Chaplaincy Program Pushes Against Secular Public Education

This is a guest blog by Hugh Wilson of the Australian Secular Lobby.

With an election looming, in an effort to appease the Australian Christian Lobby, John Howard introduced the National School Chaplaincy Program (NSCP) in 2007. Its sole purpose was to outsource the provision of spiritual and religious guidance to Australian school students.

The program was completely un-researched and highly inappropriate to a public education system described as ‘free, secular and compulsory’ (in every state and territory but Queensland). No reason was provided—or has since been offered—as to why the NSCP was required.

Within the public schools of Australia, the program has subsequently been utilised openly and almost exclusively as a Christian school ministry. It has become a bi-partisan tool to curry favour with the religious right.

On 8 August, 2010, two days after an awkward and lengthy, interrogation-style, pre-election video interview with Australian Christian Lobby Managing Director, Mr. Jim Wallace, Prime Minister Julia Gillard happily pledged another $222M towards extending the NSCP to 2014, while adding a further 1000 chaplaincy positions to the existing (approximately 2700), chaplains across Australia.

During the 6 August interview, Jim Wallace asked the following of Julia Gillard:

..there are a lot of churches and Christians who are partnering with chaplaincy right around the country, and these people know that the pastoral, the unique pastoral care that’s given by chaplaincy is because it draws on particularly on its Christian faith, and just as Salvos for instance they have a unique form of pastoral care drawing on their Christian faith in welfare area, and so their concern is very much that the program wouldn’t be secularised, you know, that it could retain this unique flavour through its links to the faith—to Christian faith—do you see that continuing? Is that your, would that be your objective?

Julia Gillard, without a moment of hesitation, replied: view about the chaplaincy program is yes, it would continue as a chaplaincy program, with everything that that implies.

This “with everything that that implies” is strikingly reminiscent of the John Howard statement, where he explained why he was calling these new positions ‘chaplains’ and not ‘counsellors’:

John Howard: Yes I am calling them chaplains because that has a particular connotation in our language, and as you know, I am not ever overwhelmed by political correctness. To call a chaplain a counsellor is to bow to political correctness. Chaplain has a particular connotation. People understand it, they know exactly what I am talking about.

In late September 2011, DEEWR guidelines were released for the extended NSCP, now to be known as the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program (NSCSWP). The two major media selling-points of the NSCSWP were:
1. A minimum qualification of a Cert IV or equivalent in youth work or pastoral care.
2. The addition of Student Welfare Workers to the program, clearly described at the time as being ‘secular’.

Examinations of the new guidelines presented several items of grave concern, not least because there is no definition of what DEEWR means when they use the term ‘secular’.

The roles of ‘chaplain’ and ‘student welfare worker’ were also revealed to be identical:

The objectives of the Program are to assist school communities to provide pastoral care and general spiritual, social and emotional comfort to all students, irrespective of their faith or beliefs. This can include support and guidance about ethics, values, relationships and spiritual issues; the provision of student welfare; and enhancing engagement with the broader community.

Although most instances of the word ‘religious’ had been removed, it had merely been replaced with ‘spiritual’ and applied in precisely the same context. The word ‘secular’, though used sparingly within the preamble of the guidelines, was not used within the text of the formal guidelines and continues to be missing from most DEEWR documents, although Minister Garrett does continue to use the word when briefing the media.

Alarmingly, the guidelines have pushed the boundaries of religiosity far beyond those of the Howard NSCP model. Chaplains and student welfare workers can now carry out the following duties:

Deliver activities/services that promote a particular view or religious belief” and “perform religious services/rites (such as worship or prayer during school assembly etc)

Within a section titled “What do school chaplains/student welfare workers do?” the NSCSWP guidelines stated that chaplains and student welfare workers could now freely engage in:

Supporting students who express a desire to explore their spirituality. This may include providing guidance about spirituality, values and ethical matters and/or appropriate referral of questions of faith/spirituality.

Providing services with a spiritual content (excluding religious education) including facilitating discussion groups and lunch time clubs if approval and consent for the activities have been obtained (and) delivering peer leadership and support programs.

The “peer leadership and support programs” included the several evangelical, gendered, on and off campus, programs introduced to schools by NSCP funded chaplains, such as the Hillsong Church SHINE and STRENGTH programs for girls and boys. In Education Queensland schools, the Bligh Government allows students to Y10 to drop compulsory sport to participate in these religious programs, during school time.

Also, while ‘religious education’ appeared to be excluded from the duties of chaplains and student welfare workers, other sections within the NSCSWP guidelines contradict this with statements including:

The decision on whether non Program funded religious education is delivered by the same person who is employed with Program funding is to be determined by schools and Funding Recipients. However, to avoid potential role confusion, best practice recommends that these roles be conducted by different persons. Where this is not a school preference/not possible, schools need to ensure they take all necessary steps to delineate the roles.

A clear distinction (is required) between which school chaplains/student welfare workers and activities operating in the school are funded under the Program and which are not, particularly where Religious Education and other chaplaincy/student welfare services are also delivered at the school.

In late December 2011, when DEEWR posted the final lists of national NSCSWP ‘funding recipients’, or suppliers/employers of chaplains and student welfare workers, it was revealed that providers of student welfare workers would include para-church and evangelical organisations including ACCESS Ministries, Campus Crusade for Christ, Youth For Christ, Christians Helping in Primary Schools, Cornerstone Community, Fusion Australia and Young Life Australia.

Every instance of a perceived and touted ‘strength’ within the new NSCSWP guidelines was accompanied by a nullifying ‘at a minimum’ or similar loophole. Although it was rarely carried out diligently, if at all, the original NSCP guidelines at least attempted to define what constituted ‘broad community consultation’ regarding the engaging of a chaplain.

Under the new NSCSWP guidelines, the minimum requirement for ‘community consultation’ was now minuted school parent body (P&C) endorsement—which for the sake of a quorum can be as few as six persons. In schools of 1000 students, in NSW, it is not unusual to have a P&C body of about 20 people, including staff members, the chaplain and non-parents. In NSW, membership fees are charged to join P&Cs, further reducing the pool of parents prepared to participate.

By end of December 2011 to early January 2012, evidence began emerging which graphically confirmed all worst-held fears for the hastily and grossly irresponsibly re-hashed National School Chaplaincy Program. Utilising the enhanced religiosity within the NSCSWP guidelines, religious instruction, in all its different state and territory forms, is becoming ever more inextricably intertwined with Federally-funded chaplaincy arrangements.

The Australian Secular Lobby has documents which reveal school principals and chaplain employers are both encouraging and engaging in ‘title swapping’. Changing the job title from ‘chaplain’ to ‘student welfare worker’ in an attempt to confuse parents and minimise objections to religious intrusions into public schools.

ACCESS ministries are now providing and advertising positions for both chaplains and student welfare workers, while requiring that both groups of applicants have church endorsement for the positions.

Overall, for a 2006 program that was designed to fill a moral vacuum within public schools, it seems that by 2012 Prime Minister Gillard and Minister Garrett have been willingly sucked into a moral vacuum of deceit, obfuscation and money-wasting to buy the silence of a noisy religious minority, rather than engage in any serious attempt to support students in schools where problems range from life threatening to serious to ‘not much required at all’.

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