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Why Catholic Schools Work

By Ambrose Payne - posted Tuesday, 28 May 2002

Non-government school enrolment trends have been very much to the fore in recent weeks. In 1971, non-government schools enrolled 22.4 per cent of the school-age population in New South Wales. In 2000 the same sector enrolled 30.6 per cent of school-age pupils. Also prominent in recent commentaries has been the attractiveness of Catholic schools for non-catholic staff and students.

Inevitably, commentators and critics seek for explanations. A common view is that the attractiveness of non-government schools is a direct result of state and federal funding. When advanced, this conclusion is regularly accompanied by the assertion that the allocation of funds to non-government schools represents a continuing erosion of opportunity and competitiveness for government schools.

The reality is that currently 30 per cent of students are now provided with education at a discount rate for state and federal governments. The absorption of this additional burden by the taxpayer would arguably result in even less per capita being available to the government school system. The days of linear expansion of public funds to meet emerging costs are long gone.


Another counter to the view that the public subvention of non-government schools results in their expansion is provided in the trends reflected between 1971and 1976. 1972 is generally taken as the watershed year in school funding chronicles. The Whitlam Government commissioned the Karmel Report and established the Schools Commission. Non-Government schools were funded on the basis of need.

Enrolment share dropped in non-government schools from 22.4% in 1971 to 21.3% in 1977. All comparative data supports the view that, apart from the relatively few "rich" schools that are regularly featured as exemplars of non-government schooling, non-government schools, on average, have lower costs per head in delivering educational services to their clients.

Considerations such as these still beg the question of explaining the growth in non-government school enrolments and their attraction, for non-Catholics in particular, in Catholic schools. The answer is more likely to be found in the consideration of the nature of schooling itself rather than in the infrastructure that provides it.

Schools are most certainly not-for-profit organizations. The validity of such a claim lies in the distrust evident in the belief that economically inspired quantitative benchmarks such as outcomes fit easily into an educational framework.

Close inspection however reveals that outcomes, indicators, benchmarks and milestones are very much the language of the present-day successful not-for-profit organizations.

There appear to be two aspects of the not-for-profit landscape that are actively embraced in the non-government sector. The first of these is the tradition that each non-government school represents a discrete community. The second is the preoccupation with a Vision. A specific identity is the hallmark of the most successful not-for-profit organizations. The preoccupation with identity translates into the commitment of successful organizations to identify a vision for the organization. It is vision that delivers coherence in the matrix of tasks necessary for the successful delivery of whatever a service organization has to offer.


The mission of schools is debatable. The mission inevitably embraces the responsibility to induct the young of a society into the culture of that society and to contribute to the development of the skills that will promote the achievement of an individual’s potential and maximise the contribution that the individual may make to the society.

A school has the responsibility of specifying within that enormously diverse mission, what it sees that it can do best. That collection of ideals constitutes the vision. Development of vision is a core competency that modern organizations require. To be able to identify what among the competencies of an organization can be assessed as being in the top 20% of performance enables the organization to detail its strategic assets. An almost universal strategic asset of non-government schools is the commitment to a particular vision, limned by the definition of "non" government or "Catholic" or "Christian" but most certainly emphasised as distinct and normative in the other strategies that the school introduces in order to achieve goals consistent with that vision.

The overall effect of a priority on Vision in non-government schools is a concentration on what they can do best.

In a pluralist society in which choice is a fundamental element, clarity of purpose and coherence of practice are attractive. There is no attempt to suggest in this discussion that government schools do not have vision. The inference is that vision is a priority for a non-government school precisely because it is required to justify the school’s existence. That initial disadvantage has turned remarkably to the advantage of the non-government sector.

In a consumer-oriented society, market share is telling evidence. Developing visions and sharing that vision is inclusive. The fact is that the Catholic School is able to include non-Catholics in its Vision.

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This article was first published in The Canberra Times on 16 May 2002.

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About the Author

Br Ambrose Payne, fsc AM is President, Association of Catholic School Principals (NSW & ACT) Inc and Principal, LaSalle Catholic College, Bankstown.

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