Monica Doumit: So much for choice and diversity

Reading Time: 4 minutes
The Labor Government has wasted little time moving on the National School Chaplaincy Program. In doing so it has signalled to students of faith - and their families - that their needs are not really all that important. Photo: CNS/Karen Callaway, Catolico
The Labor Government has wasted little time moving on the National School Chaplaincy Program. In doing so it has signalled to students of faith – and their families – that their needs are not really all that important. Photo: CNS/Karen Callaway, Catolico

Before the election Labor was more ‘friendly’ to religious faiths – it said. But that was before the election …

They have been less than four weeks in office, but the federal Labor Government has already announced its intention to strip the National School Chaplaincy Program of its religious nature, allowing schools to hire “secular pastoral care workers” instead of someone affiliated with a religion.

Announcing the change, Education Minister Jason Clare said that the change would “give schools the option to choose either a chaplain or a professionally qualified student welfare officer.”

“We believe that principals and school communities are best placed to understand their students’ needs, so we will give schools a choice about the services they need and the staff they hire,” he continued.

On the face of it, the announcement seems reasonable enough. After all, it makes sense that religious chaplains aren’t imposed on public schools and that schools are able to choose the type of counsellor or welfare officer that best suits their students.

Dig a little deeper, however, and you will see an anti-religious agenda already starting to take hold.

State governments already provide funding for secular psychologists and counsellors to work within public schools.

“The Department of Education provides scholarships for teachers and psychologists to undertake the postgraduate studies necessary for them to join the school counselling workforce …”

The NSW Department of Education website tells us that school counselling staff provide” a psychological counselling, assessment and intervention service,” working directly with students “to help them with issues related to learning, peer and family relationships, and managing emotions such as depression, anxiety, worry or isolation.”

“Every student has access to a school counsellor or a school psychologist,” the website boldly claims.

Moreover, the Department of Education provides scholarships for teachers and psychologists to undertake the postgraduate studies necessary for them to join the school counselling workforce and offers incentives to those who are willing to be counsellors at schools in regional, rural and remote parts of the state.

The need for counselling and psychological services is already well tended by the states.

The National School Chaplaincy Program does not replace these state-funded counselling and psychological services. Instead, the program provides schools with up to $20,280 of annual funding, so that those schools whose students might also require a religious chaplain have one on site for up to two days per week.

Chaplain Fr Joseph Murphy accompanied young adults in a week of formation, fun, reflection and prayer at the St Benedict XVI Retreat Centre last week.

The program is voluntary and has been taken up by around 3000 schools, which is less than half of the public schools in the country. No one is forcing the chaplaincy program on schools and indeed, it might not be needed or even appropriate in some. H

owever, it is reasonable to believe that religious chaplaincy services would be useful in areas where there is a high proportion of students who have a religious affiliation, but who also have a lower socioeconomic status, and so attend public schools.

Ironically, such areas include suburbs in Mr Clare’s own electorate of Blaxland, which has one of the highest proportions of religious affiliation in the country, but also a high proportion of migrants and refugee families who cannot afford private schooling.

Given this, the religious requirement of the National School Chaplaincy Program in no way limits existing counselling services. Rather, it expands them. It takes no choices away from students; it provides them with additional choices.

The religious requirement recognises that while state governments already fund secular counsellors in public schools, students of faith in public schools may also benefit from having a person of faith to reach out to while at school.

“… the Labor Government is saying by its policy announcement that it has no time for religious diversity and inclusivity in public schools.”

The additional funding for religious chaplains acknowledges the diversity of students in our public schools and aims to plug a gap in the support services they receive.

By removing the religious nature of chaplaincy and allowing schools to choose “secular pastoral care workers,” the Labor Government is opening the way for activists to insist that – in the name of a secular education – no school chooses to employ a religious chaplain.

The campaigning has already started, with the Australian Education Union calling for the abolishing of the religious chaplaincy program altogether.

For all its talk of promoting diversity and inclusivity in schools, the Labor Government is saying by its policy announcement that it has no time for religious diversity and inclusivity in public schools.

It tells students of faith that – unlike the needs of the LGBTQIA+ kids who make up a much smaller proportion of school students – their needs are not important.

Ultimately, this priority announcement from the new Education Minister isn’t about providing schools with choice; it is about taking choices away from students.