Yesterday’s federal budget announcement included news that the school chaplains program will be made permanent, effectively replacing the Safe Schools anti-bullying program.

“We are extending the national schools chaplaincy program on a permanent basis with a special new anti-bullying focus”, the budget papers read.

Australian Education Union national president Correna Haythorpe said the funding could be better spent than on a chaplaincy program, and that the budget didn’t prioritise young people, news.com.au has reported.

“These funds are desperately needed in our schools to provide professional school counselling services, ongoing professional development for principals and teachers, and student wellbeing programs,” said Haythorpe.

The permanent funding for the chaplain program means it will effectively replace the Safe Schools program, whose federal funding ran out more than a year ago, leaving states and territories or individual schools to bear the cost of delivering the program if they chose to continue.

Critics have said that the very religious leaders who are likely to have opposed Safe Schools and marriage equality will now be the chaplains delivering programs intended to prevent homophobic bullying.

“Appalling that the government is still spending a quarter of a billion on Chaplains in schools when we still aren’t funding the full original Gonski, or even a proper Safe Schools program,” Greens MP Adam Bandt tweeted.

“It is truly outrageous – we need a whole school approach to address mental health and bullying – respectful relationships and safe schools are fabulous for all children – chaplains are not the answer,” Felicity Marlowe from Rainbow Families Victoria tweeted.

The increased support for school chaplains has been on the horizon for some time.

“I’ve had representations from many, many schools around the country, arguing in favour of the continuation of that program,” said Education Minister Simon Birmingham in a radio interview in March.

“It is important for listeners who may have misconceptions about it to realise that there are strict qualification criteria that sit around school chaplains, that they have to be well-trained and versed in terms of their capacity to provide counselling and support to students, that they are not allowed to proselytise or preach religion, as such, in schools.”

The chaplaincy program received extra funding of $247 million for the next four years in the budget.

The fight over Safe Schools continues in Victoria, where Minister for Equality Martin Foley has vowed the program will continue under a Labor government, but the Liberals have promised to scrap the program if elected.

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