Chaplaincy in Australian Public Schools

 A child’s school years are some of the most important in their development and their experiences during this time can shape the rest of their lives. Many public schools suffer from a lack of resources and funding and as a result some children can fall between the cracks. One supposed solution has been the National School Chaplaincy Program (NSCP), which ‘provides funding to schools to access the services of a school chaplain or secular support worker.’ [1]  In practice, a majority of the positions are reserved for chaplains, and are recruited from Christian chaplaincy organisations such as ACCESS Ministries, GenR8 Ministries, Schools Ministry Group and Scripture Union. Since the inception of the NSCP, there have been questions raised as to the remit of the chaplains, and whether the services they provide are appropriate for public schools.

Ron Williams, jazz singer and father of six, has been questioning the NSCP since he found out what his children were being taught at their local public school in Queensland. The chaplain at his children’s school, employed by the government-funded NSCP, had been distributing a magazine that included statements claiming condoms promoted promiscuity and declaring the sinfulness of same-sex relationships. When Mr Williams and his wife requested that their children be withdrawn from the religious classes, the children were bullied by other students and told they would go to hell. 

A report in 2010 by the Australian Psychological Society [2] showed that chaplains in public schools had an alarmingly low rate of referrals to specialist services. According to the Australian Guidance and Counsellors Association, children dealing with mental health and sexuality issues were being put at risk by school chaplains. Criticism of the program led to changes in 2011, including a stipulation that chaplains were required to have minimum qualifications, though later amendments revealed the potential for widespread exemptions. 

Despite these and other issues being raised, the program has been supported by a succession of Prime Ministers, from John Howard who established the NSCP in 2006, to Kevin Rudd who pledged A$42 million in 2009 and Julia Gillard (the current Prime Minister, who is an atheist) who in 2010 pledged a further A$222 million.

As the NSCP has had support from every Prime Minister since 2006, it could be assumed, surely, that it would have legitimacy according to the laws of this country. However, there is a long history of secular education in Australia.  In 1874 a Royal Commission in Queensland found that ‘...dogmatic religious instruction is the business not of the State, but of the several churches; and that the State is neither entitled nor required to undertake the teaching of the distinctive doctrines of any sect or to contribute funds for that purpose.' [3]  Further, section 116 of the Australian Constitution establishes that, ‘the Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance...’ Despite this, government funding continues to be spent on a program that, effectively, appears to be imposing religious observance on children.

Mr Williams brought a case against the NSCP to the High Court in late 2011, based on the view that the Commonwealth’s employment criteria and funding structure breach the Constitution.  The decision of the High Court is expected shortly. Even if Mr Williams’ case is unsuccessful, it is hoped that it may result in further scrutiny of the program and improvements to it, so that it can provide appropriate support and counselling for children.

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[1] http://www.deewr.gov.au/Schooling/NSCSWP/Pages/NSCSWP_Overview.aspx accessed 13 May 2012.
[2] Submission to the Consultation Process for the National School Chaplaincy Program (http://www.psychology.org.au/Assets/Files/APS-Submission-School-Chaplains-July2010.pdf).
[3] God and Caesar in Australia: aspects of church and state from 1788, B. Upham, Zeus Publications, Burleigh, 2009.