Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The risks of school chaplains in public schools

image courtesy of the Daily Telegraph

The revelation that a chaplain at a prestigious Perth girls school has been charged with possession of child pornography raises questions about the role of chaplains in secondary schools. 

This comes on top of concerns about the National Schools Chaplaincy program (NSCP), a Federal program in which public funding is provided to public schools  to employ "chaplains". Over $430 million has been allocated to the program since 2007, allowing 2700 Chaplains to be placed in public schools throughout Australia.

The NSCP was introduced by the Howard Government in 2006 (with funding of $165 million over three years) and continued by the Rudd Government until 2011, at an additional cost of $42.8 million. Following a meeting with the powerful Australian Christian Lobby during the 2010 election campaign, Prime Minister Gillard announced another three years funding for the program worth another $220 million. The influential and powerful Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) has actively supported the NSCP, partly because it delivers public funding for religious organizations and ministries affiliated with the ACL.

Many concerns have been raised about the National Schools Chaplaincy Program, but the power of the Christian lobby and the desire of Governments of both persuasions to pander to the Christian vote has meant this program, which has contested benefits, has escaped critical independent analysis. It continues to receive substantial public funding, while student services programs in schools and mental health programs for young people remain grossly underfunded.

The funding for NSCP comes at the expense of more worthwhile and much needed school counseling and mental health services provided by qualified and supervised staff. Rather than address the chronic underfunding of public schools, the Federal Government has thrown nearly $500 million dollars at a program that has dubious benefits and relies on untrained and unsupervised Christian chaplains. Rather than fund and employ tertiary trained youth workers, social workers and psychologists,to support young people, the program employs untrained religious workers.

Serious questions have been raised by many groups, including parent groups, about the fact that this program  provides church groups (some with extreme views) with direct access to young people in public schools and allows them to proselytize and promote religion within public schools. The program operates under a Christian umbrella and has direct links with influential Christian groups who see their role to proselytize and promote their religious beliefs. Even though public schools require Chaplains to work in secular ways, the Christian agenda dominates.

This concern has led to a High Court challenge to the program, on the basis that it creates a non-secular, pro-Christian culture in public schools

Another concern is that chaplain's lack the capacity to assist students with matters that contradict the chaplain and the church's moral stance, such as homosexuality, contraception and sexual behavior.

In a damming submission, the Australian Psychological Association highlighted serious concerns about the Program, accusing Federal and State Governments of allowing chaplains to engage in unsafe practices. The APS argues that Governments should not allow chaplains, whose primary concern is "to make the news of God known to children", to counsel students on mental health matters.

The APS documents a series of concerns including:
  • Chaplains are operating as unregistered and unqualified quasi-counsellors and mental health workers
  • Chaplains are engaged in activities for which they are not qualified
  • Chaplains are proselytizing on religious and spiritual matters
  • Chaplains are providing mental health related counseling services, although they lack the qualifications and expertise
  • Chaplains are failing to refer young people to appropriate services
  • Chaplains are working outside their boundaries and guidelines as spiritual and religious personnel and Church organizations and ministries are supporting them to do so. 
  • The Chaplains program is not consistent with the evidence base about what is in the best interests of young people.
The APS Report notes that:
".. the risks to both students and schools are immense and will ultimately result in significant costs both financial and human"
The Greens have commited to replace the NSCP with a Schools’ Community Fund of $125 million a year for counsellors and community workers.

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