The APS has raised significant concerns over the last few years about the National School Chaplaincy Program (NSCP), which was introduced by the Howard Government in 2006 and has been continued by the Rudd and Gillard Governments since then. The APS has not been alone, with many groups voicing their opposition on ideological grounds and others sharing the APS concerns regarding increased student risk and poor allocation of scarce resources.
The APS has stated repeatedly that it is not opposed to the presence of chaplains in schools for pastoral care, however the investment of scarce government-funded resources should be redirected to meet the social, wellbeing and mental health needs of students and their families. A further major concern is the presence of largely unqualified – and certainly unregistered – chaplains in schools, offering advice and support to students that is often inappropriate and raises the risk of harm to students.
In mid-2010, the Federal Government published a consultation paper regarding the NSCP and invited comment. The APS made its first formal submission – largely authored by Dr Monica Thielking who was the National Office Psychologists in Schools Advisor – which outlined the wide range of student mental health needs that were not being satisfactorily met in our primary and secondary schools. The extensive qualifications and accountability required of registered psychologists providing services in schools was contrasted with the lack of qualifications and regulation of chaplains, and the increasing evidence of professional boundary violations, lack of provision of impartial advice, and, by their own admission, a failure to refer on for expert assistance. The APS argued that the continued funding for chaplains through the national program implicated the Federal Government in increasing the risk to students in schools.
In August of 2010, the APS issued a press release that generated significant community interest and media activity. This resulted in a number of radio interviews and even a public presentation by Monica at Melbourne University, and ongoing contacts with community radio current affairs programs, including The Wire and ABC television’s Hungry Beast. Public advocacy has also been achieved through the continuing work of APS school psychologist members, such as Darren Stops who has tirelessly driven his local campaign against the chaplaincy program in Tasmania.
Some of this advocacy occurred because the Federal Government established another review of the NSCP and published a discussion paper. Ostensibly this was to canvass views about the appropriate training, minimum standards and selection processes for chaplains in schools. However, even before this review had been completed, an extra $222m had been allocated in the 2011-2012 Federal Budget.
Despite the limited capacity for broader policy debate in the discussion paper, the APS again urged that the mental health and social support services in schools should be managed by appropriately trained professionals. The APS wrote that "in the present circumstances where student, family and teacher needs far outweigh the personnel and resources available, particularly with regard to mental health services, the funds directed to the chaplaincy program would be better spent on expert, well trained health professionals”.
Subsequent to a number of media reports regarding serious complaints from parents and teachers about school chaplains, ABC television’s 7.30 program contacted the APS to request assistance with a feature on the chaplaincy program, particularly with regard to one possible professional boundary violation reported from Queensland. The APS provided an interview with David Stokes, Senior Manager Professional Practice, in addition to responding to the request for ethical information about professional boundary matters.
Following the airing of this feature on the ABC (27 June 2011) and a subsequent APS media release (28 June), the APS was requested to provide a number of additional interviews. These involved one national radio station and a number of State-based stations in New South Wales and South Australia, in addition to a variety of newspapers seeking comment. A couple of the online opinion sites – The Drum and The Punch – also sought and published written opinion pieces from the APS. Further APS media interviews were aired following the release of the Commonwealth Ombudsman's report on the NSCP on 25 July 2011.
The APS has advocated for the position that these government funds should no longer be directed to the chaplaincy program, but instead be provided as program funding to allow school principals to apply for extra resources to supplement their current counsellor and school psychology programs. This could be done through program funding as part of a prevention of youth suicide initiative or a mental health and wellbeing program linked to the very successful KidsMatter. In the meantime, the APS argues that there needs to be clearly defined roles and boundaries for chaplains for their pastoral work in schools. There needs to be an education program for chaplains to enable them to refer students on for appropriate mental health care where required, and additional funding for health professionals to supervise and coordinate the chaplain’s interface with the school community.