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RSA urges Victorian government to commit to secular and qualified youth workers

Si Gladman / 13 October 2021

The Rationalist Society of Australia is urging the Andrews government to commit to providing “secular” and “qualified” youth workers for Victorian schoolchildren in addition to its pledge to boost mental health services.

In a letter to Education Minister James Merlino, RSA president Dr Meredith Doig welcomed the roll out of the Mental Health Practitioners initiative to provide vital mental health support, such as trained psychologists, in all government secondary schools and specialist schools.

Premier Dan Andrews, in an announcement on Twitter earlier this month, said each school would “have a free, secular and qualified mental health practitioner on campus”.

In the provision of pastoral care and wellbeing support, however, the Victorian government continues to administer the federally funded National School Chaplaincy Program that appoints staff based on religious affiliation.

Dr Doig told Minister Merlino that Victoria’s schoolchildren also needed secular and suitably qualified youth workers to perform pastoral care and wellbeing support duties, which are non-religious in nature.

“So while we welcome your government investing in qualified mental health workers, it is letting students and their parents down by continuing to require religious qualifications for the provision of pastoral care and wellbeing support through the chaplaincy program,” wrote Dr Doig. 

Dr Doig noted that, in correspondence with the RSA, Victoria’s former Human Rights Commissioner Kristen Hilton agreed that the schools chaplaincy program “may be in breach of [Victoria’s] Equal Opportunity Act 2010”. Non-religious youth workers, such as Juliette Armstrong, have been overlooked for the chaplaincy roles. 

“There are many perfectly well qualified and experienced youth workers who could provide pastoral care and wellbeing support in schools, but at present the system makes it nigh on impossible for them to seek appointment as a ‘chaplain’ because they are not religiously affiliated,” Dr Doig wrote.

“Ahead of next year’s election, we call upon your government to make a commitment to better serve the wellbeing needs of Victorian youth by requiring that pastoral carers and wellbeing support workers be employed based on qualifications and experience, and not on spurious religious credentials.”

According to the website of the Department of Education & Training, 613 Victoria schools currently receive funding of more than $20,00 per year to engage a chaplain to provide a minimum of 400 hours of chaplaincy services per year.

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

Photo: James Merlino (Facebook)

 

RSA letter to Minister Merlino, 11 October 2021

Dear Minister,

The Rationalist Society of Australia welcomes your government’s initiative to provide vital mental health support, such as trained psychologists, in all government secondary schools and specialist schools.

We agree with Premier Andrews on the need for government schools to have “secular and qualified” mental health practitioners in schools at this time, as the state’s youth deal with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic (our emphasis).

However, we note that your government does not show that same enthusiasm for “secular and qualified” pastoral care and wellbeing support in schools.

The Victorian government continues to administer the federally funded National School Chaplaincy Program (NSCP) that appoints staff based on religious affiliation even though the work they perform is (must be) non-religious in nature. 

So while we welcome your government investing in qualified mental health workers, it is letting students and their parents down by continuing to require religious qualifications for the provision of pastoral care and wellbeing support through the chaplaincy program.

We note that Victoria’s former Human Rights Commissioner Kristen Hilton said that the discriminatory hiring practices in the NSCP “may be in breach of [Victoria’s] Equal Opportunity Act 2010”. 

We acknowledge that schools need, now more than ever, to provide pastoral care and wellbeing support and that the funding from the NSCP is often a welcome addition to schools’ funds.

However, the use of these funds should not breach Victoria’s equal opportunity law and should not discriminate on the basis of religious affiliation. There are many perfectly well qualified and experienced youth workers who could provide pastoral care and wellbeing support in schools, but at present the system makes it nigh on impossible for them to seek appointment as a ‘chaplain’ because they are not religiously affiliated.

Many school communities would welcome the option of having non-religious pastoral care and wellbeing support rather than the religiously-affiliated. 

Ahead of next year’s election, we call upon your government to make a commitment to better serve the wellbeing needs of Victorian youth by requiring that pastoral carers and wellbeing support workers be employed based on qualifications and experience, and not on spurious religious credentials.

Sincerely,

Meredith Doig

President, Rationalist Society of Australia

All the more reason.