More than 200 schools around Australia are planning to stop employing religious chaplains and hire secular welfare workers instead to deliver support services to students.
Welfare workers were most popular in the ACT, where 28 per cent of schools that were reapplying for funding opted for one instead of a chaplain.
The schools are taking advantage of changes to the Federal Government's $222 million chaplaincy scheme, which previously stipulated that a welfare worker could only be appointed if there was proof that no chaplain was available.
Government figures show that of 2512 schools that have reapplied for funding under the scheme, 208 - or 8per cent - have proposed to employ a welfare worker.
Most of the others - 2236 or 89 per cent - indicated they wanted to stick with a chaplain or religious pastoral care worker, while 3 per cent said they had not decided which they wanted.
A discussion paper issued last year to inform a review of the program showed that .01 per cent of workers employed under the program had no religious affiliation, yet more than 18per cent of the population says it has no religion.
School Education Minister Peter Garrett said the Government had received ''strong feedback'' through the review encouraging it to extend the program to qualified secular welfare workers.
''Under the revised program guidelines, schools are now able to choose the type of service that best meets the circumstances and preferences of their own school community,'' he said.
''This has always been a popular program, the chaplain provides a unique supporting role in schools and it is clear this is widely understood and appreciated, and schools have made their choice accordingly.''
In NSW, 14 per cent of schools with Federal Government-funded chaplains said they wanted a secular welfare worker instead. Eighty-three per cent said they would continue to employ a chaplain, while 3 per cent had not decided between a welfare worker and chaplain.
In Victoria, 16 per cent of schools with Federal Government-funded chaplains have said they wish to employ a welfare worker instead of a chaplain.
Eighty per cent said they would continue to engage a chaplain, and 4per cent had not yet decided between a chaplain and secular welfare worker.
The Howard government introduced the scheme in 2007, offering schools up to $20,000 a year to introduce or extend chaplaincy services.
About 2700 schools have received funding under the program.
The Gillard Government has promised to extend the scheme to up to 1000 further schools. Schools that are not currently receiving funding have until March 2 to apply.
Under other changes announced last year, all workers employed under the program must have at least a Certificate IV qualification in youth work or a related field.
The Government has committed $222 million to the scheme over three years.
The High Court is yet to deliver its judgment on a constitutional challenge to the program heard last year.
Queensland father Ron Williams challenged the scheme on the grounds that it violated religious freedom protections in the constitution, and exceeded the Commonwealth's funding powers.