Following the reversal of the decision to allow the employment of secular welfare workers under the umbrella of the National School Chaplaincy program, there has been much chatter on social networks about how outrageous it is to deprive schools of this option.
Increasingly, attention seems to be turning away from the idea that the National School Chaplaincy Program is an ideological and political pork-barrel program based on no research and with no performance indicators. Instead, there is nostalgia for those halcyon days when the NSCP (renamed the NSCSWP) included secular welfare workers.
“If only the government would allow schools to ‘choose‘,” go the online arguments, “all would be well …”
Well, excuse me for being blunt, but this is absolute, unadulterated bullshit. And, frankly, I’m sick to death of hearing this ill-informed, wishy-washy argument from people who should know better.
The National School Chaplaincy Program was initiated by John Howard for the express purpose of putting evangelical missionaries into schools. It is not student focused. It was never about helping kids. Let me repeat that. It was never designed to help kids.
The National School Chaplaincy Program did not emerge out of any identified need in schools for welfare workers. It did not derive from any campaigning on the part of schools. It was not initiated in response to independent research by education and mental health experts. No! It was conceived to advance an ideological position which held that ‘secular’ schools were ‘value free’ spaces and that if parents and teachers weren’t going to instill ‘Christian values’ into children, the government would respond by sending in an army of Christian soldiers to do the job.
It is a program designed to win the hearts, minds and votes of conservative Christians in marginal seats. And the strategy might have worked if John Howard hadn’t been outfoxed by Kevin Rudd who launched a ‘holier than thou’ campaign to win back Christian votes for Labor. Julia Gillard continued that mission by selling out to the Australian Christian Lobby – not only over chaplaincy but also on the issue of equal marriage.
Howard insisted that he was calling these evangelical missionaries ‘chaplains’ because that word had a certain ‘connotation’. The program was absolutely intended to be religious from its inception. When Julia Gillard extended funding for the program to $220 million, she promised the Australian Christian Lobby that it would not be secularised and that it would be a chaplaincy program with everything that word implied.
After Ron Williams’ first High Court case, the criticisms of both the public and the High Court justices prompted (then) Education Minister, Peter Garrett, to open it up to ‘secular’ welfare workers – but you can be sure this was done after consultation with the ALP’s religious right faction and with a ‘wink wink’, ‘nudge nudge’, don’t-you-worry-about-that we’ll-say-it’s-secular-but-it-won’t-be-really assurance.
The ‘secular option’ was never a viable choice for most schools. It was mostly smoke and mirrors.
Initially, the ‘secular’ option was not available to schools which already had a chaplain – only for the 1000 extra schools that would ‘benefit’ from the extension of the program. In reality, the number of truly non-religious workers employed in the early days of this secular munificence amounted to a single digit number.
Never slow to grab on to a taxpayers’ dollar, para-church organisations like ACCESS Ministries signed on to supply ‘secular welfare workers’ as well as religious chaplains – from the same pool of people!
Further, in order to gain employment through the para-church organisations, the ‘secular’ workers still had to provide religious references and attest to their Christian faith.
I wrote about this in an article on ABC’s Religion and Ethics portal:
“In two separate advertisements on Seek.Com, faith-based funding recipient, Young Life Australia, calls for student welfare workers to fill positions at the Sunshine Coast and in the New South Wales Southern Highlands. To obtain this ‘secular’ position, applicants must commit to attend the Christian charity’s ‘training events’ throughout the year and align with Young Life’s values and statement of mission purpose. Central to this is a commitment to ‘the evangelisation of young people’. ‘Highly desirable’ qualifications for these ‘secular’ positions are a ‘background in youth-related Christian mission’, a committed Christian faith and a reference from the applicant’s minister or pastor.”
When I rang chaplaincy funding recipient, Campus Crusade for Christ, they confirmed they will provide student welfare workers but stressed their employment conditions require all staff to be practicing Christians.”
The National School Chaplaincy Guidelines changed barely at all under this new arrangement. The word ‘religious’ was changed to ‘spiritual’, no distinction was made between the duties of religious chaplains and ‘secular’ workers, and secular workers were perfectly free to provide ‘pastoral care’ and perform all the same religious functions as chaplains. All that changed was the nomenclature.
Certainly, some of the funding recipients that came on board to provide ‘secular’ welfare workers were legitimate. Many were not. Many of those listed by DEEWR, I found, hadn’t bothered to go ahead with their accreditation and were not available to provide secular workers. I spent hours one day trying to find a secular worker to no avail. Even DEEWR couldn’t (or wouldn’t) point me towards a singular, legitimate secular welfare worker plying their trade in a state school. Not one.
The ‘secular welfare worker’ interviewed on The Drum this week is a case in point. She used to be employed as a chaplain, now works as a ‘secular welfare worker’ but, under the new guidelines, will have to be reclassified as a ‘chaplain’ to keep her job. Same person, same beliefs – only the names have changed!
Some funding recipients which sounded secular turned out to have religious links. But, if you were a school and didn’t ask the right questions, you’d never know that your ‘secular’ welfare worker was being provided by an organisation with much the same ideology and employment criteria as the major parachurch organisations.
So please, please, please, people. Let us not get all misty eyed about the days when the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program provided ‘options’ to schools. In reality, the only real difference under the new scheme is that it is more open about the rampant religiosity of the program.
And even if the program wasn’t religious – even if ‘welfare workers’ had to show atheist credentials to get the job – it would still be a shockingly bad idea to put poorly qualified people (of any religion or none) into schools to deal with kids with really serious issues. This isn’t about advancing an atheist ideology – this is about caring about kids’ welfare.
Yet, in the media and on social networks I keep hearing about the loss of ‘secular social workers’. Yes, it’s possible that some of the few legitimately ‘secular’ workers had social work qualifications. But it was never a requirement. The old scheme didn’t employ ‘secular social workers’ – it asked only for a Cert IV qualification or equivalent. What’s more, there are ways of circumventing even that low requirement. A Cert IV is a low-level qualification that in no way equips someone to deal with at risk children. As the Australian Psychology Society says, placing people with such scanty knowledge in to schools is both ‘dangerous’ and ‘appalling’. They should know!
Nobody who cares about kids’ mental health or welfare needs should be calling for the National School Chaplaincy Program to be modified to allow the ‘choice’ of ‘secular workers’. Poorly qualified secular workers are barely better than poorly qualified religious fanatics.
It’s time to abolish this program. Its purpose is clearly to suit the ideological and political aims of the conservative right rather than the needs of at-risk kids. That, in itself, is appalling. To trade kids’ welfare – perhaps their lives – for political and ideological ends is a vomitously cynical act.
It makes me sick to my stomach that that’s how politics works in this country. It makes me sick that the more liberal churches are staying shtum on this issue. It makes me sick that well-meaning, enthusiastic young Christians are being thrown into a job for which they are poorly qualified, probably with no idea of the incredible harm they may be wreaking. It makes me sick that the ALP jumped on the bandwagon to appease their own powerful, fundamentalist Christian faction (take a bow, Joe de Bruyn) and to lure the ‘Christian vote’ away from the Liberals (take a bow, Kevin Rudd). It makes me sick that the lily-livered Greens are all rhetoric and no fucking action on this issue (take a bow Christine Milne). They whine about chaplaincy but do nothing in the Senate to arrest it. Sarah Hanson-Young is on record repeating the wish-washy, fence-sitting, misinformed position about giving schools ‘choice’.
Tony Abbott’s own audit committee gave the best advice on this program. “Abolish it.”
Get rid of it.
Don’t amend it. Don’t expand the ‘options’. Don’t reverse decisions about it.
It’s a rort. It’s funded unconstitutionally. It isn’t student-focused. It isn’t based on kids’ needs. There is no credible research which establishes a need for the program or recognises a role fulfilled by by it. There is not one skerrick of evidence that it does any good at all and a great deal of growing evidence that it is ill-advised, dangerous, wasteful, homophobic, divisive, disrespectful of other religions and cultures, and that chaplains are routinely over-stepping the mark, both in respect to proselytising and counselling.
Chrys (getting really, really annoyed) Stevenson