As Full as a Catholic School


In the boom years after World War II, when we were making lots of babies, anyone who had drunk too much would be accused of being ‘as full as a Catholic school.’ A few decades on, it seems that Catholic schools are not so full of Catholics, but have managed to accumulate a sizeable enrolment of other believers and even non-believers.

The document Catholic Schools at the Crossroads, issued last week by the Bishops of NSW and the ACT, raised considerable debate  in the Daily Telegraph, at least, over whether Catholic schools should enrol non-Catholics.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

But the equally important issue, also referred to in last week’s pastoral document, is the tendency for Catholic schools, in our increasingly dysfunctional framework of public and private schools, to become decidedly middle class. It was only a matter of time before the Catholic education system was going to have to come to grips with the reality that there are now fewer Catholics and poor people attending its schools. Despite their apparent willingness, Catholic schools cannot achieve either in our current policy and funding regime.

The dilemma faced by the Bishops is that, as well as being substantially publicly funded, their schools also charge fees. Regardless of the reasons why people change schools, fee-charging schools will always attract higher-income families, with the free public schools catering for low income and often marginalised communities. This was predicted years ago and it is becoming harder to disguise.

Fees aren’t the only school enrolment discriminator but, in the broad sense, they certainly allow private schools to choose students. Funding of schools regardless of need contributes to the problem with public funding helping to widen, rather than reduce, the gaps between kids and communities.

So what is the solution? Some people believe that governments should fully fund private schools on the condition that they abolish fees. Such schools would then become part of an enlarged State system. This is the norm in countries such as New Zealand, the UK and most of Europe and Canada. The effect has been to reduce, but certainly not eliminate, the family income differences between what we call public and private schools.

This would put the onus on private schools. Would they want to be integrated in this way? Not likely they would have to give up the advantages they have accrued by disproportionately enrolling mainstream and middle-class kids.

It would also pose huge questions for public educators. Would they accept a Church school as their local school? It might sound old-fashioned in this age of what we strangely call ‘choice’ but I want my local school to be secular, because no child should be required to attend a school underpinned by a commitment to one particular faith or philosophy in order to gain a high-quality education. ‘Secular’ has never meant values-neutral or anti-religious, it means the education that is available to all must also be open and welcoming to all, regardless of faith.

The Catholic schools may well be facing another problem. Despite the effusive language of the Daily Telegraph last week and references to floods of students going to private schools, the real story is noticeably different, especially in NSW.

The average annual enrolment growth of secondary private schools in NSW has fallen each year since 1991, from a high of 2.2 to around 0.6 per cent between 2005 and 2006.

While figures about Catholic school enrolments are hard to obtain, the best data I have show around 40 per cent of private schools in NSW have stopped growing or have lost enrolments over the last three years.

Any decline in enrolments is hardly surprising. Despite a recent mini baby-boom, Australians really aren’t making as many babies as we used to, Catholic or otherwise. The long-term projections are for the school-age proportion of the population to continue to fall.

Along with which students they should enrol, a looming dilemma for Catholic school authorities is how many schools to keep open and where they should be located.

The Daily Telegraph story reported that the option of downsizing the Catholic school system was considered by the Bishops and rejected. It’s no surprise that the Bishops, just like the NSW Government, want to avoid talking about this issue. But it is one of the elephants in the room: in a nation where new schools have been spread like confetti by the Federal Government, which schools should close as enrolments decline?

Just like any school system, Catholic school authorities cannot provide sufficient resources to support a Catholic education for each and every family. Just like public schools, they face the challenge of unequal competition in a largely unregulated marketplace.

But of course they are not public schools and don’t deserve any special funding favours. The first school in a developing community and the last school to be closed down in a declining community, must be the free, secular and completely inclusive school. Governments have no obligation to support any other type of school.

Maybe this whole exercise by Cardinal Pell and the Bishops is simply to soften up the Federal Government for more funding of Catholic schools. Based on its track record, the Federal Government may well come to the party. A couple of years ago they discovered that the growing middle-class profile of Catholic schools would have reduced their funding under the SES funding system. Their breathtaking solution: just keep topping up Catholic schools, regardless of need!

Granting further funding increases without tackling the bigger issues, such as the impact of school fees, won’t solve the problem at all. The poor will still disproportionately attend public schools. To solve this problem will require the Federal Government to admit that its corrupted framework of funding is simply unsustainable.

Don’t hold your breath.

Aren’t we overdue for another distracting moral panic about values, bullies or Marxists?

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