By Tom Armstrong. Edited for online by Bernard Thompson.
Religious groups and school organisations are concerned over the future of the National School Chaplaincy Program (NSCP) following the Federal Government’s Commission of Audit recommendations for it to be abolished.
The Commission recommended the $222 million federal program be discontinued, with current funding only provided up until 2014.
The recommendation comes after a lengthy ongoing High Court case regarding the program’s legality.
A previous challenge saw the program abolished in its previous incarnation.
The NSCP allows 3,555 schools across Australia to access the services of a school chaplain or a non-faith based student welfare worker.
‘Important for student welfare’
Scripture Union Queensland CEO and National School Chaplaincy Association secretary Peter James says the role is not religious.
Mr James says the program is primarily one of support and should to be continued.
“Schools that have a chaplain know that and accept that and they’re very keen to see the program continue,” Mr James said.
“It’s a program of social, emotional and spiritual support for children and young people in schools.
“It is a role that engages students with the big questions of life and helps them to work those through.”
President of the Australian Primary Principals Association Norm Hart agrees and says it is important for student welfare.
“If the program is stopped then schools will lose student support services and people working in primary schools helping their students won’t have a role in that school anymore,” Mr Hart said.
“Obviously the losers will be the kids.”
Video uploaded by Ron Williams on NSCP negatives (Source: Youtube Ron Williams)
The NSCP, which has faced criticism from the teachers’ unions, mental health professionals, and from the Australian Council of State School Organisations, is currently being questioned in High Court.
The current challenge follows a previous successful one brought by current plaintiff Ron Williams, who was frustrated at the notion of a chaplain being in his son’s school.
University of Sydney constitutional law professor Anne Twomey believes Mr Williams has a strong chance of success.
“When the Commonwealth enacted its legislation and attempting to try to fix up the law after his previous successful case, it was acknowledged in the Parliament that what they we’re doing was a bit dubious,” Ms Twomey said.
Ms Twomey questions why Federal Government is so insistent on running the program in its current form.
She says if the Federal Government want to successfully fund a NSCP beyond legal challenge, it will have to hand power over to the states.
“If the Commonwealth doesn’t have a head of power in relation to chaplaincy, it has an alternative,” Ms Twomey said.
“What it can do is negotiate with the states and give a grant to the state on the condition that the grant goes to support a chaplaincy scheme.”
Mr Hart acknowledged the program has faced challenges but argues it should be schools that make the decisions, not outsiders.
“There are always people in a pluralist society who have a range of views,” Mr Hart said.
“However I think where school communities together make decisions about what is good for their students, you’ll highly likely get an outcome which will benefit those kids.”
Introduced by previous prime minister John Howard and defended by Labor’s Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, the Abbott Government have signalled their intention to continue the NSCP.