Coming, as it were, in answer to the prayers of many Australian Catholic parents, is a welcome initiative by Catholic parents in the Diocese of Wagga Wagga. A new independent pair of high schools offering education in the Catholic faith is to commence at the start of 2007. Beginning with Year 7, the schools will add an additional class with each successive year up to Year 12.
In light of the dismal track record of many of today's Catholic schools, as underlined in numerous surveys of belief and practice over the past 30 years, a return to basics is urgently needed.
While the program to be offered in these new schools may seem radical by today's dumbed down standards, it is what should be the norm in every school worthy of the name Catholic. One hopes that if this project proves successful - as it must be for the good of the Church - its example may encourage the founding of other similar schools around Australia as well as prompting improvements in existing Catholic schools, where they are needed.
In coming years, as word gets around, one hopes numbers of practising Catholic parents and teachers will be drawn to these schools.
The Wagga schools are to operate under the company name of Blessed Mary MacKillop Colleges, trading as Christ the King Boys' College and Our Lady of the Rosary Girls' College. The schools will initially be co-located, but will have different classes for the boys and girls. All recent studies have shown both boys and girls perform better academically when placed in single sex classes.
According to the schools' statement of philosophy, the education they provide will adhere to the teachings of the Catholic Church, as set out in the creeds and authoritative presentations of the faith such as the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Every opportunity will be taken to utilise priests or religious as guest speakers or as permanent teachers of a particular subject, with priests and religious always welcomed as visitors.
Since the latest research indicates that many teachers (and even principals) in Catholic schools do not believe or practise the faith, the selection of suitable teachers in these new schools is of critical importance. Hence their philosophy is based on The Catholic School (Vatican Congregation for Education, 1977), which states, "All teachers and members of the school community draw their authority to educate from their adherence to Christian values believing in these values and reflecting them in their lives."
Those who teach in these schools will need to be believing and practising Catholics, showing themselves to be, as Canon 803 requires, "outstanding in true doctrine and uprightness of life" and faithful in living the full sacramental life of the Church. They will be made aware that they reveal the Christian ideal to their students not just by their words, but by every gesture of their behaviour.
The new schools are particularly fortunate in having immediate access to the teaching skills of a community of Conventual Dominican Nuns from Ganmain in the Wagga Diocese. Four Dominican sisters will be initially involved with the teaching of religion, English, mathematics, music and visual arts.
The students' religious education will encompass the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the lives of the saints, instruction in apologetics, and the learning of the virtues, with a special emphasis on the theological and cardinal virtues and others such as humility and obedience. There will be a virtue for each week of term.
In addition, it is planned to take students by bus to the Wagga Wagga Cathedral each Friday for Eucharistic Adoration, confession and Mass. Care will be taken with the proper formation of the conscience to enable students to deal with the moral dilemmas they are likely to encounter in their lives ahead.
The indifferent performances of many Catholic schools - leaving aside the impact of secularism and family breakdown - have arisen due in part to the presentation of false or incomplete teachings in religion lessons along with the absence of strong witness to the Faith on the part of some teachers and parents.
To avoid these spiritual problems, the Wagga Wagga schools have adopted clear guidelines and sets of principles.
Subject textbooks will be scrutinised for their suitability and on whether they contain content in conflict with the Catholic Faith. This will be carried out by teachers nominated by the schools' Board. The Board will also require that parents of children attending the schools undertake to attend weekly Sunday Mass.
In addition, parents will be asked to attend two lectures per term on a designated week night involving a spiritual talk, parenting tips and school news. This will help keep them on the same wave length as their children, so that they complement the work of the schools.
The schools are to undergo accreditation for the International Baccalaureate (IB) Middle Years Program (MYP) for years 7-10 and later operate both the Board of Studies Curriculum and that of the IB for years 11-12.
The IB program offers an alternative to the NSW Board of Studies courses. It teaches students to be internationally-minded, encourages independent analytical thinking and prepares them well for later tertiary studies.
It is a commentary on the indifferent state of Catholic education around Australia that such a bold and courageous initiative by lay people has become so necessary. One hopes this Wagga Wagga project will soon be emulated in other parts of Australia.