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Nov 19, 2012

Shutting the school gate on God: a teacher's view

The controversial "chaplains in schools" program split one Victorian state high school, as teacher Chris Fotinopoulos reports. He asked the students what they thought of religion in school.

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Five years ago the staff at the school where I teach became divided over the question of whether to accept the $20,000 on offer by the Howard government to employ a school chaplain. After considerable discussion and robust debate, the school rejected the chaplaincy scheme because there were divergent views on the issue.

Teachers who opposed the scheme, including me, took the view that one’s faith and spirituality are highly personal, emotive and complex matters, particularly with regard to sexuality, life, death, abortion, and the human condition. It is primarily for this reason that we believe religion ought to be kept separate from the state — and by extension state schools.

I recall certain teachers and especially members of the school welfare team suggesting that we had let our kids down by declining the offer of extra pastoral help. As one teacher put it “we must do everything we can to provide students with welfare and spiritual support. If this means bringing a chaplain to the school then so be it”.

Another staff member, a devout Christian, argued “spiritual health” was central to a child’s education. And given that it is an area lacking for those students who desire it, he suggested that the school had a duty to provide spiritual care through a chaplain.

Early this year the Gillard government reignited the debate by promising to extend the scheme to up to 1000 further schools. Our school was split once again. Should we shut the gate on religion? Were we prepared to let vulnerable kids down by refusing to apply for funding? Thankfully this time around, the Gillard government provided schools with the option of opting for a non-religious school welfare worker.

Despite the funding changes, some teachers continued to push for a chaplain over a non-religious welfare worker. This group, who were essentially affiliated with organised religion, maintained that a chaplain was best placed to provide students with spiritual nourishment and guidance.

It is a view that is in keeping with the comments made by the chief executive officer of Access Ministries, the Christian group that has been providing religious education and chaplains in Victorian government schools since the implementation. In 2008, Dr Evonne Paddison told the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion national conference in Melbourne that:

” … in Australia, we have a God-given open door to children and young people with the Gospel, our federal and state governments allow us to take the Christian faith into our schools and share it. We need to go and make disciples. What really matters is seizing the God-given opportunity we have to reach kids in schools … without Jesus, our students are lost.”

I decided to ask a group of senior students what spiritually meant to them and whether they saw a difference between spiritual and religious guidance. One boy, a devout Christian, viewed spirituality as essential to inner peace and integral to personal development. The way he put it, “the more peaceful you are the more spiritually self-satisfied you become”. He had no problem with a chaplain occupying a place in the school welfare centre, “provided that there were non-religious and welfare based alternatives”.

Another girl argued that, as an atheist, she would not feel comfortable discussing issues with a chaplain affiliated with a church. Although she respects religion, and people’s right to practise it, she felt that a chaplain would try to take a religious perspective in the advice he gave to her. She felt that a chaplain would be unable to, as she put it, “target my issues and the guidance I need”.

She went on to explain how spirituality does not entail a religious experience. It can involve it, but it is not necessary. Spirituality is a guiding force in her life, which allows her to evaluate ethical questions with a clear head without the added burden of contradictory religious views. She added that, “organised religion is too wrapped up in dogma to be of any real help”.

Another female student said that she would feel uncomfortable seeing a school chaplain because “they are tied to a religious agenda”. She went on to explain that “there is a looming sense of someone above you in the school system trying to push theological beliefs on you, which is disconcerting, especially if the issue I wanted to talk to the chaplain about has nothing to do with spirituality, nor can be solved following the principles of a “default religion like Christianity”.

Based on these responses, students do not seem to have as much faith in organised religion as some of their teachers.

Mid-way this year our school council authorised a funding application for welfare support on the condition that the position was tagged “School Welfare Worker” and the successful applicant did not display, promote, advertise or endorse faith-based views, beliefs, principles or dogma. They must not be official representatives of any faith-based organisation and that the Australian Christian Council of Educational Services (ACCES) or any religious organisation should not in any way be involved in the formulation of the job description or the selection process.

It would have saved us a lot of time had the Howard government given my school this option five years ago. It would have allowed us to get on with the business of helping kids in need of spiritual guidance without engaging in arguments with members of staff and the broader community over whether spirituality is the exclusive domain of organised religion.

So what do the 2700 schools that did take the money for a chaplain five years ago do now? Perhaps they should consider replacing their church-based chaplain with a non-religious based professional for the same reasons my school rejected funding for a religious representative.

In an unexpected twist to the chaplaincy saga, just as my school submitted a funding application for an additional welfare worker, the High Court ruled that the national school chaplaincy program was constitutionally invalid because it exceeded the Commonwealth’s funding powers.

Our school, along with the other schools that applied for further funding, was however assured by federal and state ministers that alternative funding models would be pursued in order to ensure that funding for the new scheme continues.

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