Big response to school chaplain push

Sydney, Australia - ALMOST 300 Victorian schools have applied for Federal Government funding for a chaplain under the controversial National School Chaplaincy Program, Education Minister Julie Bishop revealed yesterday.

Of the 293 Victorian schools who applied for first-round funding, more than 200 were government schools.

Ms Bishop said the response to the first-round offers had been overwhelming — more than 1500 applications were lodged from around the country, or 15 per cent of Australian schools.

Victoria and Queensland (484 applications) accounted for the lion's share of the applications.

A list of the successful applicants will be released next month. Unsuccessful applicants will be able to try again in the second round.

"This is an important program assisting schools in providing greater pastoral care and supporting students' spiritual wellbeing," Ms Bishop said.

The three-year, $90 million program announced in October, gives schools up to $20,000 a year for a chaplain of any religious affiliation.

The program divided the Federal Opposition when it was announced. Former leader Kim Beazley supported it, but other Labor MPs said some schools would prefer to see the money spent on counsellors.

Concern that the program would be used to push religion was eased after the Government released a code of conduct that said chaplains should not preach religion.

The code, released in December, said chaplains should avoid physical contact with students unless it was strictly necessary.

Chaplains who did not sign up to the code were barred.

Julie Ramsay, a lay chaplain at Templestowe College for five years, said it was important for students to have in-school chaplains.

"To have someone here makes a big difference as I'm not a strange expert coming in to fix their problems, I am part of the school community," Mrs Ramsay said.

She said for many children, their first experience of sex, death or grief happened in their school years, and having easy access to support was crucial.

She said because of the issues raised, a chaplain's role was more often as counsellor rather than religious instructor.

Mrs Ramsay said the need for a school chaplain was illustrated tragically last month after two teenage girls from Upwey High School took their lives.

She said this incident, and subsequent media reporting, prompted some students at her high school to question their understanding of the world and religion.

"But it's not about me selling my opinion, but just getting them to make sense of their own thoughts and understanding of the world," she said.