Last week's budget delivered a double blow to youth welfare worker Joanne Homsi from Wollongong. For the past 18 months, Ms Homsi has worked in two high schools in the St George and Sutherland area, supporting students with drug and alcohol issues, low confidence, family problems and suicidal thoughts.
As well as talking with students, she has connected them to mental health centres, remedial learning programs and other services.
Ms Homsi loves the job, and the schools value her work. But in December she will be looking for a new job - and there will not be a safety net to catch her if she cannot find one. Because she is under 30, she would have to wait six months before she can receive any unemployment benefits under tough new rules for young job seekers.
Ms Homsi's three-days-a-week position was funded by the federal government's National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program. The government is continuing the program, at a cost of $245 million over five years, but will remove the option for schools to hire a non-religious welfare worker.
The 623 schools that made this choice will have to hire a chaplain or go without. "I'm very saddened and concerned about the change to the program," she said.
School chaplains have a role to play, but not everywhere, she said. She noted St George is a multicultural area where Catholics, Anglicans, Muslims, Buddhists, Greek Orthodox and non-religious students study together. "These schools had a choice between a chaplain or a youth worker and they chose to have a youth worker," she said.
"I've been available to everyone regardless of their religion or culture. I've provided students with a non-judgmental approach to very sensitive issues and that has been beneficial to everyone."
Parliamentary Secretary for Education Scott Ryan said the government is restoring the scheme to its original vision after Labor expanded it to include student welfare workers in 2011. "The Coalition was critical of Labor watering down the focus on chaplains when the original chaplaincy program expired," Senator Ryan said. "Student welfare services are an important part of school communities and are rightly provided by, and the responsibility of, the states in public schools and other schools and systems in their respective schools."
Australian Council of State School Organisations president Peter Garrigan said: "The chaplaincy program in its entirety should have been scrapped and the money given to provide … services like psychologists, speech pathologists or dentists. But if the program has to operate there should be a non-religious option."
Federal government’s new plan
How does it work? All schools will be invited to apply for 2900 chaplain places. Schools with higher disadvantage will be given priority. Schools will receive $20,000 a year to hire a chaplain. Schools in remote areas will receive an extra $4000 a year.
How much will it cost? $245.3 million over five years.
What are its aims? To support the emotional, spiritual and social wellbeing of students by enhancing academic achievement, encouraging positive behaviours, reducing behavioural issues such as truancy, aggression and drug use, and boosting emotional competence.
Who can schools hire? Chaplains can be from a range of faiths but they can no longer be secular youth workers. They must have a minimum Certificate IV in Youth Work or Pastoral Care or equivalent. They must sign a code of conduct and pass working with children and police checks.
Source: Department of Education; Scott Ryan