Is ideology threatening a crucial service in schools?
I love going to schools, especially primary schools where children are eager to talk of their hopes and dreams for the future. I’m always presented with a rich tapestry of ambition, a divergence of views and that laconical smirk or quick wit that so defines the Australian sense of humour.
However I’m also confronted with hopelessness and despair, with children from unhappy homes, children with challenging behavior and in some cases children having been subject to abuse and harm. One school in my electorate with 800 children has approximately 25% of these children assessed as at risk.
My wife, who was a high school teacher before we started our family, made the comment recently that her last class of 30 students only had six students who still lived with their Mum and Dad. Without commenting on the societal impacts of family breakdown, I think it is fair to say that children are adversely affected by such events.
It was into such environments that the former Coalition Government injected $165m, to provide schools with a federally funded chaplain for two days a week. Communities were also encouraged to establish local chaplaincy committees to fundraise for extra days for their chaplains. The result was Government and community working together to improve the care of children.
The chaplain’s role is to contribute to the welfare of students, to enhance their wellbeing, and to take a holistic pastoral care approach working not just with students but with families and communities.
As the three year funding of the chaplains comes to an end next year, it is quite right to question the value of the Chaplaincy program.
A national study of the effectiveness of chaplaincy in government (not independent) schools was recently undertaken by Dr Philip Hughes of Edith Cowan University and Professor Margaret Sims of the University of New England. The research found that 92% of principals felt it was highly important to continue to have a chaplain; 73% of students surveyed felt their chaplain was highly important in the school; and the majority of staff and parents interviewed were concerned about whether there would be ongoing government funding for chaplains.
Considering this glowing report it is not surprising that in the fortnight leading up to the survey, 95% of chaplains reported dealing with behavior management issues, such as anger; 92.5% reported dealing with bullying and harassment; 92% reported dealing with peer relationships and loneliness; 91% reported dealing with family relationships; and 85% of chaplains reported dealing with students’ sense of purpose and self-esteem.
All in all, I think the jury is in and it’s a unanimous verdict.
Chaplains are valuable to schools and communities and the vast majority of those involved believe the federal chaplaincy program should continue. Keeping in mind this is only research from government schools with anecdotal evidence suggesting the response from independent schools to be as high if not higher.
The question is, what will federal Labor do? The Chaplaincy program didn’t feature in the Kevin07 election campaign and the Government’s key support base, the Union movement, appears none too impressed. Indeed the then Australian Education Union Victoria branch president Mary Bluett was quoted in the Herald-Sun on the 14th January 2008 as saying “The overwhelming majority of government schools didn’t go near the program, … given the multicultural mix in many government schools, to go down the path of the chaplaincy program would have been incredibly divisive.”
I guess no one told her that in Queensland alone, 81% of government high schools have a Chaplain. But hey, why let the truth get in the way of ideology?
The Federal Labor government is in a quandary. Its union base has been anything but supportive, yet the independent research is glowing in its praise for chaplains in government schools. The industry Minister in Senate estimates refused to guarantee future funding, and with this funding running out next year and the current budget forecast showing no future allocation, the community is rightly concerned. True to form it looks like the federal Labor government is once again bowing to its union masters and will kill off one of the most highly rated programs running in our schools today.
Chaplains are doing what teachers can’t do. Connecting with students in a neutral way, as they have no teaching or disciplinary role, but are just there to care, listen, encourage and support. The community should rightly be outraged at the federal Labour government’s lack of action on forward funding. Why wouldn’t you fund such a dedicated network of professional chaplains? Why wouldn’t you give the thousands of schools and their chaplains the certainty they need by announcing the funding roll over?
Why wouldn’t you?
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