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  • Real Challenges: Strong Foundations 

    After five years as Director of Catholic Education in the Diocese of Sale, this will be my last column written for Catholic Life. For me it has been a great period in my life. I have met and worked with wonderful people in a beautiful part of Australia. 

    Of course, there have been challenges, but, with some hard work and much good will, they have been met and I believe we have all grown through them. That, after all, is the essence of the Passover message of Jesus. It is through those negative experiences, those little deaths, that we rise to new, more fully rounded lives. 

    Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Sale are wonderful places, where great effort is being made to provide families with a truly Catholic education for their children. Our schools take that responsibility very seriously – and it is not always easy. But they continue to work hard at it with significant success. 

    In line with our Diocesan Directions, articulated in Towards Courageous Renewal, each of our schools focusses strongly on the development of faith in each and every child, on maximising the learning outcomes of each and every child and on ensuring that each and every one grows into a health human being. 

    One of the most positive aspects I have found in our school communities, beyond what I have experienced in other places, is the strength of the relationship that exists between principals and their parish priests. It is abundantly clear that our priests value their schools and that schools value their priests. That provides an extraordinarily strong foundation on which to build. We thank God for that.  

    Our school leaders continue to grow in strength, too. The major initiative we have undertaken recently, of providing opportunity for every principal to travel overseas to study high performing school systems, has already begun to bear much fruit. When we combine that with the depth of appreciation of our Catholic heritage through the Rome pilgrimage with Bishop Prowse, it is clear that the capacity of our leaders is growing every day. 

    Principals are now ever more aware of the need to be challenging themselves, their staff and their students to better performance in all aspects of school life. There is a growing understanding among all, I believe, that low expectations produce very ordinary outcomes. We need, all of us, to expect great things of ourselves and of those with whom we work. I see that happening more and more. 

    However, there are challenges ahead – some new, some that have been always with us. 

    The funding question is a major one. After 2013 we do not know how our schools will be funded by governments. This is a real worry, as I have expressed before, but it is not an issue that is new to Catholic education in this country. It will require great effort in coming months – and years – to ensure that we receive justice. 

    Maintaining and developing of the Catholic identity of our schools also remains a challenge, though a healthy one. 

    Enrolments are strong across the diocese but finding the right balance between seeing our schools as agents of evangelisation and providing a strong Catholic education for strong Catholic families requires care and vigilance. This is all the more so when we realise that, indeed, most families in our schools, if sacramental participation is any guide, can hardly be described as “strong Catholic families.”  

    We have a mission, though, to the whole world – not just to Catholics. That represents a challenge of balance. 

    A third major issue is the pressure placed on our priests by the growing demands of administration of schools as they remain in the role of Canonical Administrator. The journey on the search for ways to legitimately relieve them of this increasingly onerous burden has begun. It will need to be furthered pursued and developed in the very near future. 

    Another challenge, or, rather, an opportunity, is to continue the development of what we call “system thinking”. Each of our schools, primary and secondary, was established by a parish or be a particular religious congregation – or by a combination.  Historically, then, each school has developed its own culture, its own autonomy, and this is a gift to be valued and nurtured.   

    At the same time, more and more are we realising that schools are not islands.  They all belong to something bigger – and by utilising and contributing to the strengths of that system, all will benefit.  That may mean a bit of “letting go,” which can be difficult, but the development of bigger picture thinking if fundamental to our continuing to grow into ever better schools, doing ever better for children and their families. 

    As I come to a close, there are many I need to thank and acknowledge. Among those are our wonderful staff at the Catholic Education Office, our principals and school staffs who make our schools the great places they are. Our priests – and especially Bishops Coffey and Prowse for the opportunity they have given me and the support they have unfailingly given. 

    And to the future. I believe that in Ms Maria Kirkwood, the diocese has a new Director in whom all can have great confidence. I pray God’s blessing on her as she takes up the reins in what will prove to be challenging times. 

    I pray God’s blessing, too, on this wonderful diocese and on all who live and love within it.