... but hard administrative decisions are needed
The Catholic education system in Australia educates 700,000 children in 1,350 primary and 350 secondary schools. Some 20% of all school-going children in Australia are educated in Catholic schools.
It is obvious that Catholic schools can, and have had a significant impact on the development of genuine Christian principles and practice in our country. But in the face of a number of issues that threaten the primacy of the Christian family, among them abortion, pornography, homosexuality, drugs and alcohol, and addictive gambling, the role of the Catholic school and the purpose and effectiveness with which it is conducted are of crucial importance for the future of Christianity in this country.
If Catholic schools are educating one in five school-going children, are they not in a powerful position to promote, with the assistance of other religious bodies, a religion-based way of life and to counter the growth of a godless society?
But how effective are our Catholic schools in helping shape Australia's future for the better? How effective, indeed, simply as Catholic schools?
Have many, perhaps gradually, become so secularised that they are less capable than they should be of upholding Christian values and Church teachings? Needless to say, while there are good Catholic schools, with dedicated Catholic teachers and principals, too many of them seem to have divorced themselves from the priority of teaching the fundamentals of the Catholic faith.
But while we should be concerned about the overall state of Catholic education, there is no room for pessimism or despair. Unfortunately, the present divisions among Catholics have tended to hinder a united, positive and practical approach to addressing the problems.
It is urgent that we try to remove that laissez faire attitude of letting things be, of leaving things alone - an attitude unfortunately characteristic of many of today's Catholic parents of school-going children. Only constructive criticism, freely ventilated, can bring home to more of them an awareness that we do have serious problems in Catholic education.
The following are undeniable problems meriting serious concern on the part of Catholics and Church authorities:
- the lack of formal education in the Catholic faith in a number of our primary and secondary schools;
- the unsatisfactory approach to sex education in some schools;
- the high cost of a Catholic education in many Catholic primary and secondary schools;
- the ever-increasing enrolment in Catholic primary and secondary schools of non-Christian and non-Catholic children simply to make up the numbers so as to maintain government per capita grants, as more and more Catholic children attend State schools and other non-Catholic schools - some Catholic primary schools enrolling as many as 30% of their annual intakes with non-Catholic and non-Christian children;
- the lack of firm discipline in many of our schools;
- the over 40% of 12-17 year old Catholic children not attending Catholic secondary schools;
- the ever-increasing growth of bureaucracy in Catholic education, through the expansion and control of policy by Catholic Education Offices.
The CEOs - and indeed many Catholic schools - have kept parents in the dark about important policy issues, particularly ones that relate to enrolment. Whether in the schools, or at state and national level, parents have little real influence on policy-making in Catholic education. Of course, it cannot be denied that widespread parental apathy is a major factor in this state of affairs.
On the other hand, many of the parents who have removed their children from the Catholic education system to educate them in the increasing home-schooling movement, or to place them in Government, Independent or Christian schools, might argue that their opinions and complaints were ignored.
There are some obvious solutions to a number of these problems.
1. Concerned parents need to form associations at state and national level with the objective of providing input and guidance to our education authorities - rather than simply acting as lobby groups for additional government funding. Additional government funding will not provide answers to the above problems; it could well lead to a further erosion of the autonomy our Catholic schools once enjoyed.
2. We need an overhaul of the Catholic education bureaucracy; it is very expensive; and it is too removed from grassroots and traditional Catholic education. Those who work within the bureaucracy but who are disloyal to the magisterium, or the Holy Father, or the bishops should be sacked.
3. If any Catholic primary or secondary schools rely on non-Catholic and non-Christian enrolments to remain open they should be closed.
4. The Catechism of the Catholic Church should be in the hands of every teacher of religious education as the one sure guide for teaching the fundamentals of the faith. Rather than pretending to evangelise the many hundreds of non-Catholic and non-Christian children in our Catholic schools, we should first be evangelising the thousands of our own Catholic children, many of whom are abysmally ignorant of the basics of the Catholic Faith.
5. We need to recruit the active participation in our schools of those disappointed priests who have been made to feel unwelcome in some Catholic schools, as well as those priests and religious who have become disenchanted with Catholic education.
6. One of the reasons why over 40% of Catholic 12-17 year olds are in government secondary schools is that their parents cannot afford a Catholic secondary school education. The variation in tuition fees between Catholic schools receiving basically the same government funding and providing the same quality of education can be reduced. It is a matter of running our schools with greater efficiency. There should be much stricter requirements of accountability on school principals.
7. We need to recognise the fact that we possess sufficient dedicated personnel throughout the system to solve these problems. We need to give them recognition and encouragement and to support their involvement in making sure that Catholic education has a future, as well as a past.