By Dr Timothy McDonald
The article by Father Robert Cross (The Plight of Catholic Families in the Bush) in last week’s Record requires a response to the extent that it casts doubt on Catholic Education’s willingness to support country schools.
The change in Western Australia’s population since Fr Cross was in Geraldton (1992) is well documented, including the flow of people away from the country towns to cities.
Catholic Education may not like this occurrence but it is fact. Despite this, Catholic Education has continued to maintain a presence across WA through supporting country schools despite many lacking viable numbers.
Of the 159 Catholic schools in WA, 98 are located in the Perth metropolitan region with 61 in the country – despite the population in country areas being only 20 per cent of the state.
Further, 13 of the country schools are located in the Kimberley region where costs of educating each child are about three times those in a metropolitan school.
Through co-responsibility funding, which is the transfer of funding from metropolitan schools to needier schools, the Catholic Education Office of WA has been able to subsidise country schools, many of which would not be viable without this support.
National Partnership funding through the Low Socio Economic School Community funding program supports 28 schools in the Catholic system with an amount of $11.6 million over the five year program. Eighteen (64 per cent) of these schools are in country locations.
In terms of capital development, there has been significant activity in many of the Catholic country schools.
In the past four years nearly $11 million has been accessed by Catholic secondary schools in the country for the Australian Government Trade Training Centre program.
The Catholic system is constantly challenged by viability for all schools and, on occasions, decisions need to be made about school and facility closure.
Fr Cross refers to the closure of “major education facilities” in Tardun – Christian Brothers Agricultural College and the Pallotine Mission and Primary school. When both facilities were closed, they were not ‘major’ facilities with numbers of students fewer than 35 in each.
In the case of the Agricultural College, there had been two independent reports preceding closure.
Facilities at Tardun, especially boarding, were sub-standard and would have required an extensive capital development program to meet government standards, including occupational safety and health.
The community was widely consulted. Ultimately, the decision to close these facilities was made by the Orders involved.
Such decisions are not only financially driven as the capacity of a school to offer a viable curriculum to its students is compromised when enrolments are very low.
It is significant to also note that a multi-million dollar extension to boarding facilities has been completed at the Catholic Agricultural College in Bindoon where many of the Tardun students could elect to enrol. Despite this, the Bindoon facility is not full either.
In the more recent case of the decision to close the boarding facility at Nagle Catholic College, numbers had declined to around 85 as Fr Cross indicated.
The boarding facility was running at a significant annual loss despite the boarding fees of $14,604 per student, which incidentally are amongst the cheapest in WA.
In terms of Fr Cross’ comments that he laments the lack of “Catholic champions who will stand up and run the hard yards for our parents and children who live in the bush”, then he need look no further than the Catholic Education system.
Judgements based on the Geraldton Diocese only fail to represent the bigger picture.
Advocacy for country schools has been a prominent aspect in dealing with the Federal Government reform agenda.
We are hopeful that a better funding outcome which recognises the costs of operating small country schools will occur.
Fr Cross and families can be confident that the Catholic Education Commission will continue to support education for Catholic families in country schools.