It's just one of the changes that has taken place since the Albanese Labor government came into power last month. But it's a significant one - the ending of the compulsory religious aspect of the $60 million a year National School Chaplaincy Program, first introduced for the Howard government in 2006.
Schools will now have a choice of chaplain or professionally-qualified student welfare officer, marking an end to a particular culture war that has been grating uncomfortably in the nominally secular education landscape.
While no one has ever disputed the importance of pastoral care in Australian schools, the program's requirement that chaplains be recognised or endorsed by a religious institution has caused significant controversy, even while school chaplains are banned from evangelising or proselytising.
Instead, they were always intended to provide "general spiritual and personal advice", notwithstanding how loaded the term "spiritual" becomes when paired with religion. While it's certainly the case that many of those employed under the scheme as chaplains are properly trained in the interests of children's wellbeing, this was never the main requirement.
Although chaplains are required to be trained youth workers, they are not required to be qualified and accredited counsellors.
But it's always been a complex issue, with a distinct lack of middle ground.
Religion should play no role in secular schools; this is a fundamental tenet of our education system. And if parents want to nurture the spiritual life of their children, a public school might not be the way to go about it. But the service nominally fulfilled by chaplains needs to be replaced, and fully funded, by something that meets the needs of students. Newly appointed Federal Education Minister Jason Clare has moved to open up the program to give schools the option to choose either a professionally qualified student welfare officer or a chaplain. It's a decision that comes at a crucial time for the future of Australia's schools, and a generation of students whose education has been disrupted by a two-year-plus pandemic. Many students of all ages are struggling, or traumatised by this prolonged period of turmoil, notwithstanding the many new and emerging issues in modern education that teachers and parents are only just starting to grapple with. These include a greater recognition of gay and trans rights, the rise of cyber-bullying and its impacts on mental health, drug and alcohol abuse in the home and on school grounds.
School counsellors need to be multi-skilled, and able to deal with the multiple, complex pressures that characterise modern schools. It's never been clear that an endorsement by a religious institution is, in and of itself, enough to fulfil this role.
The decision to give schools the choice as to whether to participate in the program is, once again, a sound one.
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