Remake school chaplaincy as a proper welfare program or scrap it

Tony Abbott’s support for funding religious chaplains in schools violates the principle of government religious neutrality. AAP/Lukas Coch

The High Court of Australia, for the second time, recently found that the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program (NSCSWP) is funded unconstitutionally, and so is invalid in its current form. The program, though, can be reconstituted through tied grants to state governments. The question is, should it be?

While the NSCSWP serves some legitimate policy objectives, the program in its pre-existing form is objectionable for at least two reasons. It should either be revived as a secular student welfare program or left extinguished.

The importance of secular government

One of the key problems is that the NSCSWP violates the principle of government religious neutrality.

The Howard government introduced the program in 2006 with the stated purpose being to “assist our schools in providing greater pastoral care and supporting the spiritual well-being of their students”. Chaplains were required to have a link with a religious organisation.

The Gillard government removed this requirement. About 25% of schools that applied for funding then opted to employ a secular student welfare worker. Most recently, the Abbott government sought to re-align the program with its initial religious purpose – the only option, once again, would be to hire a chaplain.

Roughly 85% of school chaplains are sourced from organisations that collectively form the National School Chaplaincy Association. These all have a Christian mission. Scripture Union Queensland, for instance, “the largest provider of school chaplains in Australia”, proclaims that:

Our MISSION is to bring God’s love, hope and good news to children and young people.

It is clear that, in theory as well as substance, the program has a religious aim. The government and taxpayers provide a substantial benefit to religious groups, and to Christianity in particular. An astonishing 99.5% of those funded under the program are Christian – vastly larger than the general community’s affiliation to Christianity of 61%.

This religious preferencing is worrying. The key reason that government should be secular is that we live in a pluralistic society in which citizens have a multitude of religious beliefs, and some have none. Government promotion of religion – particularly where it overwhelmingly favours one religion or denomination in substance – undermines a core concern of liberal democracy, which is to govern for everyone and promote equal citizenship.

Religion should be the concern only of individuals, not the business of government. Our constitution embodies a related idea in its prohibition on making “any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance”. The High Court, though, has interpreted the provision narrowly.

Welfare workers would be better

The National School Chaplaincy Association commissioned a 2009 research report, The Effectiveness of Chaplaincy, which found that the vast majority of what chaplains do in schools has nothing to do with religion at all.

In a survey asking chaplains which issues students had raised in the preceding fortnight, “spirituality” and “big picture issues of life” ranked eighth out of the 11 most common responses. Issues that chaplains were confronted with more frequently included “behaviour management issues”, “peer relationships and loneliness”, “student-family relationship issues” and “grief and loss”.

In the preceding two weeks, “mental health and depression” was addressed by 72% of chaplains, “alcohol and drug use” by 50% and “self harm and suicide” by 44%.

These are undoubtedly serious issues that students require help with. The question is: should it be chaplains providing that help?

In 2011, a Commonwealth Ombudsman’s report was critical of the chaplaincy program’s administration. The report noted:

There is currently no requirement for chaplains to have minimum qualifications to attract grant funding. At present it appears that there are a wide range of non-credentialled courses a chaplain can record as having undertaken. In the recent Discussion Paper, the Department acknowledges this and notes that there is ‘currently … no nationally consistent employment standards for school chaplains in relation to minimum qualifications, role and duty statements’.

The absence of any educational or professional requirement makes it difficult for the Department to ensure that chaplains have particular knowledge and skills. This sets chaplains apart from all other staff working directly with children in a school environment. … The Ombudsman supports the Department giving further consideration to chaplains’ professional qualifications.

Chaplains deal with extremely serious issues for which they are not required to hold any relevant tertiary qualifications. This is extremely concerning. Religious commitment does not equate to counselling competence. Money that is currently spent on employing those with sometimes little more than devout religious belief could be spent on employing individuals with university qualifications in counselling or psychology and relevant experience.

Besides a lack of expertise, chaplains are likely to be inferior to appropriately qualified secular welfare workers for two further reasons.

Firstly, chaplains may be actively harmful in some circumstances (likely more so than secular workers – although the vast majority of chaplains may still act appropriately). For instance, a young man grappling with his sexuality or a young woman concerned about an unwanted pregnancy may be more likely to receive advice that is contrary to their interests from a chaplain, given their religious views.

Secondly, there is an issue of access. Students are likely to be aware of a chaplain’s religious views, and students who do not share those views may be wary of approaching them for advice. Students of various religious backgrounds (and none) may feel more comfortable approaching a secular welfare worker.

Nothing would preclude a secular welfare worker from having religious beliefs, but they would be prohibited from wearing these beliefs on their sleeve as chaplains do.

Time for a rethink

In March, the National Commission of Audit recommended the NSCSWP be abolished. Instead, the May budget allocated A$243.5 million to run the program for another five years.

Within hours of the High Court’s invalidation, prime minister Tony Abbott affirmed his intention to continue the scheme. Labor’s support is conditional on removing the requirement for a religious affiliation.

For the reasons above, the government should consider reconstituting the program in a secular format with the requirement of appropriate tertiary qualifications.