In one of Jason Clare's first moves, he's done a bold, bold thing.
It looks tiny. He claims it is not controversial. There's not enough money behind it. But it is glorious.
The compulsory religious aspect of the school chaplain program is dead.
The new Education Minister, Jason Clare, is announcing today the government will open up the program. Student welfare officers for the win.
Mr Clare told ACM: "I want to open up the program and give schools a choice ... whether to employ a chaplain or a professionally qualified student welfare officer."
With any luck, this will be the beginning of the end of the National School Chaplaincy Program.
This is so, so good. John Howard, Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison, they loved this program. They loved it so much they insisted on it. Poured money into it. This gave chaplains the opportunity to evangelise, perhaps even recruit. I'm looking forward to what the independent inquiry into the National School Chaplaincy program finds - but my guess is we will discover there is so much more we could do to support kids at school. And we may even find out how comfortable kids who identify as gay or trans or something else felt talking to a religious person.
Here are people of God marching into our schools, spreading the word. Sounds harmless - but the point was actually to provide support to students who needed it. Unfortunately, chaplains are often not best placed to provide support to students. They are not trained professionals. In the vast majority of instances, they are truly lovely human beings and you'd be happy to have a chat and a cup of tea with them any old day. They are kind. They are good listeners.
But our school students need so much more than that. They've dealt with floods, fires and bloody COVID. They've been home with grumpy parents during lockdowns and other school closures.
Chaplains are not trained to deal with soaring mental health problems. Yes, they may have done one of a number of qualifications. But they aren't school counsellors. They aren't psychologists. They aren't social workers.
In 2018, researcher Karen McDavitt went into schools to discover what was there to provide support for students. She discovered the focus was nearly entirely on mental health - but found that what students really needed was a focus on a child's environment. Maybe it was indeed mental health. Maybe it was drug and alcohol support. Family dysfunction. Poverty. There are a whole range of problems which make it hard for students to get the best out of school.
"It is not just the child's mental health that's the problem. They are coming to school too worried about everything going on in their lives. They don't have the head space to be able to learn," she says.
And her research made clear what was needed: "We need people in schools who can deal with multiple pressures. It's much more than a chat - these students need people with skills."
When she asked research participants what kind of help students needed, she offered chaplains, psychologists, social workers. The answer was often that they needed all three. In her view, social workers offer the best possible set of skills to students in need.
McDavitt recognises some chaplains have qualifications. But she's right. We need to offer the most effective support to the greatest number of students across the country. The government has made a commitment of $200 million for mental health support to help school kids "bounce back from the impacts of the pandemic".
But there is a lot to do to help students recover. As McDavitt says, it is not all about mental health. One thing every state and territory should do is recruit more school counsellors. Jess Harris, an associate professor of education at the University of Newcastle, says Australia has just one professionally trained school counsellor for every 750 students.
"Some students wait up to four weeks to see a counsellor," she says.
Indeed, we are in a national emergency when it comes to student health and happiness, and we do not have enough trained experts to help them through it. The national chaplaincy scheme offers just over $20,000 each to 3100 schools to employ chaplains. We need more funding to help our students with COVID complexities.
The chaplaincy has pretty much always been controversial since it was introduced by the Howard government. Under R-G-R Labor, there was no requirement for the chaplain or student welfare worker to have a connection with a religious organisation, but when Tony Abbott was elected that requirement was reinstated, with a few High Court challenges along the way - because, seriously, religion should not be in public schools ever.
Shout at me all you like, but religion is a deeply personal thing. If you want it for your family, fine, go with the religion of your choice in your time. I'm not even a big fan of funding for religious schools, but don't think that will change much in my lifetime.
Back in 2014, William Isdale and Julian Savulescu wrote that: "It is clear that, in theory as well as substance, the [chaplaincy] program has a religious aim.
These days, only 60 per cent of Australians identify with a religion at all. Of those, 86 per cent are Christian. You can see for yourself the numbers don't align.
Public schools should be secular. That's what our constitution says. And more importantly, the kinds of support we offer students at school should be best practice, via those with the best qualifications. Kindness is just not enough.
Ditch the chaplains. Triple the funding. That's our way forward.
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