Shedding light on Catholic education in Australia - Education Matters Magazine

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Shedding light on Catholic education in Australia

Catholic Education Australia

Catholic education in Australia has faced significant challenges in recent years, with shifting attitudes towards traditional faith-based practices in schools and increasing pressure from governing bodies and policy makers. This has lead to a strong movement by Catholic educators to set clear priorities for faith-based education and fortify the values that underpin religious schooling.

Last month, National Catholic Education Executive Director Ms Jacinta Collins presented on the challenges and priorities of Catholic education at the NSW/ACT Religious Institute and Ministerial Public Juridic Person principals’ briefing.

Ms Collins said the current challenges facing education leaders across all sectors included principal wellbeing, a general decline in student learning outcomes and attendance rates, and slow progress on the National School Reform Agreement.

“The strong growth in faith-based non-government schools across Australia in recent years, with enrolments increasing around 7.7 per cent from 2017-2022, tells a more positive story,” said Ms Collins. “Catholic school enrolment is at record numbers with the highest number of students, staff and schools in our 200-year history with sustained demand for Catholic schools and Religious Institute and Ministerial Public Juridic Person (RI&MPJP) schools nationally.”

While RI&MPJP schools only account for around 9.5% of schools – they do account for 19% student and over 21% of all Catholic school staff, according to Ms Collins. She also noted that Catholic schools currently lead attendance, retention and completion rates across all sectors.

“In 2022, Catholic schools had higher than average school attendance for Years 1-10 students and the highest effective retention of Year 11 students transitioning to Year 12 than any other sector. In 2021 Catholic education had the highest proportion of secondary school completers awarded senior secondary certificates compared to other sectors,” she explained.

She furthered that one of the NCEC’s priorities was to improve student learning outcomes, with 2022 NAPLAN results showing some encouraging results with improvement across all year levels in writing, with small gains in reading for Years 3 and 5 students nationally.

“We know there is still a way to go to lift results for all schools and all students across all areas – which we are addressing through greater collaboration across the Catholic sector to understand the national picture and share expertise across the country to better serve the needs of students and teachers,” she said.

According to Ms Collins, this includes the establishment of a national Mathematics working group to identify, develop, evaluate, and share best practice in maths, along with the development of learning and teaching resources to support schools in improving learning and teaching.

“The Commission’s Educational Excellence Standing Committee, comprised of Australian and international experts in the field of education, is supporting this work and advising the NCEC on leading excellence projects and initiatives,” she said. “This strategic work has included researching the needs of families; advocating for a fairer government funding model to ensure greater affordability; presenting the case for increased capital funding; and assisting Catholic systems to deliver increased early childhood education and care services.”

Another challenge facing the sector is the Australian Law Reform Commission’s (ALRC) proposal reforms, highlighted Ms Collins.

“The proposed reforms seriously encroach on the ability of faith-based schools to do so in an authentic way by removing or severely restricting the ability of Catholic schools to prioritise the employment of staff and enrolment of students from our faith background, or to operate and teach in accordance with our Catholic ethos,” she said.

“Our submission addresses the deficiencies in the ALRC consultation paper which represents an impoverished understanding of religious freedom and religious schools. The ALRC should go back to the drawing board and engage the expert panel for a fully developed understanding of religious freedom and the nature of religious schools.”

“As outlined in the National Catholic Education’s submission to the inquiry, the ALRC’s consultation paper displays an impoverished understanding of religion and does not rise above the vague observation that ‘religion is of great importance in many people’s lives, and can be central to a person’s identity, sense of self, and purpose’,” Ms Collins furthered, in a more recent address she delivered at Newman College in Melbourne.

“While the paper acknowledges that religious schools are intended to teach students the beliefs, doctrines and religious practices of their respective faith traditions, it shows no proper understanding of how religious teaching, and a community of faith are connected or why they are important,” she said.

Regarding access, Ms Collins said that Catholic education had made strong gains in improving access to disadvantaged groups.

“Since 2000, the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in Catholic schools has increased by 195.2%, students with disability make up 20.6% of the students in our schools, 41.9% of Catholic school students are funded for socio-educational disadvantage and nearly 40% of Catholic schools are located in regional, rural and remote areas,” said Ms Collins.

She has maintained that the National Catholic Education Commission will continue to make the voices of people of faith heard and respected across the nation, to ensure the continued right to religious freedom in Australia.

Further reading:

Cost of government, catholic and independent education in Australia revealed

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