An independent evaluation of The National School Chaplaincy Program (NSCP) has found there are benefits of having chaplains in schools, but has endorsed plans to broaden the scheme to include secular support staff.
Management consulting firm Dandolopartners was asked by the government to examine the National School Chaplaincy Program in July last year and handed in its final report in November, but that was only made public yesterday.
More than 10,000 public submissions were made over 10 days, with 43 per cent of respondents based in Queensland and 74 per cent of those were not school-based stakeholders.
As a result, the report said, equal weighting was not given to all submissions and a total of six recommendations were made, including the need for a comprehensive review of the National School Chaplaincy Program ‘s role in the long term.
The report’s authors found that a growing number of children needed support and the National School Chaplaincy Program had played a ” valuable role in supporting student wellbeing”.
It noted the program had been widely used and that, between 2019 and 2022, about 3,000 schools engaged the services of a chaplain each year.
Benefits and risks
The report stated there was a place for chaplains but that there were also risks with the flexible nature of the program.
It found chaplains were critical because they could create a “more safe and supportive school environment” and “empower students by providing them with encouragement, advice and strategies”.
The report’s authors also found the flexible and generalised nature of the chaplain role was beneficial because it alleviated pressure on teachers and enabled schools to tailor programs. However, it noted that flexibility also presented risks.
“Chaplains may be ‘spread too thin’, trying to do too much in the limited time they have available … chaplains may be delivering services that go beyond their qualifications or skill set,” the report said.
While the agreement already states chaplains must not proselytise, there is no definition or further guidance about that, and the report raised concerns about the lack of consistency across the country.
It recommended the federal government provide states and territories with clearer guidelines, including what constitutes proselytising.
“[Provide] clearly documented and defined activities that are out of scope for the program, to manage the risk of chaplains delivering services that go beyond their scope, and ensure they are focusing on delivering services that will directly support student wellbeing,” the report said.
“Work with states and territories to provide schools with guidance material for principals and other school leaders on the chaplain role.”
The report’s authors also found issues with the implementation of the program.
It said there were significant differences in how the National School Chaplaincy Program had been delivered across the different jurisdictions when it came to funding, oversight, complaints processes, confidentially and professional development.
The variations between the states and territories meant it was difficult for the government to monitor or oversee the program.
As well, the report recommended the government introduce accountability and oversight mechanisms, such as a code of conduct, a complaints mechanism and a confidentially framework.
New name, slight change in program
The report’s authors found that the religious affiliation of the chaplain role was the most-contested part of the program.
“Some stakeholders hold a particularly strong view that funding chaplains in schools is inappropriate,” the report said.
“Others hold a particularly strong view that funding chaplains in schools is important.
“Most stakeholders agree the program is necessary and valuable, particularly those with direct experience of, or interaction with, the program.”
It stated, however, there was a risk of some students not receiving support through the program because of their gender identity or sexual orientations.
The report supported the government’s decision to open up the program in 2023, so that schools could use the funding to either hire a chaplain or student wellbeing officers and recommended changing the name of the program.
“The Australian Government should consider re-naming the National School Chaplaincy Program to ensure it aligns with the focus on the function of supporting student wellbeing (rather than chaplains as a professional group),” the report said.
“A changed program name may not only reduce the polarisation of community views, but also create a more-inclusive program.”
The report raised concerns about the funding of the program and recommended the government consider how to fund it into the future.
“The current funding and employment model is exacerbating challenges attracting and retaining chaplains,” the report said.
“This is largely due to the part-time nature of the role … the lack of job security … low remuneration that has not kept pace with the increased cost of living.”
It warned that the current funding posed a risk to the delivery of the program.
“The nature of the chaplain role requires time, several stakeholders described how chaplain longevity is required to build relationships and trust in the community and with students.”
A spokeswoman for the education minister said it was up to schools to decide what sort of support person they wanted to hire.
“All Australian education ministers have now signed a new, five-year funding agreement worth $307 million,” the statement said.
“The new agreement gives greater flexibility for schools to decide how best to help support the wellbeing of their students in line with the evaluation report.”