An interesting idea… but it’ll never work

I've spent the last couple of weeks in Australia, visiting friends and generally enjoying the good weather and the great food.

One of the friends I visited is a teacher and she's working at a school in Brisbane with a very interesting background. Knowing it was a private school, I asked her which faith it was established by and I was really surprised by her answer, "It's ecumenical. It's both Catholic and Anglican." She has only worked there for one year so she was a little sketchy on the details but she thinks it was originally founded by Catholics and then it merged with an Anglican school and became ecumenical (and private). 

My mind spun for the rest of the evening as I thought this over. What an interesting idea… if we followed suit in NZ, we could have some pretty well-resourced schools! Think about merging with a school like St Peter's Anglican School in Cambridge – complete with their stables, one-to-one laptops, state of the art classrooms etc.

I asked my friend to show me around her school, and as she did I fired off the many questions that had occured to me. As she answered them, I quickly discovered that, in reality, this is an idea that just doesn't work.

"So how does the ecumenical thing work… what do you teach about the Pope for example?" "We don't really teach about him at all. It just doesn't come up. But if one of the kids wanted to do a research project about him, we wouldn't have a problem with that."

"It's called 'John Paul College'… so do you teach the kids about JP II?" "Nope, I don't even know who he is… was he a saint?"

"What about prayer times in your classroom? How does that work? Like the 'Hail Mary', is that allowed?" "No, we don't pray in class at all."

"Do you pray before staff meetings?" "Definitely not!"

"So what about Masses? Or do you have Ecumenical services?" "I'm not really sure. We don't have a chapel big enough for the whole school but once a term we all get together outside for some kind of service. I don't know if it's Mass or not."

"Do you have RE lessons?" "No, it's just sort of integrated into whatever we're teaching." 

"So, did you have to get trained up on the Bible etc." (My friend has never belonged to any religion) "No, but there is someone we can ask if we need to."

"Is there a priest on site?" "There was but he's just retired and we have some other guy now. I don't think he's a priest, I'm not really sure. The kids just call him Tom."

"So, how do you get in? Do you have to have some link to the Church like in NZ?" "No, anyone can come as long as they can afford the fees."


As I walked around I noticed very, very little that stuck out as labelling the school as Christian. There was a blue wooden cross hanging in each class, and really that was about it. No prayer tables, no RE displays, no liturgical colours, no pictures of saints. Looking at their website is also quite telling. You can see that the school was set up with very good intentions. The explanation about the crest (with Christ as its centre) and the motto (unity, christ, learning) both show that the school was established with the idea of providing Christ-centred education. But unfortunately Christ isn't mentioned anywhere else on the site. The principal's welcome, the strategic plan, the FAQs – none of it even mentions religion or Christ at all.

This is also an incredibly well-resourced school. Think big, beautiful buildings, manicured grounds, swimming pools, two cricket ovals, tennis courts etc. But no chapel. Priorities huh?

The only conclusion I can come to is that somewhere along the way (perhaps when they merged with the Anglican School, or perhaps when they started charging $8000 per year to attend) this is a school that was once a strong Catholic school, that is now nothing more than a private school with a Christian history. 

My friend told me that before the priest retired he came and talked to the staff about not losing the history of the school and about the original vision. I can absolutely see why he would want to do this, but I think he was fighting a lost cause.




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    Comments: 22

    1. beyblade January 22, 2014 at 4:35 pm

      Hi M& M – a sad post. I was wondering about how this would work in NZ as i know with our local school the title of the land it sits on is in the Bishops name – and really our Diocese is broke enough without giving land away to lost causes. Your post brings to mind a Cukoos nest – where the current inhabitants throw out those that build the nest so that they can inhabit it.

    2. IAGHW January 22, 2014 at 11:30 pm

      Cheeky that it may sound but isn't that what most Catholic schools in NZ are doing anyway?

      May be we have the token crucifix, pictures and statues here and there but lets face it, Catholic School in NZ is no more than a cheap version of private with a little religious favor to get the land of the Diocese.

      Yes there are a hand full of Catholic of good will try to make changes and often get persecuted…

      To be honest, that school is more "honest" than most NZ school… atleast they do not call themselves Catholic to begin with so Catholic parents do not get misinformed unlike many Catholic schools in NZ

    3. Teresina January 22, 2014 at 11:36 pm

      Totally agree IAGHW.  It reminded me that a few years ago when the Hamilton Cathedral was being "restored" people going to Mass in the Sacred Heart school hall noticed that there was no crucifix – when one of the parishioners suggested to one of the elderly nuns that a group would be happy to donate a crucifix she seemed completely stunned as if the suggestion had come from Mars or somewhere outer space, as I recall she even asked why a crucifix was needed and when we explained Christ and the Catholic character, she assured us that it wasn't needed!

    4. MaryandMartha January 23, 2014 at 10:09 am

      I think, as Teresina alludes, this may indeed be the future (or maybe is already the case) in many of our secondary schools. But please don't tar our primary schools with the same brush. 

      I've worked in Catholic primary schools for 7 years now and I've also been privileged to be part of the Catholic Review Team for my Diocese for the last 5 years so I've been involved with many schools over that time. Without exception, while reviewing these schools, I've seen prayer happening in every classroom at least three times daily, there were Masses for children to attend, prayer tables with statues etc., beautiful RE displays, teachers that prayed together at least once a week (although in some cases every day) and, in all but one school, RE was being taught for the Bishops' required amount of hours per week if not more. 

      I can say, on the whole, our Catholic PRIMARY schools a doing a pretty valiant job of fighting what often feels like an uphill battle.

      But I do share people's concern over our Secondary Schools. I have sympathy for them to some degree. I know it's much harder for them to hire Catholic staff – they have to have 40% Catholic teachers, but sometimes, especially if its a smaller location it might be really hard to find, for example, a Physics teacher who is also Catholic. In some towns there just aren't enough Catholic secondary teachers to fill the 40%, let alone ones for specific subject areas.

      Also in primary school we can pretty much bring God into everything we teach, for example, an inquiry unit on caring for the environment starts with the creation story and the premise that God asks us to be caretakers of His land. But it's pretty hard to bring God into a lesson on titration, or how to read geographic features on a map, or the study of quadratic equations. 

      The other advantage we have in the primary sector is that we have a very prescribed RE curriculum. It's actually written down very specifically (word-for-word if you need it) what we have to teach the children at each year level. It's all approved via Rome's Catechesis Council and the Bishops dictate how many hours each age group should have in RE lessons (which is then checked by the Review Team). But Secondary school has no such curriculum. They can use the NCEA Religious Studies guidelines, but it's not entirely Catholic and it leaves the teachers to design their own content.  

      And of course Secondary schools are dealing with an entirely different beast… the teenager! Rather them than me. 

      Having said all of this I do think they could be doing more. One thing that pops to mind is a prayer at the beginning of each period. Another would be to create a RE curriculum based on the catechism rather than "interesting" topics such as 'Cults and Sects' or 'World Religions'.

    5. sienna January 23, 2014 at 10:54 am

      M & M Is it possible that all the prayer opportunities etc is window dressing when the Review Team is reviewing.  AND do you really think a review team reviewing their teaching colleagues albeit in other schools but still in the same diocese is really the way a review should be conducted. It would carry far credible if carried out by compeltely independent of  and unassociated with persons.  As it stands the whole scenario is a complete farce.  Are you going to be party to a bad review if these same persons could well be reviewing you next time?     From where I stand you are all patting each other on the back!

      When I see the local Catholic school at Mass I am horrified.

    6. Werahiko January 23, 2014 at 11:07 am

      Forced or compulsory prayer of any sort is not only a breach of human rights (young people are, after all, compelled to attend school) but uite obviously counter-productive. Even the most closed and dominating sects lose most of their young people on ataining adulthood. a better approach would be to develop a curriculum in which the patrimony of the Church in art, music, language and history is used as a point of reference in broader studies. Then at least people will know what they are rejecting!

    7. beyblade January 23, 2014 at 11:28 am

      I agree with Sienna about the window dressing that goes up when the Special Character review team are due to visit – my child's school wrote a page of 'connections' with the Parish and put it on their webpage – unfortunately  about 90% of it is pure fabrication. They couldn't even get the sunday Mass time correct – but it looked really good. I took a copy and linked it to the weekly bulletin that the Parish puts out and could show that most of what the school described doesn't happen and the rest only happened for a short term- for example, Childrens liturgy that is described as happening every couple of weeks and taken by a certain person only happened over Advent two years ago.

      I sent it all off the our Vicar of Education and told him this is the reason why there is such a huge disconnect between the school and the parish.

    8. MaryandMartha January 23, 2014 at 12:19 pm

      Very interesting. These examples don't match my own experiences, but that doesn't mean examples of bad practice aren't out there.

      I guess "window dressing" can be expected to some degree – it's only human. Every school does the same thing when ERO are coming, or if they are about to be visited by the Minister of Ed. and I'm sure many of us have done similiar things if we are having an inspection by our landlord or observation by our boss – it's just human nature to want to show off our very best side.

      The Catholic Review team tries to get past this by having a very wide ranging review. We not only observe in EVERY class but we also meet and interview the principal, the Board, a group of parents (this is always advertised in the school newsletter so anyone can attend, not just a 'chosen few'), the support staff, the teachers, the parish priest and a group of children (and they are usually honest to a fault!!). In this way, we try to get a very honest and rounded view of what's actually happening in the school. We also look through the teachers' planning and their RE books. To be honest, it's pretty easy to ascertain if a school is 'window dressing' or not.

      Sienna's other point however, about the suitability of reviewers, is an interesting one. In my Diocese (and I understand we're the only diocese who does it this way) our Review Team is made up of one princpal, one DRS and one representative from the Diocesan Office (often the RE Advisor or the Schools Support Officer). To take part in a review is truly a privilege and is absolutely amazing professional development. I always come away with so many great ideas for my own school and it never fails to point out to me things we could be doing better so I think doing it this way is very much a win-win.

      The problem comes, as Sienna mentions, when you're reviewing someone who may well be reviewing you. Or, in theory, you could end up reviewing a mate. There are some things in place to deal with these situations…

      1. No one reviews a school where they have previously worked

      2. If anyone has a conflict of interest they are asked to declare it – we all hear a year in advance where we are going on review so lots of time to say that it isn't a good fit

      3. The DRS and Principal tend to balance each other out – a DRS might often be pushing for more resources, more release time etc. wheras a principal knows the practicalities of budgets and legal requirements so it tends to be a good mix

      4. The rep from the Diocesan Office should be impartial and these reps throughout the country meet together once a year to go through reviews. They challenge each other, ask questions and generally moderate the reviews. I know of one rep who has been told in the past to get 'tougher' so I know that these meetings do have real outcomes.

      Also I think there's a feeling out there that the reviews are always 'glowing' and this is not  the case. Every single reivew has recommendations listed and then these are followed up at the date of the next review. The review will always be positively worded (we take our cue here from ERO who do the same) but the recommendations will be there in black and white (literally) and to make them even clearer, we not only write them in the body of the review, but we list them at the end. 

      It may not seem that anything comes of these recommendations, but believe me it does. I've known of principals who have been absolutely hauled over the coals by their Board after a review. Of course this is not going to be published in your parish newsletter, but believe me, it happens.

    9. beyblade January 23, 2014 at 1:26 pm

      Apart from the Parish Priest all the people you listed as having a say in the Sp Character Review are all part of the school culture – how about asking a Parishioner – or even going to Mass on Sunday to see how much the school really is participating and making those connections with their Parish? Our last review described our current DRS as going to grow into her role and increase her profile in the Parish – that was in 2012. This teacher had been at the school for at least a decade and had nothing to do with the Parish – her profile has not increased in the Parish.

      If the schools were as wonderful as you describe M & M – where are all the children that should be engaging with the Sunday Mass?

    10. IAGHW January 23, 2014 at 1:32 pm

      To certain extend, I agree and disagree with M&M

      I agree the fact that it is hard to hire Catholic staff for specific subjects… but I know Catholic school that have non-Catholic (Not non-practicing… they are NOT Catholic) teaching RE…

      With the small Catholic student ratio and staff, why make the school so big?

      Would it be better to have a smaller school with a higher ratio of Catholic students and Catholic staff than to have a big Catholic school (up to a thousand) but only a hand full of Catholic staff and students…

    11. sienna January 23, 2014 at 1:41 pm

      So the whole system is corrupt and now you have confirmed M & M the corruption is nationwide.  You cannot sit in judgment of your peers where you might teach in the future.  The inspection needs to be completly impartial.  I am sure there are many retired teachers and schoool inspectors in our pews and not necesarily from the "catholic system" who if asked to be part of a review committe would be a vast improvement on the nonsense the masquerades as a review at the moment.  I know of at least one priest who refuses to have anything to do with the whole process..  Great idea Beyblade – ask the parishioners – they'll also tell you preference cards are a joke.

    12. MaryandMartha January 23, 2014 at 2:04 pm

      Yes IAGHW – this a constant question we ask ourselves – is it better to be a small school for authentically Catholic people and teachers, or do we want to be an evangelistic presence in our communities with open doors to all? There are certainly pros and cons to both.

      When I think about this I think about the people who worked so hard to get our schools integrated into the public system… what were their aims? From my little bit of research and from talking to those involved, I think there were two main aims at the time…

      1. So that every parent who wanted a Catholic education for their children, would be able to get it

      2. Money. Our schools were very lucky to benefit from teaching nuns and brothers in the early days who worked for little or no money. Quite simply, when it became obvious that our schools were no longer going to be able to be staffed by these generous people, there were two choices – become private and charge fees to cover teachers' wages OR fight for government funding. The Catholic Schooling system decided on the second option, really to compliment the first. They wanted Catholic education for their children, regardless of financial standing or ability to pay fees.

      What these people could never have seen coming is that, despite all of their hard-fought battles, most of their children (my generation) would leave the Church and it is now the children of that generation we are educating. 

      So, thinking about those who fought the integration battle and set up the system we have now (my parent's and grandparent's generaton) what would best match up to their vision and dream for Catholic education? Probably the smaller, more authentically Catholic school… BUT, I'm sure very many of them are incredibly happy and grateful that their grandchildren, despite their parents not practicing, are at Catholic schools and are learning about the faith because it is likely that any faith lessons are now missing from the home.

      That's what I hear all the time from parishioners. Their children have deserted the Church but there is hope that their faith will still be passed on to their grandchildren because they have chosen Catholic schools.

      One of the issues this brings up is that our RE curriculum is designed with the idea that parents are the 'first and foremost faith teachers in their children's lives' which was the case when it was written, but certainly isn't now. It means that there needs to be a lot more explicit teaching which is perhaps an area we could do better in – and also perhaps is where we would really benefit by having many more practicing Catholic teachers.

      Although the idea of a smaller, more 'Catholic' school is worth considering, I would hate to see us become too exclusive, picking and choosing between people according to how faithful they are. I remember a couple of parents coming in to see me last year about a boy who was causing trouble in the playground. Their exact words were, "When we enrolled our daughter here we thought she wouldn't have to put up with that kind of child. Isn't that what our fees are for?" I was happy to tell them that because we are a Catholic School, actually we love "that kind of child" and that even more than other schools, we believe in making a difference in children's lives. Afterall, Jesus came to heal the sick, not minister to the well.


    13. Rubyshine January 23, 2014 at 2:24 pm

      I have no idea what RE in secondary schools is supposed to look like, or what most secondary schools are doing, but I don't see why it should be so difficult to work with teens.

      I've worked in schools where te reo classes always start with a prayer, and no one complains or bats an eyelid. We have karakia at our powhiri's, prize givings, food is blessed and again no one complains. If you made teens go to weekly mass, they might complain but they'd go and get over it.

      It seems to me that in preparing our young ones for the real world, that helping them develop strong values and faith to help them through their decision making and difficult times, is crucial to that preparation.

      Teens are also really open to discussing real world issues. They want to know what other adults outside of their parents think. They want to hear your opinions and advice on a huge range of things, and it's not that RE is about individual counselling, but it could be about teaching our young ones about developing values and making decisions with their faith at the core of that.

    14. beyblade January 23, 2014 at 5:24 pm

      Rubyshine, my elder children attend/have just graduated from a Catholic boarding school. Yes they were made to go to Mass, however my son liked going with all his peers – a stark contrast to primary school where he rarely saw any of them. At the College they had JAG -Justice Awareness Groups, they had Whanau groups to support each other – the Special Character prefects  regularly did readings at Mass, were Eucharistic Ministers etc. Having had children attend both primary and secondary Catholic schools, in hindsight I think we could have avoided the primary school system as there is no truth there and simply sent them to the Catholic Secondary school when they were of age.

      M & M – yes I understand there seems to be good things happening where you are, however to call our school 'evangelical' is a hoot. 'Inward focussed' would be more appropriate. I think you need to understand how finances work in the Church – people go to Mass and put money in the collection which funds the Church's work. The schools are beneficiaries of this work through occupation of Church land, resources, parking, buildings etc. In all the years i did the banking for our Parish, maybe twice we have received some monetary donation from someone associated with the school in a Special Collection for maintenance, and we get around $5 weekly in planned giving. The people who access Catholic schooling for their children are probably very nice people however there are also very nice people at the State school – so whats the point of difference? It's not 'their' Catholicity – it's their access to Parish funds and resources. To sum it up – i think it's like an obscene take on the Prodigal Son whereby the son who leaves the family, instead of reconciling and returning to the fold, sets up camp on the edges of the family farm and continues to take from the family. He has also invited all his friends to join him – whilst the son who remained is now being expected to train his children up to keep their 'Uncle' and co to the lifestyle they want. It's not sustainable and I'm not training my children up for this.

      As for making a difference in childrens lives – maybe if they're not very deep thinkers. The experiences my son had at primary school with bullying about going to Mass, listening to people who had no clues about their faith or the people in the Parish has been enough that my son thinks it's all crap. Hows that for evangelisation M & M?



    15. IAGHW January 23, 2014 at 11:00 pm

      I do not think evangelisation is a justification… if it is the intention of Catholic schools then all the principal should be fired right away as we have more Catholic children leaving the Church than more non-Catholic students from Catholic school being baptised… Have you ever seen a convert because of Catholic school in New Zealand???

    16. Dominican January 23, 2014 at 11:14 pm

      yes, i have IAGHW – a couple of year 11 or 12 students about three years ago from our local catholic

      secondary school. Their RE teacher sowed the seeds


    17. Teresina January 24, 2014 at 2:34 am

      From my little experience of the primary schools in the Waikato Diocese, where the parish priest is engaged there is at least a weekly Mass for the children and the parents are encouraged to come to that.  In my local parish where the head teacher is Catholic and is involved with the parish, I have seen the children brought into church for various things and they have been taught to genuflect, etc, and reminded of the Blessed Sacrament. 

      Some years ago when my nieces and nephews attended primary school I know that they were taught the basic prayers, the Hail Mary, Our Father, etc.  They knew about Our Lady and some simple things because I checked to see if they knew them – but that is about 12 years ago now and things change.

      When I was at primary and secondary school, apart from daily instruction on the Faith from the nuns, we had catechism at least once a week from the parish priest.  I remember being taken through the whole of the old testament and parts of the new, so it wasn't just rote learning as some posting here would like to believe.  At secondary school we had a programme called Christian Living and we had retreats twice a year led by the Redemptorists.  We also had a weekly religion class by the parish priest of the local Basilica.

      So I think it is very important that priests are involved in the catechising of school children – that is if the Bishop will allow it.  

    18. MaryandMartha January 24, 2014 at 8:06 am

      Beyblade – thanks for the lessons on "how finances work in the Church" but I've actually had quite a few of these lessons already in my new job. I regularly meet with the "money men" of our Diocese and I'm sorry, but schools are not a drain on parish finances at all. Schools are self-funding. We don't dip into plate money at all, which is reserved for the upkeep of the parish and the parish priest. Our students pay $400 every year and this money goes directly to the Diocese for the upkeep of the land and buildings we occupy. Any repairs that need to be done, under the cost of $5000, the school pays for itself (out of its savings). Any repairs over $5000 go through the Diocese and come out of the school fees our children pay. 

      IAGHW – yes I have seen many students (three just last term in my school) and also some parents and teachers baptised as a direct result of their association with Catholic schools. It is the most rewarding part of our job – forget National Standards… this is what really matters!

      beyblade and Sienna – what you say about asking parishioners brings up an interesting point. As disappointed that parishioners are that there aren't enough school families at church on a Sunday, school communities are often equally disappointed with parishioners lack of involvement in schools. At my past school, where the Church was right on site we tried many things to involve parishioners – one example was our annual Pancake Breakfast which we purposely made at 7.30am so that parishioners might come and join us for half an hour before 9am Mass/8am Adoration. The idea was that the school would make the pancakes and the parish would do the toppings. The only "parishioner" who turns up every year? Our parish priest – who is equally disappointed in parish turn out.

    19. beyblade January 24, 2014 at 11:01 am

      M & M – glad you're up with the finances – however if you don't contribute yet continue to receive – no matter how you tweak it – it is still a drain. The schools might be self funding but they are not a good return as an investment for the Parish. The money from the collection plate pays for the power to the Church, rates on land used for car parking by the school, upkeep on the ashpalt for the parking, cleaning equipment and maintenance and  up keep on the Church – which the school uses as a hall with NO financial recompence to the parish. No doubt the 'Diocesan Money Men'  shuffle the figures around to suit their purpose – but they're  running a Christian Ponzi scheme which is reliant on parishioners. 

      Incidently – my Diocese (Dunedin) has started adding a Special Character Contribution on to the Attendance dues of $20 per child – if schools were really self funded and financially isolated would they need to do this?

      As for expecting the  eternal parishioner to keep plugging away with the schools – don't be naive – the old cliche of parents these days being too busy to go to Sunday Mass and be active parishioners applies equally to the elderly – a lot of them are working beyond retirement age, have better health that allows them to travel more extensively and are also involved in helping with childcare in cases. What the Church needs is relationships between the schools and parishs but any relationship needs to be equal and reciprocal – in the case in our Parish the school really dropped the ball when they placed non- active Catholics in key tagged positions.

      M & M – you started this thread with an observation on the situation of a Catholic/ Anglican (Canglican?) school in Australia – on a continuum from active, involved and engaged in their faith schools to what you observed in Australia, i would say our school is well down the line to becoming the Australian model.  






    20. MaryandMartha January 24, 2014 at 2:43 pm

      "canglican"… I love it!

      I really hope you're not right beyblade And I'm certainly going to fight tooth and nail to stop it from happening in my neck of the woods. It's a battle, but one I'm passionate about and, hopefully, with the help of the Holy Spirit it will be a battle won in the end. 

    21. beyblade January 26, 2014 at 6:45 pm

      Well as a footnote – this weekend we had a farewell to our Parish Priest – about 25-30 people turned up – apart from the Principal there was no one else from the Board of Trustees, and apart from my family there was only one other family from a school of about 150 pupils, to wish Father good luck and say farewell. It is a battle and I have asked the head office people (Catholic Education Office, Special Character Review team head, CEO of Diocese and the Bishop) why it is that our tagged teachers are not active parishioners and I was told not to rock the boat. So good luck with the battle M & M.

    22. IAGHW January 26, 2014 at 10:12 pm

      haha I like the comment "not to rock the boat…" sounds like a threat to me :P haha so corrupt