My View: Yvette Berry
Minister for Education and Early Childhood Development, ACT
Education in ACT government schools is required to be non-sectarian, secular education. This is not only consistent with the Education Act 2004 (ACT) but also with prevailing expectations of the ACT community. The incorporation of religious chaplains in ACT government schools is inconsistent with the Act.
The ACT government is committed to supporting the wellbeing of students and recognises this as a critical factor that enables access to learning. The provision of personal and emotional support for students and the broader school community is an important function of school wellbeing teams.
In recent years the ACT government has made significant investment in student wellbeing – for example, through increasing the number of school psychologists and expanding the availability of wellbeing workers in disciplines such as social and youth work. We also have additional investment planned for the future. As a result, ACT government schools are well equipped to offer a range of supports for student and school community wellbeing.
Fulfilling these functions does not require religious association or endorsement, which, disappointingly, is a requirement of the National School Chaplaincy Program. Current chaplaincy providers in turn place religious requirements on chaplains as a condition of their employment. For example, chaplains must be active Christians who can articulate the core teachings of the Bible and its message, and they are also required to develop partnerships between schools and churches.
I recognise that the student and school wellbeing support provided by chaplains – and, equally, by secular wellbeing workers – is valued by school communities including students, staff and parents, and that the individuals providing these services often become personally valued. It is for this reason that I have ensured that chaplains currently employed under the program have the option of direct government employment on a secular basis. The Education Directorate is working with schools to make these arrangements. These workers will continue to provide support to the school community but without the obligation of religious affiliation or endorsement.
The ACT Government also has a deeply held belief in equity and provides financial and other support to meet student and school community needs, such as through bursaries for books and uniforms and breakfast programs in schools where there is no chaplain.
Students in government education can be appropriately given, without the need for a religious chaplain, an understanding of religious diversity through the study of different religions, which is distinct from religious instruction. Where the parents of children in a government school seek religious education in a specific religion for their children, this is made available, as required by the Act.