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Catholic schools battle to stem drop in enrolments, money shouldn’t be a barrier

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Changing demographic: “Our families are increasingly the more affluent families… we are losing families who are in the poorer groups in our society.”

CATHOLIC school enrolments have fallen, and fewer poor and marginalised families find they can send their children to Catholic schools.

“Our growth rate is below the state sector and the independent schools, and that is a worrying position to be in,” Queensland Catholic Education Commission executive director Dr Lee-Anne Perry told Catholic secondary school principals holding their biennial state conference in Townsville.

In a “state of the nation” address, Dr Perry said while affordability remained a hurdle for some families,  a recent survey showed parents valued the resourcing, discipline and performance of Catholic schools.  

“Most parents think that the school their child goes to is really, really good. And I think that is one of the most heartening things to come out (of this survey),” she said.

Of Queensland’s 306 Catholic schools, 167 recorded increasing enrolments, while 136 schools recorded a decrease.

Dr Perry said there was small, positive “tick up” in the enrolment figure in Queensland this year, but it followed a trend of declining enrolments over several years.

“This is indicative of Catholic schools across the country,” she said.

Dr Perry posed the question: “What can schools do to support poorer families who could not afford Catholic school fees?”

“Our families are increasingly the more affluent families… we are losing families who are in the poorer groups in our society,” she said.

“Money shouldn’t be a barrier.”

Last year figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed that in 2017, for the first time in 12 years, the proportion of students in the Catholic school system fell below 20 per cent.

The absolute number of children enrolled in Catholic schools in 2017 was less than the previous year, reversing decades of growth. 

It was a fall of a quarter of one per cent of enrolment share, equivalent to 11,000 students.

The National Catholic Education Commission noted parents in some communities struggled to pay Catholic school fees as the cost of living was increasing, but wages were stagnant.

Dr Perry said in South Australia there had been some dramatic declines in enrolments.

“South Australia had the biggest increase in their fees,” she said.

Dr Perry said the religious freedom debate represented a “huge risk” for Catholic schools dealing with a drop in enrolments.

“It’s a huge risk because the way some of the debate gets framed and the comments that are made,” she said.

“We have the religious freedom draft bill subject to considerable discussion.

“I would hope the Plenary (Council 2020) enables all Catholics to give open and honest feedback in terms of that because the reality is employees in education are withstrained by what they can say publicly.

“I hope the Plenary (Council) provides an open space for dialogue and debate.”

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