Our schools don't need more school chaplains. They need mental health professionals.

“The National School Chaplaincy Program has attracted an extra $243.8 million in this year’s budget.”

By Meredith Peace, President, AEU Victoria.

Schools took a big hit in last week’s federal budget.

And yet, amid the savage $80 billion cut from education and health, there was one program the Abbott Government deemed worthy of increased support.

The National School Chaplaincy Program has attracted an extra $243.8 million in this year’s budget and is set to replace the existing School Welfare Program from the start of 2015.

To put it bluntly: Abbott has elected to support a cheap, faith-based program in place of genuine support and welfare in our schools.

For a government that claims to value “freedom” and “choice”, this government is prepared to restrict the options for principals and parents when it comes to choosing how kids’ wellbeing is supported at school.

Clearly, Education Minister Christopher Pyne is content with leaving control over schooling to the States – except where he sees an ideological opportunity.

In a move that severely undermines the secular tradition of public schools, principals will no longer be able to put this welfare funding toward professional psychologists or qualified counsellors, as was possible under the former Labor Government. Instead, only religious chaplains will now be eligible for Commonwealth support.

Christopher Pyne talking about increasing opportunities for young people during Question Time.

Meanwhile, Abbott has abandoned his commitment to implementing a needs-based schools funding model, leaving 100,000 students with disabilities without the additional resources required to meet their educational needs.

With schools reporting increasing rates of behavioural and learning difficulties, and a rise in social and emotional problems among our young people, can we really afford to hand over pastoral care to people who, though possibly well-intentioned, are not qualified to identify children in need of expert assessment and provide the appropriate intervention?

School counsellors are tertiary educated, usually with a specialisation in developmental psychology and mental health issues, and subject to a national registration scheme and a strict code of ethics.


While the Scripture Union — “a Christian organisation which works to make God’s Good News known to children” — acknowledges that there are prohibitions on proselytizing, it claims that attending to a child’s “spiritual wellbeing” is central to its welfare role in schools.

According to Peter James, CEO of the Scripture Union of QLD, welfare issues “touch on issues of spirituality and that’s where a chaplain has an extra tool in his or her bag”.

So what if that person is a teenage girl deciding whether or not to start taking contraception? Or a Grade 6 boy who finds he’s attracted to his male friends?

What if the wellbeing of a child is informed by their non-Christian faith, or indeed by their secular values?

Meredith Peace.

How can parents be sure that the advice and support given to such kids will be unbiased and value-free?

With schools already struggling to afford specialist services for vulnerable kids, many will be forced to substitute proper psychological services for faith-based welfare.

Peter James says that we should question whether it’s worth putting money towards professional care for a child who is “not necessarily depressed but who is just lonely”.

This trivializes the important role professionals play in monitoring the wellbeing of kids at school.

Whether depressed or lonely, most children need some form of support during their childhood. At a time when kids need more help than ever to navigate the complexities of the modern world, are we really happy to hand that role over to charitable chaplains rather than qualified experts?

Meredith is the AEU Victorian Branch President (previously a science teacher!)


Do you think the Government should have provided increased funding to the chaplaincy program?