Blue Gum Community School student welfare officer Ruth Pickard. Photo: Graham Tidy0As a school-based student welfare worker, Ruth Pickard is one of the earliest intervention tools to keep children mentally well and engaged in education, a key part of avoiding future unemployment.
But at the end of the year, Ms Pickard will be out of a job, as she is a secular worker funded by the School Chaplaincy Program, which the federal government announced last week will return to its religious beginnings.
The change has been labelled “a step backwards” by social workers and schools.
It will leave at least 14 ACT schools without a social welfare officer, and the ACT based Australian Student Welfare Association’s ten employees who service them, unemployed; about half of whom are also under 30 and subject to tougher new dole restrictions.
“The biggest factor from our perspective isn’t so much our staff – obviously we’re disappointed about that – but … that ACT schools that just do not have the community support for chaplaincy now don’t have an option [for welfare support in their school],” the association’s director, Ross Sutherland, said.
Ms Pickard, who supports children with issues ranging from making friends in the playground to major family issues at home, said the loss of support to those students will be seen in the future.
“You don’t notice what we’re doing because the problems are minimised; you don’t really see the results of what we’re doing except in the fact people are happy and coming to school … without it, who knows what’s going to happen.”
The national president of the Australian Association of Social Workers, Karen Healy, said the change, in conjunction with other welfare cuts, had the capacity to escalate youth homelessness to crisis point.
“Many people who are long-term unemployed or who find it hard to stay in employment – their problems start way back in school,” Professor Healy said.
“We’ve now got a situation where young people are back in this highly vulnerable circumstance because they lack access to decent benefits, and if there’s a cut back in support services in school, more young people get disconnected from school [and] that increases their chance of unemployment and other things like homelessness.”
While the chaplaincy program will still offer a religious alternative, many ACT schools are unlikely to apply, with surveys finding 70 per cent of government school communities in favour of a secular worker over a chaplain.
“Many schools are going to lose their staff member and not be able to apply for the chaplaincy program due to lack of community support,” Mr Sutherland said.
Blue Gum Community School, where Ms Pickard works, is one such school.
It has a number of Jewish, Christian and atheist families, and executive director Maureen Hartung said to opt for a chaplain “would send a message that we value one faith over another”.
“We think it’s a form of religious discrimination, fundamentally – we’re being denied it because we’re not prepared to choose one religion over another,” Ms Hartung said.
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