The recent federal budget contained an increase in funding for school chaplains and removed the option of schools employing a counsellor if they preferred one over a chaplain.
I know a good many government schools that access this funding pool to engage a chaplain and many like us that use the funds for a counsellor. I’m sure that most school chaplains do a good job but from experience I can say there are also times when their religious background compromises their capacity to work in the best interests of schools and individual students.
The defining characteristic of these people is that they are chaplains. A defining characteristic of government schools is that they are secular. So we have an inherent tension in the scheme for government schools and it raises an interesting question about the origin and purposes of the scheme.
Non government that are faith based or in the ‘tradition’ of a certain religion were expressly established with that in mind. Having cast themselves in that mode, why should they expect the government to fund a scheme to supply them with a chaplain? Surely the natural consequence of choosing to be such a school is that you should be expected to make provisions to support students in the chosen faith out of your own pocket?
On the other hand public schools, being secular, really have no claim on public funding for such services. That is not to say that these schools would not benefit from funding to provide a service which meets the particular needs of their students. But this is more likely to be a counsellor or social worker. In my experience many public schools are accessing the chaplaincy funding pool simply because they are so financially stretched that a $20,000 subsidy for a service to provide a caring service within their setting is too good an offer to refuse.
In recognition of this fact the previous federal government made a decision to allow schools to engage a counsellor rather than a chaplain if they chose to do so. This recognised the secular nature of public schools and allowed them to make arrangements which suited local needs. But the Abbott government has determined that it knows what schools want better than local school communities. It’s interesting to contemplate how this sits with the rhetoric around autonomy.
So why make the change? Under the previous arrangements faith based schools were able to engage a chaplain if they wished so they had no reason to complain. Public schools could choose a chaplain or a counsellor according to local needs, and there’s no suggestion that public school communities have been asking for counsellors to be taken out of the equation.
The answer, it seems, lies in the lobbying power of the religious groups that sit behind the chaplaincy scheme or perhaps with federal cabinet itself. Either way it’s a howler of a decision. If families want a religious experience and support they can choose to enrol in a school which is established in that tradition. Or – heaven forbid – go to church themselves.
And as for announcing an actual funding increase for the chaplaincy scheme at the same time as foreshadowing significant cuts to ongoing education funding and telling the states that ‘public schools are the state’s business’? Do I really need to comment?