WA primary school finally appoints secular student support worker

Si Gladman / 27 May 2023

A West Australian public primary school whose community led the grassroots push against religious chaplaincy across the state last year has finally been able to appoint a secular worker under the new National Student Wellbeing Program (NSWP).

In a school newsletter earlier this month, Maylands Peninsula Primary School principal Paul Andrijich welcomed the appointment of the student welfare officer, replacing the previous church-sponsored chaplains.

He said the school had opted for the student welfare title, as opposed to ‘chaplain’, to clear up misconceptions about the nature of the role.

Last year, the school’s Parents & Citizens group sparked a state-wide backlash to the religious-based chaplaincy program in West Australian public schools, funded through the National School Chaplaincy Program and further state government funding to Christian religious labour hire companies such as YouthCare.

As the Rationalist Society of Australia (RSA) reported last July, the school community voted overwhelmingly to remove religious-based discrimination in the hiring practices of school chaplaincy positions.

It also voted to call on the WA Council of State Schools Organisation (WACSSO) to advocate for a secular option, making all pastoral care positions open to applications without any religious requirement.

At the WACSSO conference in September, the state’s school P&C groups joined forces in supporting the Maylands Peninsula Primary School P&C’s motions for government funding to go to the employment of professional non-clinical student welfare officers instead of religious chaplains.

In an interview on the RSA’s The Secular Agenda podcast in December, Rosemary Lynch, of the WA Public School Alliance, said Maylands Peninsula Primary School had been unable to fill the role due to a lack of secular options.

Under the new NSWP – the agreement for which came into effect in January this year – public schools are now able to transition to having a secular worker instead of a chaplain, who are still required to have the endorsement of religious organisations.

All states and territories are supposed to publish their new guidelines and policies for the program, yet a number of jurisdictions – including Western Australia – are yet to do so. Some states that have published their guidelines and policies for the new program include provisions at odds with the federal agreement and even fail to mention key requirements, such as the program being “not a religious program”.

When the Bayswater City Council deliberated on whether to continue providing additional money for chaplaincy at schools in its area – including Maylands Peninsula Primary School – most school principals gave evidence that funding should go to schools without requiring it be used for Christian chaplains.

In documents obtained from the council and viewed by the RSA, principals raised concerns with Baywater council about perceptions of the religious nature of chaplaincy.

One principal said the funding could instead support a wellbeing officer with a similar role to their school’s chaplains “but with secular appeal so that the program is inclusive.”

“While chaplains do not preach in schools, the position does alienate some families. By default, it also suggests that only a person of faith has the qualities to support student wellbeing in this way,” the principal said.

Another principal complained about funding being directed to third-party service providers because doing so “costs a percentage of the funding” and “the agencies are faith based”.

“We absolutely value the funding to support students, but with a role that is not faith based,” the principal said.

Another principal said: “Our school, including the Board, would like to use an employer who does not discriminate against people not of faith. We believe that religious faith is not essential criteria for a person to provide excellent student wellbeing and pastoral care services.”


May 2022: The Maylands Peninsula Primary School’s Parents & Citizens (P&C) group surveyed parents and carers about the chaplaincy program, asking whether they support funding for equal opportunity employment for every position, regardless of a person’s faith. Out of 80 respondents, 71 parents voted ‘yes’. They also supported the proposal to the WA Council of State Schools Organisation (WACSSO) to advocate at a state level for all pastoral care positions to be open to applicants without any religious requirement.

June 2022: New education minister, Jason Clare, announced that the Albanese government would be making changes to the National School Chaplaincy Program to give schools the option of a secular worker.

July 2022: Ashley Greig, the vice-president for the Maylands Peninsula Primary School’s P&C, told ABC Radio Perth that the school community wanted “the best person for the job, not the best person of faith for the job.”

September 2022: At the WACSSO annual conference, the state’s P&Cs overwhelmingly supported all of the motions put forward by the Maylands Peninsula Primary School P&C.

December 2022: Rosemary Lynch, of the WA Public School Alliance, told the ‘The Secular Agenda’ podcast that Maylands Peninsula Primary School had been unable to fill the role including due to a lack of secular options.

January 2023: The new agreement for the National Student Welling Program came into effect.

May 2023: Maylands Peninsula Primary School announced it had chosen the secular option in appointing a student welfare officer.

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