In defense of Catholic schools

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The misguided claims made by Ross Fitzgerald in a recent article in Eureka Street, How Catholic schools are failing the poor, cannot go unanswered.

The assertion that 'Catholic school providers, whose preoccupation is to ensure existing funding policy, even at the cost of locking low income students out', is outrageous. Equally wrong is the claim that Catholic schools are unable to match the services provided by government schools to meet poor children's needs.

Catholic schools, as they have for more than 150 years in Australia, serve some of the neediest children, and in fact do more with less. One only needs to see the number of Catholic schools, especially parish primary schools, serving the needs of Victoria's multicultural communities in less affluent areas to know that such is the case.

Victoria's Catholic education system is a low-cost, high-performing system that seeks to be affordable to all families. Its commitment to serving the disadvantaged and the results that it helps these children achieve are the envy of government schools. Students who attend Catholic schools come from a diversity of socio-economic backgrounds with many based in rural and regional areas.

In reality there is little difference between the socio-demographic profile of students in Catholic schools compared to government schools. This is evidenced by many statistics. Under the Australian Government's Smarter Schools National Partnerships, funding is distributed based on indexes of socio-economic disadvantage. Victorian Catholic schools attracted 19 per cent of the available Victorian funds compared to its 22 per cent enrolment share.

The reality is that the socioeconomic profile of Catholic school communities, when compared to government and independent school communities, more closely mirrors the diversity of Australian society at large.

This exposes the claim that 'state aid to non-government schools has resulted in a class-differentiated school system, with poor children disproportionately enrolled in state schools', as false.

Catholic schools, by their very nature and mission, are committed to overcoming social inequality and serving the less advantaged in society. Funding of Catholic schools explicitly targets need. Schools with students most deserving of support receive additional funding. As a result, fees for Catholic schools are significantly less than other non-government schools, especially in disadvantaged areas.

Victorian Catholic schools, instead of receiving too much government support, are clearly under-funded. Catholic schools in Victoria have access to fewer resources than the government system. Even allowing for income from parents' fees, Catholic schools operate on 93 per cent of the level of resources of government schools.

Several years of low indexation of state government grants, combined with increasing incidence and increases in the cost for services for students with disabilities, have placed Catholic education in a challenging financial position.

Surveys consistently confirm that parents who make the choice of a Catholic school do so as they desire schools with a caring, disciplined environment; want values in tune with those of the home; place academic results highly; and choose schools that have the freedom to best reflect community expectations.

Despite the low level of resourcing, student test results, retention and transition rates all indicate that education performance in Victorian Catholic schools exceeds performance in other schools - even accounting for other factors such as low SES schools.

Fitzgerald argues for a takeover of Catholic education by government authorities in Australia to overcome a perceived problem of poor students being excluded from Catholic schools. Not only does this problem not exist in Victoria but his solution will undermine what is special about Catholic education. It is the Catholic tradition and culture which places a commitment to the disadvantaged at the centre of life.

Forcing Catholic schools into government systems won't help disadvantaged students. What it will do is destroy a tradition and culture of education in Catholic schools which has stood the test of time in Australia for over many decades and is a significant reason why Catholic schools do more to achieve national schooling goals set by the government with fewer resources.

The Catholic system is a school system based on autonomy, diversity and choice. It not only fulfils parents' needs and expectations, it also makes for better academic performance. The bottom line is that parents have the right to choose the best education for their children and they should not be financially disadvantaged by government, state and federal, for making that choice.

Stephen Elder is the Director of Catholic Education in the Archdiocese of Melbourne.



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aha i like have to like

hay oh | 10 October 2009  

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