The Rationalist Society of Australia will call on the Albanese government to work with the states and territories to transition the former school chaplaincy program into a pastoral care/student wellbeing program that appoints staff based on merit.
In response to the release of an evaluation of the National School Chaplaincy Program, RSA president Meredith Doig said the federal government should show vision and invest in a new system and new infrastructure for recruiting, training and supporting workers to the newly named National Student Wellbeing Program (NSWP).
Such new infrastructure would address many of the problems raised in the evaluation – including the need for better oversight and accountability, concerns about proselytising by religious chaplains, and perceptions of religious affiliation being a barrier to care.
Dr Doig said such new infrastructure could possibly be housed within, and benefit from, established public service departments.
The evaluation, conducted by dandolopartners, endorsed plans to broaden the scheme to give schools the option of choosing a secular worker.
The report claimed chaplains play a valuable role in schools, including by building relationships with students, identifying their most pressing wellbeing needs, holding breakfast clubs and lunchtime activities, and connecting students with relevant support and services.
However, the report failed to establish why these activities need to be performed by religious people with religious credentials and endorsement from churches.
The report also failed to address the religious-based discrimination that has long characterised the hiring practices of the school chaplaincy program.
As the RSA has documented – and made clear in its submission to the evaluation – the existing Project Agreement between the Commonwealth and the states/territories required workers to be people of faith, have religious credentials and religious endorsement. Funding from the program has been directed to religious labour-hire firms, which employ only religious people – mostly evangelical Christians.
In the evaluation of the National School Chaplaincy Program, school students raised concerns about chaplains engaging in proselytising & about religious judgmentalism being a barrier to care. Read our response to the evaluation here: https://t.co/ILPBlU6ynG#auspol @JasonClareMP pic.twitter.com/PJh1HqqXEM
— Rationalist Society (@AusRationalist) January 30, 2023
These hiring practices breach a number of states’ anti-discrimination laws, including in Western Australia where the Equal Opportunity Commissioner agreed that labour-hire firms restricting positions to Christians was “prima facie religious conviction discrimination”.
Dr Doig said this religious-based discrimination in the program, preventing non-Christians and non-religious people from being considered for these roles, was “the elephant in the room”.
“It’s strange that the dandolopartners evaluation misses this obvious point,” she said.
The report also claimed there was “insufficient evidence” to suggest that proselytising – explicitly banned under the program – was happening, despite listing testimonials from students that chaplains had done exactly that.
One student, for example, said the chaplain “makes kids uncomfortable because they want to push their religion.” Another said: “I have had a chaplain attempt to discuss religion with me…”
The RSA’s submission to the evaluation outlined instances – reported in the media – where proselytising was raised as an issue, including by a former chaplain.
The report also noted parental concerns that chaplains promote off-site religious activities, such as camps. Earlier this month, the RSA reported how, in promotional videos posted online, chaplains hired by Christian labour-hire firm YouthCARE in Western Australia spoke openly about connecting kids with churches.
The dandolopartners report revealed that the perception of religious judgmentalism was a barrier to care, with some students, because of their gender identity or sexual orientation, reporting that they refuse to engage with religious chaplains.
The report quoted one student as saying: “I am bisexual and there is no way I would want to talk to our Chaplain about these issues as she is a Christian and I do not trust her to give me good advice.”
Last year, the Albanese government announced it would revert to the Gillard government’s policy of allowing non-religious people to be eligible for funding. However, the report noted that schools “may not be able to access Student Wellbeing Officers through the current panel of providers” – the Christian labour-hire firms that do not recruit the non-religious.
In letters to education minister Jason Clare and his state counterparts, the RSA has warned the dominance of religious providers in the marketplace would result in schools having little genuine choice, given that other providers would be unable to compete against the long-established Christian firms that have benefitted from years of government funding of their administrative infrastructures.
The RSA will now write to Minister Clare and his state and territory counterparts to urge them to invest in developing proper, secular infrastructure to deliver the new pastoral care/student wellbeing program.
Dr Doig said the use of the term ‘chaplain’ should be phased out and pastoral carers/student wellbeing officers should be employed based on merit and their capacity to deliver what schools need.
“Given the mental health and wellbeing challenges facing schools, Australian governments need to put the interests of children first and invest in new infrastructure and a new system that ensures the best people for these important jobs are recruited, trained, and supported, regardless of religious affiliation,” she said.
Such a new system would allow for effective monitoring and evaluation of the program – a serious deficiency identified by dandolopartners.
The report made a suite of recommendations for the government to introduce accountability and oversight mechanisms into the new program, including a complaints mechanism to provide “opportunities for community members to report concerns regarding the behaviour or performance of Chaplains.”
Photo by Taylor Flowe on Unsplash.