Public fights to stop school chaplain ban in ACT

The ACT Government is receiving hundreds of submissions each week of “overwhelming support for school chaplaincy”, ahead of the looming deadline to ban them from public schools.

“We have been blown away by how strong the support is in the ACT.” – Peter James

“We are trying to give people a voice, so they can speak into why they think chaplaincy should be retained in schools,” said School Chaplaincy ACT chief executive Peter James about its “Save Our School Chaplains” campaign.

“People really care passionately about chaplaincy and they keep expressing their views. We have been blown away by how strong the support is in the ACT.

“We have former students saying they would not have made it through school without my chaplain.”

The campaign was launched this month and an increasing amount of pro-chaplaincy comments are coming in. “At least once a week, and sometimes twice a week, we bundle up the comments people make and we send them to all the politicians in the ACT,” said James, referring to state and federal members.

In February, ACT Education Minister Yvette Berry announced the territory’s withdrawal from the Federal Government’s Schools Chaplaincy Program by the end of the 2019 school year.

Under the federal program, schools can opt in for up to $20,000 in funding for a chaplain, with community funding allowed to increase their working hours. The Coalition government has mandated that chaplains must have a religious affiliation to receive that funding.

But Berry said such chaplains do not fit with the secular approach of public schooling. In February, she promised chaplains could continue to be employed “to do youth work and social work … but that is conducted in a non-religious way”.

James argued the ACT’s Education Act requires “high quality education is provided” and spiritual care is a vital component.

“One of the factors in the ACT Act that [supports] high quality education is that the religious needs of students are met. It’s as explicit as that,” said James.

“The minister is instead saying there cannot be any religious or spiritual support in a government school – and that is just plain wrong.”

Despite the February assurance of new secular roles for chaplains, Berry’s office this week told The Canberra Times no new money had been set aside for them. The 22 public schools which take part in the Schools Chaplaincy Program would have to “meet the modest cost impact … from within their existing budget”.

“Sacking chaplains in schools makes no practical sense.” – Bruce McCourt

Bruce McCourt is a former ACT high school principal who retired in July. He spoke out on ABC local radio in Canberra about his belief that schools would not have spare funding to allocate to keep chaplains on.

“Under the new employment arrangement schools will have to find the funding themselves which will mean in most cases, redirecting funds from existing staffing to cover the cost of employing them,” said McCourt.

“Sacking chaplains in schools makes no practical sense.

“It’s a free program funded by the Commonwealth at no cost to schools or the ACT government. Chaplains make a real difference to kids.”

James added that “chaplains, schools, parents and students are in limbo” with the end of the school year approaching.

“The government has made this decision based solely on ideology, not student welfare, and it’s clear they have no plan, no details and have not thought this ridiculous decision through.

“My appeal now is to Chief Minister Andrew Barr to immediately intervene and reverse this decision, and provide certainty to the community.”

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