The school chaplaincy program is wasteful and indefensible government policy. Not only is the basis fundamentally flawed, it is one of the few areas of the budget that has consistently increased in cost with no discernible outcome.
Prime Minister Howard announced a $90 million school chaplaincy scheme in 2006. Between 2007 and 2010 funding for the scheme increased to $165 million. Kevin Rudd pledged a further $42 million to extend the scheme until 2011. Prime Minister Gillard then raised the funding bar to $222 million.
Now the Abbott Hockey budget has allocated more than $245 million of public money to “pastoral care”.
Pastoral care, according to the University of Canberra, is a “holistic profession that delivers a service to staff and students who are experiencing difficulty in their personal and/or professional lives”. Pastoral care advisers claim to “assist individuals find meaning in life and hope for their future, without determining a particular path or outcome, and are patient in allowing individuals to choose how and when they share the nature of their issues”.
Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi, an avid supporter of the program, was unable to provide a coherent defence of the policy when he appeared on ABC TV’s Q&A program recently, arguing that “it’s about informing students and providing pastoral care within, I think, a moral framework that is consistent with our laws and expectations”.
This vague and fluffy language not only indicates that ‘pastoral care’ has no concrete value to Australians, it leaves little doubt the program is a front door invitation to impose ‘Christian values’ onto our vast network of secular schools.
Strangely enough, the work of the school chaplain is better understood in the negative. There is a long list of things that they must not do under the school chaplaincy guidelines. Most importantly, chaplains are not permitted to provide “counselling” unless “appropriately qualified”.
How can a school chaplain provide support to a distressed student without engaging in some form of counselling?
Labor permitted secular workers, such as counsellors, to provide “pastoral care” but this has now been outlawed by the Abbott government. The only organisations that can provide pastoral care in 2014 are religious ones – often by those with no formal training in counselling.
This leads to the ludicrous situation where the only qualification a chaplain needs (i.e. religious education) is the one qualification the chaplain can’t use. It is like employing a plumber who is not permitted to touch the plumbing.
A Commonwealth ombudsman report in 2011 found examples where school chaplains were overstepping the mark – offering counselling and advice instead of “pastoral care”. The term “pastoral care” remains nebulous and the role and benefits of the program are, at best, questionable.
Throwing large sums of money at unqualified providers delivering ill-defined activities runs counter to the government’s own oft-stated approach to education.
Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne says that he steadfastly supports outcomes-based approaches to education; simply spending money, he says, does not guarantee a good outcome. Yet this is exactly the situation Australia is in with school chaplains – federal money spent on a program to inform students about our country’s moral framework.
If this federal government were serious about its own principle of school autonomy then schools would be able to spend this money on professionally qualified counsellors – or religious chaplains. The government would also put mechanisms in place whereby the outcomes of this policy could be tested.
Yet this spending remains a nauseating waste, made all the more offensive by the broken promises on Gonski. Schools will face real cuts to services in the future – yet they will be given $20,000 cash per year to spend on unqualified people doing undefined activities for unquantifiable outcomes.
Only God knows why.