SCHOOLS: by Kevin DonnellyNews Weekly
Dubious deal offered to pupils' parents / Faith schools' autonomy defended
, May 24, 2008
The Victorian education minister is seeking to draw Catholic schools into the state system.Victorian education minister Bronwyn Pike's call for increased government ties with Victoria's Catholic schools has been described as radical. One Melbourne-based academic, Brian Caldwell, calls it the boldest education idea he has heard for some time.
On first appearance, the idea looks okay. Getting government and Catholic schools to work in partnership — sharing facilities and curriculum programs — has the potential to make the education dollar go a lot further.
Both systems deal with refugee children and kids doing it hard from low socio-economic communities; so, as argued by Minister Pike, it makes sense if the government makes the two systems work together instead of being in competition.
But, is it really such a good idea? It's no secret that the government system is losing students to non-government schools, especially Catholic schools. Between 1997 and 2007, across Australia, government school students grew by only 1.7 per cent, while enrolments in non-government schools grew by 21.9 per cent.
No wonder there are now 94 Catholic secondary schools and 382 primary schools teaching some 184,000 Victorian children as parents search for schools that teach clear moral values, have disciplined classrooms and achieve strong academic results.
The reason why non-government schools are so successful, compared with government schools, is that they have the freedom to hire, fire and reward better staff and to develop a curriculum that best suits the needs of their local communities.
Catholic schools are unique with their commitment to teaching the faith and giving students a strong grounding in the religious attitudes and values central to the Catholic tradition.
The danger, in drawing Catholic schools into the state system, is that their special character will be lost and parents will find them less attractive. As in the world of sport and business, competition in education is a good thing.
It's no secret that government schools, because of competition from private schools, have had to lift their game by better delivering what parents want. Schools such as Melbourne High, Balwyn High and Melbourne Girls' College prove that state schools can deliver.
Victoria's non-government schools teach over 30 per cent of our students, with the figure growing to 40 per cent at years 11 and 12. Parents want choice in education. The last thing they want is a one-size-fits-all approach under which all schools are run by government.
ALP state and federal governments nominate education as the best way to overcome disadvantage. All the evidence shows that this is an area where Catholic schools do better than what might be expected.
When it comes to literacy and numeracy standards and year 12 VCE results, Catholic schools have a proven track record. It's also the case that such schools have been under-funded by the Victorian state Labor Government.
Based on the 2004 figures, the Victorian Government provides 15.8 per cent of the total funding that Catholic schools need to operate, i.e., about $1,265 per student per year. The figure per student is $288 less than the national average and $454 less than what NSW students receive.
If the Victorian Government is committed to overcoming disadvantage, instead of drawing Catholic schools into the state system, the best option is to fund them more and give them the freedom to get on with the job.— Kevin Donnelly is author of Dumbing Down (available for $24.95 from News Weekly Books). This article is from Melbourne's Herald Sun.
*****Faith schools' autonomy defendedThe director of Catholic education in Victoria, Stephen Elder, has reiterated his Church's firm opposition to relinquishing control of Catholic schools to the Victorian Government, although he indicated he was prepared to discuss with the education minister any proposals to improve closer cooperation between state and Catholic schools.
Mr Elder told the Catholic journal Kairos
that initiatives by the Victorian Government to improve Catholic school resources would be viewed gratefully. "Currently, for every dollar that the government spends on schooling, Catholic schools receive 16 cents," he said.
He said any improvement in the funding and resourcing of Catholic schools, particularly those schools in low socio-economic areas, would be very beneficial to the Catholic system.
However, he warned that any plans for Catholic education to come under the control of the state would be opposed.
"Catholic schools rightly value their autonomy and unique Catholic identity," he said.
"Any attempt to limit our autonomy in matters of faith education as a trade-off for resources would not be accepted."