefs.
The current model requires that people employed as chaplains may be of “any faith” and be recognised through formal ordination, commissioning, recognised religious qualifications or endorsement by a recognised or accepted religious institution. As a result, qualified and experienced welfare, wellbeing, pastoral care or youth workers are ineligible to apply if they are not religious.
“This kind of religious discrimination is wrong and inconsistent with the multicultural and multi-faith make up of the Australian community,” Dr Doig said.
“Children in Australia’s public school system deserve and need access to the best available wellbeing support. Narrowing the market to the religiously-affiliated not only offends the (supposedly) secular nature of Australia’s public school system but diminishes the potential quality of the care to be provided.”
She also argued that schools should be allowed to hire student welfare and pastoral care workers directly rather than through outsourcing arrangements with religious labour-hire firms.
Dr Doig noted that a number of state equal opportunity and human rights commissioners had raised concerns about the religious-based discrimination in the NSCP.
The RSA will focus on campaigning for reform of the NSCP in the new term of parliament, as one of the top priorities for secular change.
Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator at the Rationalist Society of Australia. You can contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @si_gladman
Photo: Jason Clare (Facebook)
Letter to Jason Clare, Minister for Education, 8 June 2022
Dear Minister Clare,
I’m writing to you on behalf of the Rationalist Society of Australia (RSA), Australia’s oldest freethought organisation, promoting reason and evidence-based policy since 1906.
Firstly, may I congratulate you on your appointment as Minister for Education. We are heartened to see the passion you have shown for the public school sector in the past – in particular, in your first speech to the parliament but also more recently. We wish you well in the role.
Minister, I’m writing to you to urge long-overdue reforms to the National School Chaplaincy Program (NSCP).
As you are likely aware, under the NSCP, the Commonwealth provides funds to the states and territories to enable ‘chaplains’ (essentially student welfare or pastoral care or youth workers) to be placed in schools – including public schools.
The Commonwealth’s NSCP rules require these youth workers to be religious. While in theory, these workers could be of any religion, in practice the vast majority are Christian, often evangelicals. This is because the program’s administration is outsourced by the states and territories to Christian labour-hire firms. Under the selection criteria created by these firms, youth workers who are not religious or who are affiliated with other religions are not eligible for the roles they advertise.
The Australian Labor Party’s National Platform commits Labor to “secular government schooling” (p32). The NSCP undermines this principle, directing federal funds to the appointment of exclusively religious staff to public primary and secondary schools around the country.
Like many Australian parents, the RSA has deep concerns about the NSCP in its current form.
Religious-based discrimination in the NSCP
We believe that, in our public schools, there should be no religious-based discrimination.
Under the Project Agreement between the Commonwealth and states and territories, these workers (“chaplains”) may be of any faith and must be recognised through formal ordination, commissioning, recognised religious qualifications or endorsement by a recognised or accepted religious institution. Note that this means therefore that qualified and experienced welfare or wellbeing or pastoral care or youth workers who are not religious are not even eligible to apply for these roles.
This kind of religious discrimination is wrong and inconsistent with the multicultural and multi-faith make up of the Australian community.
State-based anti-discrimination and human rights commissioners have expressed concern about the religious discrimination built into the current NSCP model:
- In 2021, Western Australia’s Equal Opportunity Commission told the RSA that it it was concerned that the practice of restricting chaplaincy positions to religious people constituted “prima facie religious conviction discrimination”.
- In 2020, Queensland’s Human Rights Commissioner told the RSA he would write to the Department of Education to “suggest changes [to the school chaplains program] addressing potential contraventions of the [the state’s Anti-Discrimination] Act”.
- In 2020, Victoria’s Human Rights Commission told a member of the Victorian Parliament: “we agree that the program may be in breach of [Victoria’s] Equal Opportunity Act 2010”.
We note that the ALP’s National Platform commits Labor to reducing “the use of contractors, casual, labour hire and non-ongoing positions” (p111). Under the current outsourcing model for the NSCP, federal money is being used to support the profitability of religious labour-hire firms.
These religious labour-hire firms are almost all Christian and they refuse to hire workers without a Christian affiliation. We say school youth workers should be hired by schools directly.
Numerous media reports over the years have documented concerns about the behaviour of some chaplains in public school communities. Earlier this year, the media reported on how a chaplain in Queensland was found to be spreading anti-vaccination information to a parents group on social media, just as the state government was increasing its efforts to vaccinate children against the COVID-19 virus.
Parents have raised concerns about chaplains using their access to schoolchildren to proselytise. Although proselytising is not supposed to be allowed, job descriptions for the roles include statements requiring that applications have a “demonstrated capacity to sensitively relate the Christian faith in a secular context”.
Minister, our public schools are not mission fields, and it’s time government support for this sort of under-the-radar evangelism is stopped. Government schools are meant to be secular, equally welcoming of families of any faith or of no faith.
Reform is needed
Before the federal election, media reports suggested Labor, if it won government, would continue with the program but with changes. If, indeed, the Albanese government opts to continue with the program, the following changes should be made to address the problems we have outlined:
- Remove the religious-based discrimination and allow all qualified and experienced welfare and pastoral care workers to apply for roles funded under the program, irrespective of their faith or non-faith beliefs.
- Allow schools to hire people to these student welfare and pastoral care workers directly rather than through outsourcing arrangements with religious labour-hire firms. Without this change, religious-based labour-hire organisations would remain the dominant providers due to their established market presence and existing administrative structures (funded under the program).
Minister, 20,000 Australians have this year signed an online petition calling for the federal government to fund youth workers and wellbeing support workers in public schools based on professional qualifications and experience, not on religious affiliations.
Children in Australia’s public school system deserve and need access to the best available wellbeing support. Narrowing the market to the religiously-affiliated not only offends the (supposedly) secular nature of Australia’s public school system but diminishes the potential quality of the care to be provided.
The RSA would welcome the opportunity to speak to you or your representative directly (in-person or by online) about these issues.
I look forward to your reply.
Dr Meredith Doig OAM
President, Rationalist Society of Australia