by Alan McElwain
New found popularity for Catholic Schools
OFT-NOTED for its rather glaring headlines, one in particular caught and held the retina for more than a cursory second or two "Sin is 'in' at Catholic schools" we were assured by the Sydney Morning Herald.
Reading on (eagerly) we found that the heading was based on a three-year study which found that 60 per cent of pupils interviewed believe that "living in sin" is not wrong.
Of course, the study found more than that, but it was among the juicier extracts selected, with loving care, by the media in their reviews of a book, The Effectiveness of Catholic .Schools.
Sponsored by the Sydney Catholic Education Office, it is written by Br Marcellin Flynn, of the Marist Brothers of the Schools, a top Australian teacher, academic and writer.
The book is the result of a survey, organised by Br Flynn. It covered more than 2,000 year 12 students sitting for the Higher School Certificate in 1982, and also their parents and teachers in 25 randomly selected Catholic high schools in the State of New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory.
The relative merits or demerits of Government and nunGovernment schools being one of Australia's most sustained and fierce controversial topics, Br Flynn's book is commanding great attention.
And the public-private school dehate is enlivened by the fact that, increasingly, non-Catholic parents are favouring Catholic schools for their children.
In 1972, only 1.4 per cent of students in Catholic schools were non-Catholics. Ten years later, the proportion had reached 10 per cent.
The study also shows a growing multicultural character in the student body. Students born overseas have increased from 5 per cent to 14 per cent. One-third of their parents were born outside Australia.
The schools are staffed mainly by lay teachers — from 57 per cent to 90 per cent — and 27 per cent of them are not Catholic.
Br Flynn has found that associated with a climate of confidence is a growing tendency for Australian parents to identify quality education with private and Catholic schools.
Parents, Br Flynn says, clearly want schools which integrate a specific Catholic tradition and value-system within education of the whole person. He is convinced that the confidence parents, teachers, priests and bishops have placed traditionally in Australian Catholic schools for more than a century has not been misplaced.
Catholic schools form part of the Australian education system. In 1982, in New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory, they enrolled 214,753 students. These comprised 20.5 per cent of all children of school age in these areas.
A highlight in Br Flynn's The Effectiveness of Catholic Schools comes where he reports that Australian Catholic schools today have not only survived the many crises of the past decade, but appear to have a renewed sense of vitality and vision.
"About them is a climate of confidence and professionalism — not a mindless optimism or a bland 'all is well' attitude which ignores pressing problems, but neither is there an air of gloom which perceives only difficulties while refusing to see any elements of hope".
Coincidentally, a "great sign of hope" has come out of a nationwide survey in New Zealand. It asked principals, teachers, students and parents to name their expectations of Catholic schools. It drew almost 5,000 responses.
The organiser, Br Peter Bray of Francis Douglas College, New Plymouth, says the findings show "very positive support for an identity with the ideals of a Catholic school".
He adds: "At a time when there is much questioning of the value of Catholic schools, it is heartening to discover that all those groups involved see the value of the special character of the schools and the religious side of Catholic secondary schools as of vital importance".
Back here in Australia, Br Flynn finds that at a time when youth is disillusioned, even cynical, towards many Australian social and political institutions, Year 12 students continue to have a warm, positive regard for their Catholic schools.
Threat of unemployment causes Year 12 students great anxiety.
Whereas only 3 per cent of youth aged from 15 to 19 were unemployed in New South Wales in 1972, in 1982 this figure had grown to a staggering 29 per cent. As a result, today's students were much more serious in their approach to school than 1972 students.
A growing spiritual hunger was found among Year 12 students in 1982 which was not so evident among students a decade earlier. Students today were surprisingly open to religious experiences such as retreats, Christian living camps and prayer weekends.
On issues related to sexual morality, students were found to he at odds with the Church's traditional moral teaching on several issues including abortion, contraception and premarital sex.
Students, says Br Flynn, are concerned about issues of justice to society's poor and disadvantaged. Three quarters of Year 12 students were concerned about the large part of the world suffering from hunger and malnutrition as well as about the poor in Australia.
The study confirms that the home rather than the school has the principal unique effect on students' religious practice.
Religious practice, especially Sunday Mass attendance, depends critically on the example of parents at home.