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Catholic Weekly
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Sydney
25 January 2004

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More non-Catholics than ever in Catholic schools

By Chris Lindsay

The percentage of non-Catholic students in Catholic school in NSW has doubled over the last decade, and numbers are continuing to grow at an ever faster rate. NSW Catholic Education Commission figures revealed exclusively to The Catholic Weekly show the ratio of non-Catholic students to Catholic students for 2003 is 18.1 per cent.

In 1990 it was 9.7 per cent; in 1984 8.6 per cent.

The enrolment of non-Catholic students has risen from 11 per cent to 18.1 per cent in the past 10 years.

Last year there were 42,898 non-Catholic students attending Catholic schools in NSW.

The numbers are rising faster in secondary schools than primary schools.

In 2003 there were 18,964 non-Catholics in Catholic primary schools in NSW, a percentage of 15.2.

In secondary schools there were 23,934 non-Catholics, or 21.4 per cent.

One reason given for the higher ratio in secondary schools is that parents tend to be satisfied with government primary schools but look for an alternative for secondary education.

The enrolment rates of non-Catholic students vary from diocese to diocese.

Armidale has the highest rate of 31.8 per cent, with Broken Bay the lowest at 14.4 per cent.

Schools in the Sydney archdiocese have a non-Catholic enrolment of 15.4 per cent.

Enrolment rates in the other dioceses are: Bathurst 21.3 per cent, Canberra and Goulburn 29.5, Lismore 30.2, Maitland-Newcastle 16.1, Wagga Wagga 19.7, Wilcannia-Forbes 22.6 and Wollongong 15.3.

Bill Walsh, director of school resources for the Catholic Education Commission, says: “The issue needs to be addressed – it is a big change.
“ The aim, of course, is for 100 per cent Catholics in Catholic schools, but for a variety of factors that is not always possible.
“ There are a number of reasons non-Catholic parents want to send their children to Catholic schools. Some want them to have a religious education, others are attracted because they think Catholic schools have better disciplinary practices. Children of these parents are accommodated where there is the capacity to take them.
“ Also it needs to be understood that people are sending their children to Catholic schools now who would never have dreamed of it 20 years ago. The old bigotries are gone.
“ Catholic schools are now more accessible, and it seems many people want a non-government alternative.
“ The reasons for different proportions in different dioceses vary. Some have a stricter approach to non-Catholic students; in others it is a combination of diocesan policy and local influences. As well, different schools have different policies. There is always a parish priest on the enrolment committees and some have a policy of only having the children of practising Catholics attending the school.”

Mr Walsh said some country schools have a non-Catholic ratio of 40 per cent or higher.
“ It is a question of supply and demand,” he said. “In Catholic schools in the south west and west of Sydney the school population is often 100 per cent Catholic because of the number of Catholics living in the area.
“ But in the eastern suburbs it is quite different. The number of school-aged children in the population there is much lower, and the ratio of Catholics to other religions is lower.
“ Both Catholic and government schools in this area have had to be closed or amalgamated.
“ There are also differences between suburbs. In the Auburn area of Sydney where there are a lot of Muslims and Muslim schools, you won’t find many – if any – Muslim students at Catholic schools.
“ However, in the Fairfield area there are Muslim girls in Catholic schools. It seems their parents think a Catholic school will be safer for them than a government school.”

Mr Walsh says the decline of populations is also affecting enrolments in Catholic schools in rural areas.
“ In the Armidale diocese there are a lot of smaller schools which are only viable if they take in non-Catholic students,” he said. “In these places often the Catholic school is the only alternative to the government school because there are no other Christian schools in the area.”

Catholic Education Office spokesman Ted Myers says there is continuing debate on the admission of non-Catholic students. “However, the facts are that there are plenty of Catholic students in Catholic schools and we are doing very well,” he says. “But there are pockets and areas of problems and the dioceses and individual schools have to adapt.”