Radio National Breakfast with Ellen Fanning - Story on the School Chaplaincy Programme

  • Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education


ELLEN FANNING: And while there were plenty of laughs last night on this issue as James pointed out it is a serious one and one that's causing a lot of concern among youth workers and mental health advocates as well. They fear chaplains are not equipped to deal with the many mental health issues facing our young people and that could cost lives. Mike Woods has this report.

MIKE WOODS: The Budget provides for 2900 chaplaincy places in our state schools. The programme will cost $245 million over five years. Under the scheme schools would get $20,000 each to fund the positions, in remote areas $24,000, but they can no longer hire secular workers. The Government is at pains to point out that this is an additional resource to provide pastoral care. It says that means supporting the emotional, spiritual and social wellbeing of students by enhancing academic achievement, encouraging positive behaviour, reducing truancy, aggression and drug use and boosting emotional confidence. The chaplains can be hired from a range of faiths but they must have a minimum qualification of a level four in youth work or pastoral care. Education groups say taking secular workers out of the scheme will simply allow some religious groups open slather to preach and proselytise. Peter Garrigan is president of the Australian Council of State School Organisations.

PETER GARRIGAN: We don't want school chaplains getting in there and proselytising and evangelising within the school environment or even doing it covertly - they actively go out there and we know that they do this, they are actively evangelising and working to get young people and their families engaged in religious activity.

MIKE WOODS: But Senator Scott Ryan, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education, says proselytising will not be allowed under the Government's National School Chaplaincy Program.

SCOTT RYAN: The programme has always and will continue to maintain the ban on proselytising any religion as a school chaplain.

MIKE WOODS: So there'll be no proselytising, no conversions.

SCOTT RYAN: It's always been part of the programme Mike and it's part of the programme that will be maintained.

MIKE WOODS: So what are they there to do?

SCOTT RYAN: Well this is the important point. They're a pastoral care resource. And when you visit schools with chaplains Mike, they'll often have formal welfare and counselling structures. A chaplain a lot of schools use they will describe as a more flexible option. Sometimes you might have someone, a student going through a period of personal family difficulties that hasn't become serious enough to yet warrant formal counselling but they want someone to talk to or they might not feel like they can talk to a teacher.

MIKE WOODS: Craig Comrie is chairman of the Australian Youth Affairs Coalition. He says trusting relationships built up between students and professional secular youth workers and counsellors will be torn apart under these changes. He says he doesn't believe it's an exaggeration to say that it could in fact cost the lives of some students who are trying to deal with serious issues including drug addiction, depression and bullying.

CRAIG COMRIE: I don't think it is. A few years ago there was research done into whether or not chaplains felt equipped to be able to support young people around [indistinct] and mental health issues. And very clearly that research shows that most chaplains - really just chaplains didn't feel comfortable in supporting young people in that particular situation. So it is putting young people's lives at risk if the people that they're going to seek support don't feel equipped to be able to deal with those issues.

MIKE WOODS: The research Craig Comrie is referring to was a 2009 report from Edith Cowan University and the University of New England. It found many chaplains reported that they did feel somewhat inadequate in some cases dealing with students with serious issues. The report found that in most cases chaplains in fact referred on students with such issues to professionals for counselling and health. Senator Scott Ryan says he's never before heard suggestions that taking secular workers out of the scheme could risk young lives.

SCOTT RYAN: I don't want to dismiss the concern about student welfare at all but in all my discussions about this since I've taken on this role since the election no one's ever put that to me. But if those workers are so concerned, then they should really be addressing their concerns toward the Labor Party because as of 1 July this year and as of the school year starting 1 January next year, not a single dollar was set aside in the Budget for this programme.

MIKE WOODS: But Senator, but this is now in your bailiwick, you're running it, so what's the thinking behind taking secular workers out of the programme?

SCOTT RYAN: Let's go back to the antecedence and the idea behind this programme. Student welfare and student welfare strategies are a core part of what every school should do and what every school that I have been too does do, whether they be state government run public schools, whether that be the Catholic school system or independent schools. And that is quite rightly the responsibility of the schools and the school systems for which those students go along to. The chaplaincy programme was originally produced and the Coalition committed to it because it's an additional resource available. It's something that school communities can access on top of all the welfare strategies and the other strategies that schools put in place. The reason that additionality is important is that chaplains are also a little bit different. One of the things you'll hear from a lot of schools is that the chaplain is often used by the parents. It can actually be more than just about student welfare. But this is the key point; we don't want to displace the existing welfare activities that schools and school communities and school systems rightly have in place. What we want to do is actually give this to schools as a voluntary additional option.

MIKE WOODS: Craig Comrie from the Australian Youth Affairs Coalition says students are more likely to approach someone who they consider to be qualified to help them with their problems rather than someone who may be just as well qualified but who they perceive is simply representing a religious group.

CRAIG COMRIE: Well, what young people tell us is that they want to make sure that when they do go to see someone, because it is very difficult for young people to overcome that barrier to start off with, is that they know that they're going to someone that is trained and is able to assist them with the issue that they might be going through. There's the added concern of young people who aren't religious potentially not going to see a chaplain in a school because of the religious connotation. We need to make sure that young people can get the support that they need as soon as they need it and any barriers that stop that should be alleviated.

MIKE WOODS: Senator Scott Ryan says it's not the Federal Government's job to provide counsellors, youth workers, and other professionals to state schools. Senator Ryan says under the changes announced in the Budget, the Federal Government is simply restoring the program to its original design.

SCOTT RYAN: The states run our state schools. When this chaplaincy programme came into existence seven years ago, eight years ago it was conceived. Before that there wasn't direct Commonwealth funding for programmes like this. The people who run the schools should be providing welfare services. They should have welfare management strategies, whether that be the state governments in public schools, the Catholic system, or independent schools. And we don't want to displace that. We want to provide something in addition to it if the schools choose and if the schools think it's appropriate for them.


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