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    The Aspiring Leaders in Catholic Schools

    Late last month I presented at a program called Country Dioceses’ Leadership Program (CDLP). This is a joint venture supported by the Victorian country dioceses Catholic Education Office staff (Sale, Ballarat and Sandhurst) aimed at supporting emerging leaders in Catholic schools. Participants are drawn from both primary and secondary schools across the three dioceses. 

    Each Diocesan Director takes responsibility for a session and the topic I was asked to address was Know the Situation – What is our Contemporary Catholic Culture and Context? Who are our schools, students, teachers and parents?  On the day prior to my presentation, the program had focused on assisting the participants to come to know themselves as leaders in Catholic education. They were challenged to see leadership as an invitation to discipleship and that leadership was about mission and ministry. It was obvious from the engaged responses to the work I was doing with the group that they had taken on board the seriousness of this choice to be leaders in Catholic schools. I was greatly encouraged by the depth with which these young, emerging leaders in our schools were able to discuss and describe their understanding of what it is to be Catholic today and the challenges Catholic educators face in building and maintaining a Catholic culture in our schools. Much of the discussion centred on the changed culture and context of schools (and society) and that while Catholic education was challenged in particular, the changing face of our Australian culture and context meant that to be contemporary thinkers and educators we had to engage with what was happening beyond the confines of a parish and diocese. I was reminded of a homily I heard recently in which the priest noted that to be a good homilist one needed to engage with both scripture and the newspapers. I suggested the same applied to being good educators in Catholic schools. 

    We were fortunate at the time of the CDLP for Pope Francis to have featured rather extensively in the media, due to World Youth Day activities. One of the interesting headlines that had appeared that week related to President Obama and Pope Francis and their respective use of Twitter. The article was actually looking at the use of Twitter as a vehicle for diplomats, but the connection between President Obama and Pope Francis was that while the President had the greater number of “followers” the Pope was more influential due to the fact that more people forwarded his “tweets”.  

    The Second Vatican Council reminded us that the Holy Spirit speaks to us in a variety of ways but especially through Sacred Scripture and the through the “signs of the times” – “authentic signs of God’s presence and purpose in the happenings, needs and desires” of contemporary people. (Gaudium et Spes n 11). 

    The second part of my session with these young aspiring leaders was to provide them with a snapshot of Catholic schools and students from a statistical perspective. I used the figures provided by the National Catholic Education Commission (NCEC) for 2012 and it is worth looking at some of these and considering what the figures tell us about the Catholic education sector in Australia.  

    In 2012 there were 1,706 Catholic schools serving 735,403 full time equivalent students. There had been an increase of 11,931 students from the 2011 figures. Catholic students accounted for just over 522,000 students while non-Catholic students enrolled in Catholic schools 212,237. This was an increase of nearly 9,000 non-Catholic students. There was a 1.6% increase in student numbers between 2011 and 2012 which is the largest percentage increase since records have been kept (1985). Since 1985 the increase has been 28%. Victoria’s increase in numbers was the largest between the 2 years (4062 students). Apparent retention rates (from final year of primary to first year of secondary) have exceeded 100% in almost every State and Territory meaning that secondary education is for some students their first experience of a Catholic school.  

    The NCEC report notes that over the past seven years, Catholic enrolments in Australian Catholic schools have had a net increase of just 1,266 students, while non-Catholic enrolments have increased by 46,519 students. 

    When speaking to Catholic educators and leaders, these figures need to be considered as we move into working towards enhancing the Catholic identity of our schools in what is, in the Australian context, a pluralist society.