Aussies Spending $430 Million A Year On School Chaplains
God's dollar better spent on welfareJuly 9, 2011
Illustration: Simon Bosch
It's not just a bunch of atheists and self-interested psychologists who are worried about the school chaplaincy program. The head of the Anglican Education Commission in Sydney, Bryan Cowling, has also cast doubt on the role of school chaplains in government schools, in part because they don't "need to have any particular credentials".
His comments last week add to the concerns about an ill-thought out program that was implemented after a rush of blood to John Howard's head.
No one asked principals or teachers what they needed to deal with increasing problems of depression, anxiety, disruptive behaviour, bullying and self-harm among students. No one evaluated what worked and didn't work in schools, or where the gaps were in providing for student welfare. Principals got steamrolled. It was a chaplain or nothing. Based on a handful of chaplains working in schools on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, a treasurer of a chaplaincy service wrote an enthusiastic letter to Greg Hunt, his Federal Liberal MP, who urged him to contact John Howard. Six months later in 2007, the multimillion-dollar national program was born.
Such was the harebrained genesis of a program that has the potential to put vulnerable children - and out-of-depth chaplains - at risk.
Let's put aside the blurring of church and state inherent when the government funds chaplains, 98 per cent of them Christian, in public schools in a nation where 63 per cent of citizens profess Christian faith. That issue will soon be tested before the High Court.
What is most worrying is that chaplains become de facto counsellors in the many schools that lack a qualified psychologist. Whatever the guidelines restricting the chaplains' brief, it is the vulnerable and troubled children who make their way - or are sent - to their door.
Yet chaplains are not required to have qualifications in psychology, counselling, mediation or youth work. When their work tips from "lending an ear" or spiritual guidance into a quasi-counselling role, chaplains do vulnerable children a disservice. A degree in theology is no substitute for professional qualifications.
It is not surprising that many schools with chaplains are enthusiastic about their presence. Doubtless most chaplains are lovely people and life experience can help in some situations. Chaplains are an extra resource. But can principals and parents be confident chaplains give appropriate help, refer to the specialists when necessary, and know their limits?
Unlike psychologists, they are not trained in risk assessment or in evidence-based therapeutic interventions like cognitive behaviour therapy. They are not necessarily imbued with ethics of confidentiality and consent.
Yet chaplains confront serious issues. A survey of more than 1000 found that over the previous two weeks 72 per cent had dealt with students with mental health problems and depression, 50 per cent with alcohol and drug abuse, and 44 per cent with self-harm and thoughts of suicide.
A fundamentalist Christian belief is also a worry in school chaplains. It is difficult for evangelicals and moral conservatives to separate their personal world view from their professional duty. Perhaps no children are more psychologically vulnerable than those wrestling with being gay. The ABC's 7.30 has reported on school chaplains handing out literature that claimed homosexuality was wrong and that condoms promoted promiscuity.
As Bryan Cowling pointed out, there have been enough documented instances across the country where the chaplain's role had been misused to cause concern.
It is the evangelical Christians who are boosters of the program rather than the Anglican and Catholic hierarchies; only 17 per cent of Catholic schools have a funded chaplain, for example, compared with 28 per cent of government schools.
Proselytising on the public purse is forbidden under the guidelines. But the program has opened the doors to temptation. Access Ministries provides chaplains in Victoria and in a 2008 speech, its head said chaplains "have a God-given open door to children" and "need to go and make disciples".
Access Ministries says there have been no complaints about its work in schools.
A former school chaplain pointed out to his brethren on an evangelical chat site a few years ago the delicacy required in spreading the word in schools. "It's not about sharing the gospel in conventional ways," he wrote. He had first "related to [kids] as a friend". He had shared their passions for motorbikes, or whatever, after which he "earned the opportunity to present Jesus to them. And present I did …"
Australians who support public education and pay taxes should not have to worry that chaplains are subtly indoctrinating their children, or dishing out unprofessional counselling. And schools with diverse and multi-faith student bodies who decide a chaplain would be inappropriate should not have to miss out on funding for student welfare. (The rules allow a non-religious pastoral care worker only when a chaplain can't be found.)
The Gillard government, courting the Australian Christian Lobby, has expanded the program and provided another $222 million. The $430 million and more that will be spent on chaplains by 2014 could have bought a lot of professional school counsellors. In NSW there is about one school counsellor for more than 1000 children, a ratio that is half what is probably needed.
In response to current reviews of the chaplaincy program, it won't be enough to introduce minimum qualifications. The government should take the opportunity to find out from schools what is needed to improve student welfare. It should give schools choice in how to spend the student welfare dollar. Chaplains, I wager, would not top their wish list.
"Experiments are the only means of knowledge at our disposal. The rest is poetry, imagination." Max Planck