Submission: National School Chaplaincy Program

Meredith Doig / 06 June 2010

Rationalists remind the Government that education in government schools is meant to be secular; that lay religious persons are not qualified to deal professionally with the serious issues they are often confronted with as chaplains; and that the covert preference accorded protestant Christianity through the National Schools Chaplaincy Program is contrary to the principle of cultural diversity, and arguably inconsistent with the Australian constitution.

The Rationalist Society of Australia welcomes the opportunity to submit our views about the National Schools Chaplaincy Program.

In making this submission, we remind the Government that education in government schools in Australia is meant to be secular (ie, non religious); we point out that lay religious persons are usually not qualified to deal professionally with the serious issues with which they are often confronted as chaplains; and we argue that the covert preference accorded protestant Christianity through the NSCP is contrary to the principle of cultural diversity and arguably inconsistent with the Australian constitution.

The Rationalist Society of Australia is a not-for-profit organisation that has existed (with minor name changes) since 1909 when it was founded in Melbourne by a small group of free thinkers including John Latham, later Sir John Latham, Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia.  The Society currently has about 500 members across all states of Australia.  Its aims include:

  • To advance rationalism, defined as the attitude of mind which accepts the supremacy of reason
  • To establish a system of philosophy and ethics independent of all arbitrary assumptions or authority
  • To stimulate freedom of thought
  • To promote inquiry into religious and other superstitious beliefs and practices
  • To encourage interest in science, criticism, history and philosophy, as connected factors in a progressive human culture, independent of theological creeds and dogmas
  • To promote the fullest possible use of science for human welfare
  • To promote a secular and ethical system of education.


The RSA contends that:

  1. The effectiveness of the NSCP cannot be reliably evaluated because:
    • the objectives are broad and there is no requirement to report against them
    • insufficient data is collected by the Commonwealth and responsibility is spread over state and territory governments, school communities, principals and brokering agencies
    • evaluation to date has been based on limited surveys and anecdotal feedback that has an inherent bias in favour of the program and does not measure the program against secular alternatives
    • it is impractical to measure compliance with such requirements in the code of ‘respecting the rights of parents/guardians to ensure the moral and spiritual education of children is in line with their own convictions’
    • there are inadequate safeguards against proselytizing.
  2. The NSCP is discriminatory and unfair in reaching only a minority of schools, favouring religion generally over secular alternatives of student welfare and in favouring particular religions over others.
  3. The rights and processes for students and parents to opt out of involvement with religious activities and influence are discouraging, unclear and unaccountable.
  4. Because educational or welfare qualifications are not mandatory there is a higher risk of improper behaviour and ineffectiveness.
  5. The NSCP compromises the secular status of the government school system.
  6. There are more worthy needs for Commonwealth funding in student welfare.


1.      The effectiveness of the NSCP cannot be reliably evaluated.

According to the guidelines, the main objectives of the program are:

  • providing general religious and personal advice to those seeking it, comfort and support to students such as during times of grief;
  • supporting students and staff to create an environment of cooperation and respect, promoting an understanding of diversity and the range of religious affiliations and their traditions.

Such broad objectives are clearly difficult to measure and there are no reporting requirements that would provide the data to do so.

According to the Issues Paper, the Government, in deciding to extend the program, relied on ‘feedback’ from state and territory governments, Catholic and independent school systems and the information routinely collected by participating schools.  Without sighting this feedback it is difficult to know how rigorous the evaluation was but that which is in the public domain tends to be anecdotal and biased towards the program.

The Issues Paper notes that DEEWR visited ‘a large number of schools, speaking to school staff and chaplains’ but not apparently students or parents.

Schools are required to provide reports to DEEWR which can carry out random checks but after two years of operation, none had been conducted.  In any case, there is no suggestion that such visits would do any more than check that the appropriate forms were compliant.

The program is not being tested for effectiveness against secular alternatives of student support such as counsellors, school nurses and youth workers because of the highly limiting requirement that such a secular alternative can only be exercised when a religious chaplain cannot be found.  The fact that feedback was not invited from schools that chose not to be involved in the program is regrettable and means there are no insights into possible objections to the concept or the guidelines by what is the majority of government schools.

Generally speaking, schools do not look the proverbial gift horse in the mouth.  The $20,000/year Commonwealth contribution to student welfare – an activity in schools that is generally underfunded, given the significant support needs of many students in many schools – is arguably better than nothing.  That the program did not meet the Government’s objective of reaching ‘schools in need’ is worthy of proper evaluation that cannot be done without consulting these schools.  One possibility is that ‘needy’ schools are more likely to have students from diverse cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds for which a chaplain of one denomination would be inappropriate.

The biased nature of feedback is typified by the National School Chaplaincy Association (NSCA)-commissioned report; The Effectiveness of Chaplaincy in Government Schools, one author of which is a theologian.  It claimed that 83 per cent of principals surveyed were “extremely satisfied and valued chaplains’ contributions to student wellbeing”.  In fact the study relied on voluntary responses which were provided by only 42% of the 1626 invited.  The evidence provided by this level of self-selecting responses must be viewed with some scepticism.

The NSCA report is however both useful and alarming for what it tells us about what chaplains actually do.  It shows that they engage in a wide range of activities that would otherwise be required of teachers such as tackling bullying and harassment, coaching sporting teams, running school camps and helping with behaviour management and it is possible that the NSCP does little more than free up staff for other work.

There are numerous requirements and codes that are almost impossible to monitor or measure and are ill-defined. Chaplains are permitted to conduct whole-of-school prayers but this is not apparently deemed to be proselytizing.  They are permitted to work with individual children, which makes it impossible to know if they are promoting their religion or not.  They are permitted to facilitate ‘access to religious helping agencies in the community’ which surely is a form of proselytizing.

Without gathering intelligence from every parent/guardian of every child in the school – a number that could be over 2000 – it is not possible to comply with the code’s requirement that chaplains must ‘…respect[ing] the rights of parents/guardians to ensure the moral and spiritual education of children is in line with their own convictions’.

2.    The NSCP is discriminatory and unfair in reaching only a minority of schools and favouring religion generally and particularly over secular alternatives of student welfare and other religions.

About 72.5% of all schools received none of the $165 million provided by the now capped program. Since it is likely that students in all these schools would benefit from additional student welfare services and likely that they did not apply because chaplains must be religious, it is both discriminatory and unfair. The program is also socially unjust, since wealthy and poor and big and small schools benefit alike.

At least a quarter of schools provided with grants are religious schools and some government schools employed chaplains before 2007 so it is possible that program funds merely replace those raised privately by these schools and result in no additional benefit to students.

In the interests of equality and good policy, the grants under this program should be provided to all schools and allow schools the choice to engage a nurse, a counsellor, a youth worker, a mental health worker, a chaplain or a worker in any other suitably qualified student welfare support staff.

The NSPC Guidelines say the program ‘might include support and guidance about ethics, values, relationships, spirituality and religious issues; the provision of pastoral care; and enhancing engagement with the broader community’. ‘Religious issues’ may require the religious expertise of a religious chaplain but it is just one of a range of optional student support activities. The fact that the remainder could be provided the previously mentioned staff suggests that the insistence in the program of using religious chaplains has no professional basis. The Guidelines insist that there is a clear difference between this program and other student welfare services because chaplains focus on spiritual and religious advice, support and guidance and do this by creating ‘an environment of cooperation and respect, promoting an understanding of diversity….’ It is a nonsense to suggest that only religious chaplains can or do have this focus.

Indeed chaplains are required to operate within the ethical framework which supports and upholds the Values for Australian Schooling; the Government-prescribed set of values developed at the same time as the NSCP. This values set makes no reference to religion or the supernatural and neither should it, since religion has no monopoly on what are commonly agreed societal values.

Nowhere in the NSCP documentation is an argument advanced why a person, by virtue of their endorsement by a recognised religious institution, should be favoured over another with possibly more relevant qualifications and who is endorsed by say, an education institution.  Arguably, the program imposes a religious test for office, contrary to Section 116 of the Australian Constitution.

Schools that do not wish to employ a person selected for their religious affiliation are discriminated against, as are those who were not already in the program when the extension was announced.  There is no clear rationale for capping the program after the second round of funding and no warning that this would be the case.  An evaluation that showed this program, or a secular version of it, was effective, should surely mean the program should be made available to all schools.

3.    The rights and processes for students and parents to opt out of involvement with religious activities and influence are discouraging, unclear and unaccountable.

The NSCP Guidelines stress its voluntary nature however there is no definition of what constitutes community consultation within schools on the appointment of a chaplain and there are no penalties for non-compliance.

Schools are not required to inform individual parents about the program or provide clear processes for opting out and anecdotal evidence suggests that few parents were consulted on this or the role of the chaplain in their school.  They were not aware that chaplains in many states were not required to have formal qualifications or indeed that despite opting out of the program, their children would nonetheless be exposed to proselytising through, for instance, prayers at whole-of-school assemblies.  Indeed there are powerful disincentives for opting out – children do not like to be marginalized and the alternatives, where they exist, are often boring and unattractive.

Opting out is also unreasonable, if not impossible, when chaplains coach sporting teams, participate in school camps, help with behaviour management or ‘make friends’ in the schoolyard.

4.    Because educational or welfare qualifications are not mandatory there is a higher risk of improper behaviour and ineffectiveness.

Ever since governments took up the responsibility for free, compulsory schooling, teachers have been required to have formal training and now four years of post secondary school study is a minimum requirement in most states.  School nurses, counsellors, youth workers, social workers and all those who work directly with students are required to have tertiary qualifications and most are required to be registered by professional organisations.  Chaplains on the other hand are required to have tertiary qualifications by only some states and none requires them in student welfare related fields.  This may not be a problem where the work of chaplains is closely monitored and directed, however chaplains are frequently asked to deal with very difficult psychological and social problems, often on a one-to-one basis.  The following table, included in the NSCA report, indicates that two weeks prior to its survey:

  • 95% of chaplains reported dealing with behaviour management issues such as anger;
  • 92% with bullying and harassment;
  • 92% with peer relationships and loneliness;
  • 91% with student-family relationship issues;
  • 85% with sense of purpose and self esteem;
  • 81% with grief and loss;
  • 77% with community involvement and social inclusion;
  • 76% with spirituality and ‘big picture’ issues of life;
  • 72% with mental health and depression;
  • 50% with alcohol and drug abuse and
  • 44% with self harm and suicide.


It is doubtful that chaplains, who are for the most part lay volunteers without formal training, have the skills to deal with at least the last three of these problem areas.

The 1031 chaplains who responded to this survey reported the following qualifications and experience:

Table 5. 

Areas of Education at Diploma Level or Above Which Chaplains Have Completed

Chaplaincy                              12

Counselling                              20

Psychology                                6

Education                                17

Pastoral Care                            19

Theology                                 30

Youth or Children’s Work       20

Community Development          8

Source: National Survey of Chaplains (2009)


Table 6.

The Professional Experience of Chaplains

Church associated work                  40

Counselling                                     14

Psychologist                             1

Teaching                                 21

Youth or children’s work       44

Source: National Survey of Chaplains (2009)


This means 37% of chaplains have a diploma or higher education, almost half of which qualifications were in chaplaincy and theology.  Less than 8% of chaplains have professional experience in counselling, psychology, teaching or youth and children’s work.

Proponents of the NSCP argue that one of its virtues is the perception that chaplains are independent of the school administration and will keep confidentiality but the danger is that chaplains will not refer these young people through the proper school channels to appropriate services.

The history of criminal abuse by clergy demonstrates that religious convictions are not enough to guarantee the safety of children and young people in their care.  We also know that young people with such serious personal problems, who disclose to a trusted individual, are very vulnerable to predation yet the guidelines and job descriptions encourage unsupervised interaction, even outside the school.  As we also know criminal checks merely identify those with a criminal record but the majority of abusers are not caught and it is often the case that abused children are not able to report abuse until they are well into adulthood.

5.     The NSCP compromises the secular status of the government school system.

There are many options available for parents who want their children exposed to religion in their education.  The majority of non-government schools are religious and the majority of these receive Commonwealth funding at the highest levels so fees are relatively affordable.  Australia is one of the few developed countries in the world where this is the case.  In the US and France for instance, the constitutional separation of church and state precludes such arrangements.

Our so-called secular government school system is already compromised in most states by legislation which gives clergy and chaplains the right to deliver religious instruction or ‘religious education’ during school hours, usually for one hour a week in primary schools, and schools may not offer students who opt out an alternative that is educational.  Religious chaplains are prohibited from proselytizing but as said earlier, this is ill-defined.

Churches in Australia are being afforded unprecedented access to children from families who are not religious.  The Christian evangelist organization Hillsong runs a program in schools nationwide that it claims is non-religious, delivered by qualified staff, does not reinforce gender stereotypes, and uses ‘personal care’ topics merely to break down barriers for the discussion of issues such as peer pressure, self-esteem, bullying and other challenges of adolescence.  However it does subtly influences students towards religious beliefs and practice and it applies narrow and debilitating feminine stereotypes.

The NSCP Code that chaplains must sign says they must not seek to impose any religious beliefs or persuade an individual toward a particular set of religious beliefs; but this is at odds with the purposes chaplaincy service providers describe.

On its website, Scripture Union – a major provider of chaplains – says it is ‘…a volunteer movement…one giant team made up of people from all walks of life and backgrounds.  The one thing that characterises them all is a willingness to serve God’s purposes.

Further, it makes clear its evangelical mission:

‘Working with the churches, Scripture Union aims:

  1. to make God’s Good News known to children, young people and families and
  2. to encourage people of all ages to meet God daily through the Bible and prayer so that they may come to personal faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, grow in Christian maturity and become both committed church members and servants of a world in need.

Scripture Union pursues these aims through a variety of specialist ministries around the world in obedience to our Lord Jesus Christ and in reliance on the Holy Spirit.

In Australia, SU operates in every state and territory and mobilises thousands of volunteers each year to engage young people and families in holiday programs at beaches and in urban or rural townships, camps, secondary and primary schools through sports, recreation, outdoor education and school chaplaincy.’

SU sets out its working principles saying:

‘We seek to exercise the ministries God has given us in obedience to our Lord Jesus Christ and in reliance on the Holy Spirit.  We therefore aim to follow Biblical principles in all that we do and to emphasise the vital importance of prayer.  We approach our work in the following ways:

Evangelism and Teaching

  • we are committed to teaching basic Christian truths as an essential part of evangelism.
  • we aim to express God’s Good News to children, young people and families, not only in words, but also by building caring relationships with them.

We make every effort to communicate the Gospel in contemporary language and in ways appropriate to the context.’

SU promotes SUPA Clubs in primary schools to build Christian communities as well as:

  • Inspired4Life is a secondary schools ministry currently running in the Western suburbs of Melbourne. It is aimed towards ‘at risk’ young people and provides a space for young people to explore issues which are affecting them.  Inspired4Life is about working out what it is to follow Jesus and helping others to do the same.  Discipline young people for the ministry of making disciples of Jesus…


  • ELEVATE – The first key of the ELEVATE framework is ‘Connect In’ where the team is focused on connecting with young people in their school. This can be through existing school programs or through a variety of specifically designed programs that suit the school and the team. Typically, students attend programs voluntarily and get to know the members of the team.  Programs designed with this key in mind focus on establishing trusting relationships and explore issues from a Christian world view only as appropriate to the program and its context.


The NSCP builds on the substantial religious influence already in schools.  For the parent who wants a secular education for their child, free from religious indoctrination, or for the parent who is of a minority faith, a significant effort is required to withdraw his or her child from religious activities. This is unacceptable in a country whose government schools were established more than a century ago to be secular institutions, open to all.

6.         There are more worthy needs for Commonwealth funding in student welfare

As schools are expected to deal more and more with damaging social problems impacting on children and young people there are few properly funded, professional, evidence-based programs in the education system.

The National Safe Schools Framework (NSSF) was agreed to by MCEETYA in 2003 to tackle bullying but its implementation was not funded by the Commonwealth and although the review of its effectiveness will not be completed until mid 2010, there seems little doubt that schools are not yet safe. The Australian Covert Bullying Prevalence Study said frequent bullying affects one in four students in Years 4 to 9 and only half of teachers surveyed said bullying prevention strategies were ‘moderately or very effective in reducing covert bullying’.

As noted above, The Effectiveness of Chaplaincy in Government Schools surveys indicate that 92% of chaplains said they routinely dealt with bullying and harassment.  It seems schools may be relying on chaplains to make schools safe but without appropriate qualifications or knowledge about effective strategies it is doubtful if they can do so.

The NSSF encourages all members of the school community to value diversity, contribute positively to the safety and wellbeing of themselves and others, to act independently, justly, cooperatively and responsibly in school, work, civic and family relationships – a much more comprehensive set of objectives than those of the NSCP.

The prominent education academic, Ken Rigby, says there is a dearth of Australian research in evaluating bullying programs in schools but that there is very good scope for significantly reducing bullying behaviour if intervention begin with primary school students.  Given the well-documented and dire consequences of bullying on a child’s mental health, social inclusion and capacity to learn, we urge the Government to help schools implement effective programs.

Sex and relationships education in Australian schools is similarly under-resourced, despite comprehensive national and state-based policy commitment and curricula.  Here the problem is lack of effective training and resources for teachers.  Some do have good programs in place but many take a very minimalist approach to delivering on the curriculum.  Family Planning Victoria, Shine SA and other bodies can provide this training but it is not a funding priority in many schools, often for lack of champions, and teachers are not confident about teaching the subject without knowledge and teaching strategies.


  1. The name of the Program should be changed to the National Schools Pastoral Support Program (NSPSP).
  2. In the interests of better targeting the scarce resources available, the Program should be restricted to government schools and there should be a concerted effort to ensure the new NSPSP is taken up by schools with demonstrated need.
  3. All government schools should be able to choose Pastoral Support that is religious or non-religious.
  4. All Pastoral Support professionals, religious or non-religious, should have minimal appropriate qualifications, such as a tertiary degree in psychology, social work, nursing or counselling.
  5. Parents should be provided with comprehensive information about the nature of the NSPSP proposed at their school, and be given a genuine say in whether funding is used for a religious or a non-religious Pastoral Support professional.
  6. In the event a religious Pastoral Support professional is appointed by the school community, parents should be required to positively indicate whether they want their child to participate in the Program or not. Non response should NOT be considered to be consent.
  7. Religious activities such as prayers at whole-of-school or whole-of-class events such as assemblies, camps, award ceremonies, etc. should be prohibited.

All the more reason.