National School Chaplaincy Program and the letter

On Friday an email came into my inbox from the Principal of Felix’s highschool.

Dear Parents and Carers
Following the incident reported in the media today, I would like to take this opportunity to reassure you all that, as always, the safety, care and education of all our students is our highest priority and we have worked closely with the NSW Police to ensure the safety of our students in this matter.
The person who has been arrested was a religious education instructor under the School Chaplaincy Program, for a period of time in 2008 at _________ .
It is important that you know that as soon as we knew of the allegations made about this person, the school with the support of the department, acted immediately in line with departmental policy.

My stomach fell. The ABC reported on the case.

I knew that Felix was not directly affected in that he wasn’t at the school during the time of the incident BUT there are still three years of boys at the school who were.

Two thoughts immediately came to mind:

  1. Those poor poor boy(s) and their family(ies) (I am not sure of the details of the case)
  2. HOW THE HELL CAN THIS HAPPEN

I have always had deep reservations about the program mentioned in the letter – the National School Chaplaincy Program – and this has done nothing to lessen or alleviate those concerns.

The person who has been arrested was a religious education instructor under the School Chaplaincy Program

The program started in 2007 under the Howard government. A good Christian man who oversaw such events as SIEV-X, children overboard and the Tampa Affair all under the banner of “we will decide who comes to this country and how they come here.”  Prior to announcing the program in 2006, John Howard was reported on the ABC saying:

Students need the guidance of chaplains, rather than just counsellors. Yes, I am calling them chaplains because that has a particular connotation in our language, and as you know I’m 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’m talking about.

At the time it was a three-year program which was extended in 2011 and from 2012 will be called the School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program. From 1 January 2012 schools funded under the Program are able to choose the services of a school chaplain to provide pastoral care services and/or select the services of a non faith-based, or secular, student welfare worker. It is at the school’s discretion as to the faith of the chaplain.  The deparment’s website says:

The National School Chaplaincy Program supported schools and their communities to establish school chaplaincy and pastoral care services, or to enhance existing services.

This voluntary program assisted schools and their communities to support the spiritual wellbeing of students. This may have included support and guidance about ethics, values, relationships, spirituality and religious issues, the provision of pastoral care and enhanced engagement with the broader community.

Every year $222million is paid to religious organisations for chaplains to be in our state school system. The Code of Conduct for those school chaplains is a 13 point list, the 12th being:

While recognising that an individual school chaplain/student welfare worker may in good faith express views and articulate values consistent with his or her own beliefs, a school chaplain/student welfare worker must not take advantage of his or her privileged position to proselytise, evangelise or advocate for a particular view or belief.

I liken this to Gina Rinehart signing an editorial independence charter AND adhering to it. Impossible.

I do not doubt for a moment there is a plethora of good people fulfilling these roles in our school system offering all those things outlined above. But it is an absolute deal-breaker for me that those people are there as part of their religious affiliation.

It is just not appropriate for the counselling services in our state education system to be provided by religious institutions. The High Court recently found that it is unconstitutional for the government to be using its money to fund the program. There have been anecdotal reports of chaplains pushing their doctrine on students. What happens to a troubled Muslim or Jewish or Hindu student if their chaplain is not of their denomination and they don’t feel comfortable talking to that person for that reason? And on it goes.

The people employed in this program are not trained, professional teachers nor are they necessarily trained school counsellors. According to DEEWR’s FAQ on minimum requirements, if you become part of the program from 2012, the minimum requirement for a ‘chaplain’ is a Cert IV in Youth Work or Pastoral Care. The Youth Work course requires 15 hours of study a week and a period of time in work placement which can vary from 240 hours to 160.

Following a national consultation process last year, existing chaplains without the minimum qualifications [will be required] to complete two units of the Certificate IV course: Mental Health and Making Referrals. About 500 existing chaplains will have 12 months to complete the units, with the Government meeting the costs. 

I find this part of the guidelines mildly alarming (my bolding):

The Funding Recipient is responsible for determining that the school chaplain/student welfare worker has equivalent qualifications when that worker holds a different qualification but in a related field (e.g. education, psychology, social work, theology etc). The Funding recipient may exercise their own judgement when determining if their chaplain/student welfare worker has qualifications or experience that are equivalent to or exceed the minimum qualification requirements as outlined in Section 5.5 of the Program Guidelines.

What I find brain-spasmingly alarming is this document outlining exemption from the guidelines for schools in remote and regional areas. I totally get the unique challenges that exist for education in our remote and regional centres but this just strikes me as putting kids at risk or in need of help into potentially a whole new level of risk in regards to the possibilities of questionable people gaining access to kids through this program.

Someone offering counselling services to youths in a school setting must be fully qualified school counsellors. That means they are qualified teachers with a degree in psychology and postgraduate qualifications in school counselling. NO LESS. We should NOT be outsourcing this work to third party contractors whose foundation and approach comes from the basis of their religious beliefs.

 

And meanwhile, a person employed under this scheme sexually assaulted a boy who was attending my son’s school. Could this have happened by a teacher or aide in the school system? Of course. But this person is there to support the spiritual wellbeing of students. This may have included support and guidance about ethics, values, relationships, spirituality and religious issues, the provision of pastoral care and enhanced engagement with the broader community.

This boy has gone to that person for guidance and counselling and instead been groomed for sex by a predator.

 

What are your thoughts? A good program? A bad one? Misplaced good intention? I am keen to hear of positive stories as well as concerns or examples of otherwise.

 

Links:

Australian Government Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations National School Chaplaincy Program homepage

National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program documents and guidelines

National School Chaplaincy Association

 

 

 

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