The new direction of Catholic education raises many questions. For example, who defines “Catholic”? Will students be turned away because their parents are single, in de facto relationships or not regular church goers? Will students be expelled if they are found with contraception, come out as gay or question Catholic doctrine?
There are also important questions for the Lennon Government to answer about the new Catholic school policy. Will it weaken an Act which has been hailed as setting world-class benchmarks of fairness and equity and which was one of the greatest achievements of the Bacon Government? If it gives in to the Church now how many other demands for religious exemptions will it concede to?
Background: Catholic bias to new school plan
44% of the almost-15,000 students at Tasmania’s Catholic schools are not Catholic, the highest proportion in the nation.
The parents of these students obviously believe that there’s something valuable about Catholic education which is more important than faith.
Whether that something is discipline, ethics, or “tradition and spirit” as the St Virgil’s ads say, it’s clearly important to thousands of non-Catholic parents to have a choice about where they send their kids.
Now the Catholic Church wants the State Government to help it limit that choice.
Archbishop Adrian Doyle has said that 75% of students at Catholic schools must be Catholic or from Catholic families, beginning with the new Catholic College in Kingston, and he is lobbying to have the Anti-Discrimination Act changed so that his schools can discriminate on the grounds of religion when it comes to who they enrol.
In Doyle’s words,
“The first obligation of Catholic education is to Catholic students and their families. (But) from a technical point of view, this places the Catholic education system … in breach of the Anti-Discrimination Act.”
The new direction of Catholic education raises many questions.
For example, who defines “Catholic”?
Will students be turned away because their parents are single, in de facto relationships or not regular church goers?
Will students be expelled if they are found with contraception, come out as gay or question Catholic doctrine?
Some Catholics will ask whether the new policy will actually benefit committed Christians, or just encourage more people to pretend to religious convictions they don’t really hold?
Tax-payers will ask whether the first obligation of the Catholic education system isn’t to the broader Australian community which provides the vast bulk of its funding.
Catholic educators themselves have questioned the wisdom of setting targets for Catholic student enrolment with the Director of Victoria’s Catholic Education Office, Susan Pascoe, predicting enrolments will drop by 10%, sending smaller Catholic schools to the wall.
The problem will be even greater in Tasmania where the Church’s 75% target requires it to find Catholics to fill a massive 20-25% of current and future places.
There are also important questions for the Lennon Government to answer about the new Catholic school policy.
Will it weaken an Act which has been hailed as setting world-class benchmarks of fairness and equity and which was one of the greatest achievements of the Bacon Government?
If it gives in to the Church now how many other demands for religious exemptions will it concede to?
The Anti-Discrimination Act already has provisions allowing the Commissioner to grant exemptions if she is convinced they are necessary.
Why can’t the Church go through this process like everyone else, rather than waste Parliament’s time with special legislation?
But beyond all these legitimate questions, the basic issue remains parental choice and what happened to it?
For years the Catholic education system has defended its existence, and its substantial public funding, on the basis that it provides all parents with a choice about how their children are schooled.
If that choice is reduced, there’s a strong argument the funding it’s based on should be reduced as well.
Non-Catholic families who have been loyal supporters and full-fee payers to their local Catholic school deserve better than to be sent to the end of the enrolment queue.
Tax-payers deserve better than to be asked to fund a new kind of sectarianism that favours one religion over another.
Tasmanians deserve better than to have their strong anti-discrimination protections worn away by political expediency.
We all deserve better than to live in a society where a young person’s religious faith or background is the key to their educational opportunities.
Rodney Croome is a spokesperson for the Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group.
1. Percentage of non-Catholics in Tasmanian Catholic schools
Cardinal George Pell, “Religion and Culture: Catholic Schools in Australia: Keynote address to the 2006 National Catholic Education Conference”, Sydney,
September 28th 2006
2. Number of students in Tasmanian Catholic schools
Tasmanian Catholic Education Office, “2006 Full Time Enrolments by Year Level and Gender”
3. Targets for Tasmanian Catholic school enrolment and amendments to the Anti-Discrimination Act
Archbishop Adrian Doyle, quoted on ABC TV News, 28.4.07, and in the Mercury, 31.5.07
4. Catholic educators question enrolment caps for non-Catholic students
Vic CEO Director, Susan Pascoe, quoted in “Catholic school policy warning” by Chee Chee Leung, Education Reporter, The Age, April 8th, 2005