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Schools deserve their say on chaplains

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Sarah Hanson-Young 17 May 2011

Last week the federal government's budget revealed the Education Department would spend another $222 million over four years on the national school chaplaincy program.

In light of revelations that the Victoria-based Access Ministries is reportedly using the program to ''make disciples'' of students, the Australian Greens question whether that's money well-spent.

Contrary to what some pundits claim, per se, we are firm believers in an individual's free choice, be it the right to marry whom they choose, or in this case, the right for each school across Australia to determine how they should use the $74 million annually earmarked for chaplains.

Each generation knows being a young person is tough. Today's young people are confronted with challenges that didn't exist when I was in school, such as cyber bullying. Before, a bully would taunt a child in the playground, on their way home. Now, that still happens, but the bully also attacks via social networking websites or mobile phones. Relentless assaults on one's self-esteem can happen at any hour.

Australia's students need the right people looking out for their well-being, to assist their parents or carers and ensure they reach their full potential, clearing the obstacles life throws at them. That's where a properly-qualified school counsellor or youth worker could help. Someone who has the credentials and expertise to identify what a child is experiencing, and help them through it. There is no requirement under the current program that chaplains have to have any of this specific training.

I'm not against school chaplains, but I am opposed to the federal education department telling a school the only Commonwealth-funded support for student wellbeing must take the form of a chaplain. I think a school's principal, parents and citizens' groups and similar bodies that underpin our schools should themselves decide how they will use the federal funds to provide a qualified person to help that school's young people.

It may well be a school decides they want to retain a chaplain. That's fine. Or, a school may instead opt for a youth worker or counsellor or someone who has experience in liaising between students, support groups and government agencies. In each case, however, the school's adults - and students too - should have a conversation about the services they need or want, and allocate their resources accordingly.

The government should not be insisting schools stick to the chaplaincy program and extend it to other schools, as Treasurer Wayne Swan announced last week, before a review into the program's effectiveness has been finished. It is poor financial discipline, and frankly inept management, to be announcing an increase in funding and an expansion of a scheme that has not yet been shown to achieve value for money, let alone proving that it offers the support our children deserve.

First published on 'The National Times' on May 17, 2011

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