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  • Australian Catholic Schools – Healthy on a World Stage 

    I have recently had the privilege of being involved in a study tour of Catholic schools in Singapore and the United Kingdom. Together with a group of 25 principals from the Diocese of Ballarat and a number of Ballarat Catholic Education Office staff, I visited the equivalent of our Catholic Education Office in the Diocese of Arundel and Brighton in England and the Archdiocese of Glasgow in Scotland. Of course, we also had the opportunity to visit a large number of primary and secondary schools in each of those dioceses. 

    The tour finished with a pilgrimage to Rome, led by the Bishop of Ballarat, Bishop Peter Connors. That pilgrimage included a visit to the Office of the Congregation for Catholic Education in the Vatican. 

    In the UK we found a great many similarities between our Catholic schools and systems – and, of course, we found many very significant differences, too. 

    By way of similarities, we certainly found that “kids are kids”, wherever they happen to live. We were delighted, too, to know that we shared a powerful sense of mission, whether we are living and working in the Diocese of Arundel and Brighton, the Archdiocese of Glasgow, the Diocese of Ballarat or the Diocese of Sale. We know clearly that we are all about bringing young people to the Kingdom of God as understood through the ancient teachings of the Catholic Church. 

    All the schools we visited, along with their system Offices, were deeply concerned with the maintenance and development of the Catholic identity of their schools, as we most certainly are. 

    Religious Education carries a high priority, as do the liturgical and prayer lives of the school. It was inspiring to know that, wherever we are in the world, we have a shared mission and that we go about it in much the same ways. 

    It is interesting to observe classrooms too, and to share the perceptions of the Australian Principals of those classes on the other side of the world. All the schools we visited were warm, welcoming and open, though we were all struck by how teacher-centred the classrooms are. There is relatively little technology evident in classrooms and lessons were very much structured around teacher talk. While our observations were that students were very engaged in their work, it was engagement of a more passive sort that we would see in an Australian classroom. 

    Despite that, the evidence is that our Australian schools do better on most measures of academic achievement. 

    The biggest difference, though, is in funding and relationship to government. We see both in the UK and in Scotland the direction that our government is, perhaps, taking us and we need to watch those movements with great care. 

    In Britain and in Scotland, the schools are fully funded and fully integrated into the public system. It sounds all very well to say that schools are fully funded. The idea of their being fully integrated into the public system, however, is where the traps lie. It is very difficult to have a system of schools that is fully funded that is not integrated and thus does not carry huge responsibilities to government.  

       

    In England and in Scotland, all schools, including Catholic schools are run by public authorities. It would be like having our schools in Victoria run, not by the Church or the Parish, but by the State Department of Education and Early Childhood Development! We found in the United Kingdom that the control that the Church or the school itself has in staffing, in capital development or even in enrolment policy are very limited. All those matters are defined by government authorities. 

    We noted that virtually all support services to schools, other than Religious Education, are also provided by these government authorities. As a result the Catholic Education Office equivalent has no role other than in Religious Education. The schools and the systems, while they do receive full funding, are much more dependent on government authority. Our Principals from Ballarat noted that the support and service that Catholic schools receive in Victoria are substantially more than schools receive in the United Kingdom. 

    The other confronting element of this structure was the degree of accountability involved. As one of the visiting Principals said, “next time I have to fill in a compliance report, instead of grizzling, I will be thanking God that I don’t have to do all the stuff my English and Scottish colleagues have to do!” The level of accountability is, indeed, extraordinarily high. Reports to government and stringent inspection systems control so much more of the Principal’s work than compliance issues do in our own system. 

    In summary, there are some real benefits in obtaining full government funding for Catholic schools, but there are great and onerous costs, too, in the form of loss of autonomy and great increases in accountability. 

    A special highlight of the trip was the visit to the Congregation for Catholic Education in Rome. There we met a senior member of staff, Dr Anneke Johnson. We shared with her our experience of Catholic schools in Australia (about which she did not know a great deal) and she shared with us the Congregations view of the challenges that Catholic schools face all over the world – and it was fascinating to note that we are not alone. We are very aware and very involved in every one of those challenges, from maintaining Catholic identity, to ensuring access for all regardless of relative wealth, to developing proper relationships with government and so on. Dr Johnson is now looking forward to Bishop Prowse’s Ad Lumina visit to Rome later this year. 

    The tour was a wonderful and enriching opportunity for me to see our work from a worldwide perspective, it gave me the opportunity to know from that experience that we are working for the same Church, for the same mission wherever we are in the world. I came to see in a new way that we share the joys and challenges of Catholic schools all over the world. I also came to realise that the conditions we have in Australia, whether that be the relationship we have with government or the industrial conditions under which we work in schools are among the best in the world. I also came to see in a very clear way that our Catholic schools in Australia are doing a very good job indeed.