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New Education Minister Jason Clare has moved quickly to change the school chaplains program. Lukas Coch/AAP

To give schools real choice about secular school chaplains, latest change needs to go further

New federal Education Minister Jason Clare has announced a change to the National School Chaplaincy Program to allow schools to “choose” between having a religious chaplain and having a professionally qualified well-being worker.

The opposition has criticised the announcement as effectively meaning “the end of many school chaplains”. So what’s the fuss about?

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The Howard Coalition government started the chaplaincy program in 2006. It has continued, with some variations, ever since.

A “project agreement” signed by federal, state and territory education ministers governs the chaplaincy program. The states and territories receive federal funding to pay for chaplains in public schools.

What do school chaplains do?

Chaplains are not counsellors in the psychologist sense. They are more like youth workers in the social worker sense.

The project agreement says chaplains are responsible for providing “pastoral care services” and strategies that support the “well-being of the school community”. It gives examples of activities like “co-ordinating volunteering activities and support, breakfast clubs, lunchtime activities, excursions, school incursions, and parent/carer workshops”.

These activities look non-religious. Any qualified youth worker, regardless of their religion, could deliver them. However, the National School Chaplaincy Association says:

“While chaplains must have underlying qualifications in youth work, community work or equivalent, school chaplaincy is religious in nature.”

Read more: School chaplains may be cheaper than psychologists. But we don't have enough evidence of their impact

How are school chaplains hired?

The project agreement sets two key criteria for the appointment of chaplains:

  1. all chaplains must have minimum qualifications such as a Certificate IV in Youth Work

  2. all chaplains must be “recognised through formal ordination, commissioning, recognised religious qualifications or endorsement by a recognised or accepted religious institution”.

Rather than being school employees like teachers or front-office staff, chaplains are employed by third-party providers that have contracts with schools. One provider is a Christian organisation called Generate, which says its mission is:

“To bring God’s love, hope, and good news to children, young people, and families.”

Job advertisements for school chaplains usually require applicants to be Christians. For example, to apply for school chaplaincy positions advertised through Generate, this organisation says “you need to have a committed Christian faith”.

Schools working with Generate have effectively decided they will not have Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or atheist youth workers working with students. Generate is currently advertising positions at more than 20 public schools, including schools in highly multicultural areas such as western Sydney.

There is no public information about the processes public schools use to choose the school’s favoured religion for the purpose of hiring a chaplain.

Isn’t religious discrimination unlawful?

You might think refusing to hire someone for a job in a public school simply because that person doesn’t belong to a particular religion sounds like religious discrimination. Religious discrimination in employment is unlawful under anti-discrimination laws in every state and territory, except New South Wales and South Australia.

A number of state anti-discrimination commissioners have expressed concern about the National Schools Chaplaincy Program.

In 2020, Victoria’s Human Rights Commission told a Victorian MP: “we agree that the program may be in breach of [Victoria’s] Equal Opportunity Act 2010”.

In 2021, in response to advocacy by the Rationalist Society of Australia, Western Australia’s Equal Opportunity Commission said it was concerned that restricting youth worker/chaplain positions to religious people was “prima facie religious conviction discrimination” under Western Australia’s Equal Opportunity Act 1984. In 2020, Queensland’s Human Rights Commissioner said the practice involved “potential contraventions of the [Qld Anti-Discrimination] Act”.

A 2019 religious discrimination case in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal settled before the tribunal could rule on whether limiting youth worker/chaplain jobs in public schools to Christians breached state anti-discrimination laws.

Read more: Is Australia a secular country? It depends what you mean

What exactly did the minister announce?

Last Friday, Clare announced:

“The government will open up the program to give schools the option to choose either a chaplain or a professionally qualified student welfare officer.”

The fact it was the new minister’s first big decision suggests the issue is important to him. There’s no good reason to force a public school to hire youth workers on the basis of religion. It’s why the ACT pulled out of the school chaplains program in 2019.

However, there are three key problems with the minister’s announcement.

First, all chaplains are already required to have professional qualifications. There’s nothing new about that.

Second, the minister has not explained how a public school – which schools legislation says are secular in character – could ever justify “choosing” that Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and atheist youth workers should not be eligible for a pastoral care job at the school.

The third and most practical problem is that this announced change won’t actually enable schools to hire youth workers without reference to the person’s religious affiliation.

Existing third-party providers like Generate are in the business of hiring only Christians. Unless new providers come onto the scene, public schools will have little choice but to continue to engage existing providers who will continue to hire only Christians.

Read more: School chaplaincy debate ignores what 'secular' actually is

What’s the solution?

The minister said he will work with his state and territory counterparts to revise the project agreement so a new system is in place for the 2023 school year.

If the nation’s education ministers want to make sure school youth workers/chaplains are hired based on merit and not on religion, they could make one simple change: get rid of outsourcing.

Requiring schools to hire directly rather than through third-party providers will ensure job ads don’t include selection criteria about a person’s religion. Some public schools might well be happy to allow their third-party provider to refuse to hire Jewish, Muslim and atheist youth workers. However, a public school is rather unlikely to itself ever put out an ad like that.

Getting rid of outsourcing would also mean the public money now used to fund the administration costs of third-party providers can be redirected to putting more youth workers in more schools.

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