Calls for School Chaplains program to be reviewed and improved

National LGBTIQA+ lobby group Just.Equal Australia has welcomed changes to the school chaplaincy program, but says the government has not gone far enough.

Education Minister, Jason Clare, announced the $60 million program would be adjusted to allow schools to apply for funding for either a secular professional counsellor or religious chaplain.

The previous Coalition Government had limited the program to religious counsellors only, with no requirement for tertiary qualifications in counselling or psychology.

Chaplains need specific training to support LGBTIQA+ students

Just.Equal Australia spokesperson, Brian Greig (pictured), said chaplains with no training to support LGBTIQA+ issues were a danger to students.

“A student who confides in a chaplain about their sexuality or gender identity cannot be assured of appropriate care if the chaplain has no training in such matters.”

“It is also deeply worrying that many chaplains are sourced from religious organisations which may have a long history of opposing LGBTIQA+ equality and which have condemned homosexuality and trangender identity as wrong and sinful.”

Just.Equal called on the Minister to ensure all chaplains are trained in LGBTIQA+ issues, including referring students to professional resources and counselling.

“In the past, the Tasmanian Government has made money available for the training of chaplains in LGBTIQA+ issues, and the federal Government should replicate this across the nation”, Greig said.

When the program was first set up under the Howard government it was focused on placing religious based chaplains in schools. Under the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments the funding program was extended to included non-religious youth counsellors.

When the Coalition was returned to power they once again restricted the funding to religious based staff only, a condition now flipped back by the incoming Minister.

The program supplies around $20,000 funding to over 30,000 individual schools around Australia. While the Chaplains are banned from proselytising, and are required to undergo training in online bullying and must be certified youth workers, there is no requirement for them to qualified as counsellors.

Calls for hiring practices to be reviewed

The Rationalist Society has also argued that the Minister needs to take more action.

“This is a good first step by the new government to address the problems in the school chaplaincy program,” said RSA president Dr Meredith Doig (pictured).

“We’re pleased to see that the new education minister, Jason Clare, has prioritised this issue and moved so quickly to address it.

“We’re looking forward to meeting with Minister Clare to discuss further how the program can be further improved.”

The RSA say they are concerned religious-based discrimination will continue in the program, because of the mentod that is used to hire staff.

While Minister Clare has pledged to provide schools with a choice between a religious chaplain and a secular welfare officer, Dr Doig said that, in practice, there would be little choice if the government continued with existing outsourcing arrangements.

Under current arrangements, the recruitment and selection of chaplains is outsourced to religious labour-hire firms, the overwhelming majority of which are Christian-run and they refuse to appoint non-religious chaplains.

Earlier this month, the RSA urged Minister Clare to remove not only the religious-based discrimination inherent in the program but also the outsourcing arrangements with religious labour-hire firms.

“The Labor Party’s own National Platform policy document commits it to reducing the outsourcing of labour,” Dr Doig said.

“The Albanese government should allow schools and education departments to hire people directly to these welfare and pastoral care worker roles, rather than outsourcing the recruitment process.

“Schools should be able to hire staff best suited to their needs, based on appropriate qualifications and experience, and they should not be allowed to discriminate on religious grounds.”

Alternatively, if the current outsourcing arrangements remain, the government must fund secular labour-hire firms to compete on a level playing field with the well-established religious labour-hire firms, said Dr Doig.

“The Christian labour-hire firms have been benefiting from these outsourcing arrangements since the program’s inception under the Howard government, receiving generous government funding for their administrative costs under the program. As a result, they have a significant advantage over secular providers in terms of their organisational infrastructure,” she said.

“It’s a matter of equal opportunity. If secular providers are not provided with what they need to compete fairly with the religious providers, in reality schools will actually have little choice, and the religious labour-hire firms will continue to require that applicants for the jobs be Christian.

“A better outcome would be for Minister Clare to require schools and education departments to hire people directly into these roles.”

Shadow Education Minister Alan Tudge criticises changes to the program

Alan Tudge, who was one of several MPs to serve as Minister for Education in the Coalition, has criticised the decision to open the program up to non-religious staff, saying the government’s decision is ideologically motivated and ignores evidence of the program’s effectiveness’.

In a statement Tudge said the decision would see the end of many school chaplains.

“New Education Minister Jason Clare is well aware that schools will come under pressure from activists to not employ chaplains, regardless of how effective they have been.” Tudge said.

Tudge said the program had been one of the most effective ways of providing support to children, and highlighted that many chaplains from religious background worked well beyond the two days a week the programs funding provided for.

“The chaplains employed by the schools are typically lived by the school community and work well beyond the two days per week of salary.” Tudge said. “Of the issues in schools to deal with, changing the Chaplains Program is surely not the priority.”

The Liberal Shadow Minister for Education said the decision was ideologically motived.

“Labor has always resisted the Schools Chaplains Program. They have an ideological objection to having religious workers in schools despite their effectiveness.”

Graeme Watson 

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