DISTINGUISHED former judge and law lecturer Margaret White is to be the new chair of the Queensland Catholic Education Commission from next month.
The first woman to sit on the Supreme Court of Queensland, Mrs White retired from the bench in 2013, then in 2016 took on the high-profile role of Commissioner in the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory.
She is also a former deputy chancellor of the University of Queensland.
“Things that have interested me have been education and young people, and perhaps a bigger focus since the royal commission (in the Northern Territory) has been a better appreciation of early education,” Mrs White said.
The unexpected proposition of chairing the QCEC was put to her recently as she attended Sunday Mass at her parish church of 47 years – St Thomas Aquinas in St Lucia.
At the end of Mass, the former Governor of Queensland Leneen Forde, who is the current QCEC chair, turned to Mrs White and asked if she would be interested in having her name put forward for the four-year role.
“She made it a very attractive proposition. I had just come out of doing something which took up fifteen months of my life pretty intensely – the royal commission in the Northern Territory,” Mrs White said.
“I myself had the benefit of a Catholic education … and I saw my eldest grandson exposed to a little Catholic school in Canberra where I was quite moved by the values engendered in the two-hundred pupils there.”
Mrs White was educated at the Cabra Dominican Convent, Adelaide, and graduated Bachelor of Laws at the University of Adelaide in 1966.
She remembers the convent nuns as very strong and inspirational women and teachers – “particularly in Year 7, Sr Mary Vianney”.
“She was a piano teacher and I think she opened our eyes to a wider world of art and music,” Mrs White said. “They (the nuns) had a whole ethos that was dedicated to our wellbeing.
“They dedicated their lives to service. They were always there for us.
“They had no other distractions. I think we thought, that’s how you are taught.”
Mrs White said she saw that same ethos in Catholic schools today.
“I do think that is what makes it very attractive for people to come to Catholic schools – the sense that they have the moral authority to talk about Gospel values,” she said.
With a vast legal background – as a barrister and then a judge – Mrs White said she was particularly interested in education governance.
“We operate in a very challenging environment where we’ll be seeking support from government but we’re also trying to ensure that schools remain accessible for parents,” she said.
“I think the royal commission (into child sexual abuse) had good things to say about Catholic schools in Australia.
“Catholic schools are now doing very well in that area so that parents of children and those who care about them can feel safe, nurtured and loved – and that is terrifically important to get that report card.”
On the issue of bullying, particularly cyberbullying, Mrs White demanded political leaders show greater respect and set higher standards for young Australians.
“Unfortunately what we see in the House – at the Commonwealth and state levels and in the Senate estimates committees – is what can only be described as bullying conduct,” she said.
“And unless they regulate themselves, how can they expect the children to think it’s not alright to behave that way.
“Their show-off bullying, name-calling is quite shocking for many people in the community.”
QCEC executive director Dr Lee-Anne Perry raised the same issue of politicians’ conduct when she was among 40 stakeholders attending a bullying and cyberbullying roundtable discussion hosted by Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk on January 29.
Mrs White acknowleged the challenges facing Catholic schools in rural and remote Queensland and in indigenous communities.
“Education can be the path out of disadvantage,” she said. “We are now much better equipped with evidence about the redeeming nature of education as early as possible.
“I think teachers are trained now to see more than they might have once seen, and to manage children who were once seen as unmanageable and very difficult.”
Mrs White said skilled teachers knew how to work with children who had suffered trauma, and understood conditions such as FASD (Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder), which refers to a range of problems caused by exposure of a fetus to alcohol during pregnancy.
She said understanding the developing brain – how adolescent boys were still really developing until they were 25 – was also important.
“Risk-taking by young people – I’ve learnt a lot about that from the royal commission (in the Northern Territory) and therefore how we should manage them differently and that you can change behaviour in young people,” Mrs White said.
“Once they are adults it’s probably too late.
“I think we have to grasp this area of disadvantage which is often seen as just bad behaviour and deal with it.”