School Chaplains Adjournment

I would like to draw to the attention of the Senate some developments in the area of the National School Chaplaincy Programme. This has had its ups and downs over the years, particularly in recent times. People would be aware of the latest of the High Court rulings in Australia, in June last year, where the decision was that payments that were made under the previous government’s National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program were invalid. The government, however, followed through with a commitment that it has had since 2006—under the Howard government, when this program was established—to reshape that program and to work cooperatively with the states so that the program would be funded via the state governments and the state governments would work with providers to then actually see that program rolled out into the schools. I have certainly followed this fairly closely in South Australia—where the Schools Ministry Group provide this service—because it is a service that has been incredibly well received by schools and their communities.

This year, the funding was released during February, and South Australia has received $7.49 million to run the chaplaincy program. As of the closure of the old program, there were some 369 schools in South Australia that were receiving funding, and this year there are 459 schools with funding for a chaplain. That increase, I think, is significant for a couple of reasons. If we look just at government schools—this is not private schools that might have a faith base; it is just government schools—there are more schools this year who have applied for funding than there were last year. Three hundred and thirty-eight government schools have applied this year, which is an increase of 26 over the last year. So it is clear that those people who are directly connected to this program—the parents, the school governing councils, the principals of the schools—see the value in this and understand the benefits it brings to the school community and to the children, which is why they have gone through that application process with the South Australian government to request the funding for a chaplain.

The South Australian government, to their credit, has seen the value to the program. The one downside for the program has been that, with these increased applications—the state government has accepted all the applications, so those who want a chaplain get one—there have been fewer days available for any given school in terms of the support that a chaplain can provide. One of the significant things in South Australia is that, because of the strong support for the program, the school communities and faith based communities have said, ‘We need to close that gap.’ A program was run by SMG called Fund the Gap. It has seen local communities donate more than $1 million to the SMG program so that an additional 272 pastoral care workers—which is what the chaplains are called in South Australia—are able to work in schools. That means they are closing the gap in terms of the days that have been lost by some schools, getting the additional funding to provide this service to schools, which is really significant.

The chaplaincy program has been very positive in South Australia. Even other states that I have visited where I have spoken to people—for example, in Victoria after the bushfires in 2009, in doing some work there with volunteers from South Australia—we interacted with principals of schools, and they indicated the strong support chaplains provided to the family there. That is reflected more formally in the study that was done by Edith Cowan University as well as the University of New England. This is a little dated—it is 2009—but the methodology and the approach to understanding the value that chaplains make still stands. I raise this particularly because some people question why the federal government should be funding chaplaincy programs. If you look at concepts of wellbeing—and this is not just a faith based concept; this is a concept of wellbeing that psychology promotes. Positive psychology and other areas understand that there is an element of connection for people with their concept of spirituality and that faith based programs or people who come out of a faith can have value in that.

There are very strict guidelines around what they can and cannot do. They cannot push their own faith on people. They cannot proselytise. But they do come with a holistic world view that has proven very supportive and successful for children, for the school communities, for teachers and for families. I think it is worth noting that that world view is equally as valid as the world view of someone who has no faith. That is the world view they have; that is how they see the world. People with a faith bring a different world view; but, as long as they work within the requirements of the program about not proselytising and pushing their faith, what we have seen in the results is that it has been very constructive and helpful for those communities.

This study of the effectiveness was, as I said, undertaken by Edith Cowan University and the University of New England. It looked at the number of activities that the chaplains did. It looked at the professional development, admin work, miscellaneous activities and also particularly at the fact that 79 per cent of the chaplains during that time had actually made off-site visits to parents and caregivers, bringing the broader community around the support the child needs. Some 73 per cent had led events in schools and special ceremonies. But the study particularly looked at what the chaplains did on a day-to-day basis, and most frequently they were involved in areas such as behaviour management and social relationship issues, anger, peer relationships, loneliness and bullying, family relationship issues, self-development, sense of purpose, self-esteem and mental health, and the involvement of students in the community in dealing with issues such as social inclusion and racism.

Most of the principals who made written submissions to the inquiry wrote about how they were impressed by the fact that pastoral care was provided in a non-judgemental way. They talked about the modelling and teaching of moral values and creating and nurturing ties with the community. The principals recognised that as an important path for their schools. Eighty-four per cent of principals indicated that feedback from parents about chaplaincy had been strongly positive or mostly positive. Ten per cent have said they received no feedback, and only 0.3 per cent of principals said they had received any negative feedback about chaplains. Parents said in interviews that they appreciated the pastoral care and good moral influence that chaplains had on their children.

I want to update the Senate on the fact that this program is alive and well. It has in the past been supported on a bipartisan basis by the two major parties in this place for the simple reason that it adds value. Whilst there have been critics about the funding model—hence the High Court challenges—I recognise there have also been critics about the fact that there should be qualified counsellors or people working from a secular world view in these roles in schools. But the fact that communities in South Australia have banded together to raise $1 million since the start of this year in order to fund the gap so that these chaplains can work in schools and that we see that government schools, not religious schools, have not only backed up from last year to say they want to continue but have had an additional 26 schools request that support indicates the program is adding value. So I commend it to the Senate and encourage senators from the crossbenches and both major parties to continue to support this important element of pastoral care for young people into the future.