Have Catholic schools made Catholics an ‘isolated sub-group’?

These people often form a narrowly focused school that is aimed at cementing the faith it’s based on … If we continue as we are, I think we’ll just become more and more isolated sub-groups in our community,”

Barry McGaw

McGaw is quoted in the context of an article about the proliferation of new ‘faith-based’ independent schools. Of course nobody can know for sure what the long-term consequences of these schools might be. But history provides an interesting case study, the role of Catholics in a majority Protestant society, Australia. For centuries, Catholics and Protestants viewed each other with suspicion, and though very rarely violent this was true in Australia as well. Catholics have always maintained separate schools. According to the 2005 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes (AuSSA), more than half of all current Catholics attended Catholic schools, government-funded since the 1960s. Only one of the Protestant groups (the Baptists) even gets to 20% ‘other non-government school’ attendance. And being very numerous, Catholics could if they wanted to create a society of their own within Australian society. But do they?

I’m sure most readers could reflect a moment on their own social circles and realise that Catholics are an integrated, and integral, part of Australian society. The AuSSA finds Catholics are more likely to join unions than Australians in general, and have average rates of participation in sports groups and voluntary associations (though perhaps Catholic, I can’t tell from the data). They are more likely than the general population to agree that being a good citizen requires understanding other people’s opinions. Despite the Pope’s views, they are more likely than the general population to support gay marriage. Half of them even agree that public schools don’t receive their fair share of the budget. In 1996, a third of them were married to Protestants. I doubt the public school lobby can find any evidence that heading on to fifty years of state aid has made Catholics more isolated or more a ‘sub-group’. But of course why bother with data when prejudice can get the conclusion you want with no effort?

One of the frustrating things about the public school lobby is how rarely they seriously argue their case. Ironically enough, their belief in public schooling seems to be based on faith.

31 thoughts on “Have Catholic schools made Catholics an ‘isolated sub-group’?

  1. Andrew – is it fair to put that quote from Barry McGaw at the start of your piece about Catholics? The article also says “The frank comments of Professor Barry McGaw, appointed this month to be the new head of the National Curriculum Board, contrast with the Howard government’s celebration of the proliferation of small independent schools, encouraged by generous public funding ….. Professor McGaw’s remarks reflect a profound shift in education in the past two decades, with more than 200,000 children — almost 40% of non-government school students — now attending a religious school outside the main Catholic, Anglican and Uniting systems”
    The quoted “these people” refers to the small independent schools not the Catholic schools.
    A quarter of the population say they are Catholic, they’ve been here since colonisation, they’re mainstream, and within the Catholic Church and school system there are major differences in beliefs and practices … it would take more than Catholic schools to make them an isolated sub-group. I think you picked a bad example if you wanted to disagree with McGaw.


  2. I don’t think Andrew is being unreasonable at all. Citizen McGaw didn’t specify who ‘these people’ are and Catholics are a faith based group who run their own schools. Surely Citizen McGaw didn’t mean to suggest that he would be advising the government to crack down on minority groups? If so, he should name them.

    Perhaps Citizen McGaw should familarise himself with Article 26(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

    (3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

    Until such time as Citizen McGaw or any of the other anti-choice educationalists can show that faith-based schools, or indeed any non-government school, violates Artcile 26(b), their views should be treated with the contempt they deserve.

    What surprises me the most is that religious vilification is illegal in Victoria yet nobody expressing the ugly anti-religious views that commonly accompany the schools debates are ever asked to explain themselves.


  3. Russell – It is fair, because Catholics are the main historic target of sentiments like those expressed by McGaw. Indeed, the original abolition of state aid in the 19th century was partly motivated by anti-Catholicism. If the arguments proved wrong in their case, it is further reason to doubt that McGaw’s arguments will prove right in our current case.

    Nobody – not McGaw, not you or his other defenders in these two threads – has yet provided *any* evidence in support of his original proposition, much less a convincing argument that would justify the highly unusual singling out a particularly religious group or groups for discrimination.


  4. IF the scholl in question is about strengthening beliefs ( in this case in Jesus) then of course they/we are creating sub-groups. The Bible tells us that will be the case.

    I would assume Parents send theeir children for that very reason.

    Why is this a problem?

    We interact and associate with society. Afterall we want to change society.

    Everyone does.


  5. Sinclair,

    The bit from the Age is:
    ‘The frank comments of Professor Barry McGaw, appointed this month to be the new head of the National Curriculum Board, contrast with the Howard government’s celebration of the proliferation of small independent schools, encouraged by generous public funding.

    “These people often form a narrowly focused school that is aimed at cementing the faith it’s based on … If we continue as we are, I think we’ll just become more and more isolated sub-groups in our community,” Professor McGaw told The Age”‘

    So McGaw’s “these people” is not referring to Catholics or mainstream schools. That’s why Andrew shouldn’t have headed his post “Have Catholic schools ..” and then immediately quoted McGaw as saying “These people” – it is misrepresenting McGaw’s views.


  6. Andrew – I think you make a brilliant point about the history of Catholic schools.

    Far from it being tragic that Australia has such a diverse educational sector, I think it is one of our strengths. It allows us to nurture diversity amongst a large range of different groups, and provides a key safeguard against the overwhelming power of groupthink. Every society needs its dissident groups who (however offensive to the establishment) propagate and keep alive unpopular ideas.

    It is the constant requirement that the establishment in a plural society justify and defend its ideas against subversion that strengthens our public debate and provides the basis of a critical, creative, knowledge-based society.


  7. Even if that were true – Citizen McGaw has not specificed who ‘these people’ are. He should (a) name them and (b) provde evidence supporting his hypothesis.


  8. I think that’s better – but because of the size of the Catholic population it isn’t a good example. Maybe Jews are a better example – do they mostly go to Jewish schools? are they perceived by the rest of the population as clique-ish?


  9. Sinclair – maybe he did, he didn’t write the article – this is what a reporter has decided to tell us.
    Let’s guess then …. the Brethren ? Muslims? Steiner?


  10. Russell – The size of the Catholic community cuts both ways. As I noted in the post, they are big enough to be self-sufficient if they want to be, but they don’t.

    Jewish people have high rates of in-marriage and high rates of attending Jewish schools, while still being ‘over-represented’ in numerous secular activities. Model citizens – despite being a clear ‘sub-group’.


  11. Jews are a better example for you then. But what if we have a largel and tolerant mainstream (other than at Cronulla?) that accepts Jews or Muslims or Buddhists etc, but these groups have a certain friction between them – like soccer clubs used to be: the Serbs and Croats ….
    Is it desirable that these groups separate themselves from each other further by sending their kids to separate schools?


  12. Andrew

    The old sectarian antipathies between Catholics and Prots were overwhelmingly about Anglo-Irish politics and class snobbery. In Australia, these have basically disappeared. McGraw’s observation is nothing but baseless polemic, at least in the context of the major Xian sects and Judaism. Xians and Jews have lived in this country peacefully for over 200 years, even when there has been denominational schooling. Thus I object extremely to painting the Xian and Jewish schools with the same brush as the current social problems related to Islam. If the solution to these social problems is to say “well, we clearly cannot have any religious schools” this is a clear example of throwing the Xian baby with the Islamic bathwater. In this case, the preferable policy response would be not to have Muslim immigration.


  13. Russell, it’s really up to you (to be fair Citizen McGaw) to tell us who ‘these people’ are. Then we can evaluate his claim. So far it looks like a simple case of religious vilification.


  14. As a “CONSTITUTIONALIST” I am too aware that the Framers of the (Federal) Constitution didn’t want the religious hatred that had occurred in other parts of the world to take place in the political union called Commonwealth of Australia and for this provided for Section 116 to prevent this to occur. Regretfully too many politicians are using religion as a way to politically benefit.
    Funding for religious school should be done on the same level as any public school provided that the funding of those religious schools is not used for religious purposes.
    As such, the religious components of a religious school should be born by the church itself.
    As I do not practice a religion it cannot be argued that somehow I might be religious bias towards any religion.
    In my view, on a federal basis, to deny any school of equal funding because it is a religious school would be unconstitutional. Again, the funding from taxpayers are not to be used for religious purposes. As such, religious text books cannot be funded from taxpayers monies but non-religious items can.
    On a state level a State Government is constitutionally permitted to discriminate against any religion and so in funding! The Commonwealth cannot interfere with this. The Commonwealth however is entitled to ensure that any part of commonwealth funding is not redirected by a religious school to religious items being purchased.
    .As long as this is not understood the funding of school will remain to be a mess.
    Note; Having attended as a child to a religious school for some years, I found more violence and hatred there to exist then at a public school!


  15. Sinclair, I don’t presume to know the mind of Mr McGaw from a journalists account of a conversation with him. But that didn’t stop me from having a few guesses….
    It wouldn’t surprise me if educationalists were already concerned about poor educational standards in these small ‘independent’ schools (our family learnt that in the wonderful 1970s when my nephew was sent for a few years to an Ananda Marga school) and were therefore prepared to attribute other harmful effects such as ghetto-isation to these fringe-group schools. A Muslim school in Perth was closed recently for poor educational standards.
    I think it’s an interesting argument – I don’t agree with Andrew that the social cohesion argument can be dismissed, on the other hand I can see the advantages of a diversity of schools.
    Are we in the situation of a relatively homogenous society becoming more diverse, and not hitting many problems, but looking at other societies with entrenched balkanisation issues and worrying about ending up there too?


  16. Russell, unlike your good self, I am more than happy to hazard a guess at Citizen McGaw’s mind and his views. He is not making an argument about educational standards, that I can live with (but why start with faith-based schools if that were the concern?). He is having a go minorities – the world has a long history of this sort of behaviour. Of course, maybe he can produce the evidence that supports his claims, but until that time we all know what he is and what he’s saying.


  17. “It wouldn’t surprise me if educationalists were already concerned about poor educational standards in these small ‘independent’ schools”

    I agree with Sinclair. There are already mechanisms for dealing with educational failure in private schools, both market (parents taking their kids out) and regulatory (eg the Muslim school Russell mentions). And of course educational failure is overwhelmingly in public schools.

    This is attempted persecution of religious minorities, not concern with educational standards.


  18. “This is attempted persecution of religious minorities …”

    A little strong? I don’t suppose he’s referring to Seventh Day Adventists, Jews, Confucians etc etc but to groups whose schools are more into indoctrination than education.

    Is this animus because McGaw is an ALP appointee, therefore bad?


  19. The logical implication of McGaw’s statement is that these schools should be closed down, and abolishing a group’s institutions counts as religious persecution to me. This offends my classical liberalism, not my local partisan preferences, a very minor influence on my issue opinions.


  20. ” The logical implication of McGaw’s statement is that these schools should be closed down”

    Well that is ” the logical implication” you draw,

    Andrew, this is over-strong (if not silly) – if this were the mainstream media, I think I would describe your post as a beat-up. Where does McGaw ever say what you project?

    People can view trends as problematic , without wanting to abolish them or take away the civil rights of the people involved.

    For what’s it worth, I’ve actually met (citizen) Mcgaw, and I would regard him as representative of mainstream Australian pragmatic character.

    In fact, as someone brought up as a Catholic, I actually find the way you describe Catholics as fairly weird – i.e. Catholics are normal people – Catholics are just like us! Yes – right ???? We (most Australians) got over this debate a long time ago.

    Having said this, there are elements of what is described in the Age article that I do find worrying.

    Like you, my first impulse is towards tolerance.

    However, I think that the idea that children could be taught Intelligent Design as a scientific alternative to the theory of evolution is (pace Richard Dawkings) a form of child abuse.


  21. Peter – It is possible to think that a) these schools reduce social cohesion and that b) it doesn’t matter. But that is not what I would read McGaw as suggesting. I know him slightly as well; at the very least someone with his experience in the politics of school education should have been aware of how his comments would be read in the context of the long campaign against private schools in general and religious schools in particular.

    “We (most Australians) got over this debate a long time ago.”

    Which was precisely my point – despite Catholic schools with state aid Catholics have not drifted off into ‘sub-groups’, any more than Protestants are likely to.

    It’s curious we fuss so much about evolution/creationism, when whether students think we come from God or from apes or from Mars has no practical implications for their lives. It’s no more child abuse than any of the other strange things parents believe.


  22. As someone who went to a Catholic school, I have to say I was extremely glad of the requirements of the state curriculum for the board subject “Religious Education”, which was compulsory at my school to Grade 12, mandated that we were study non-Catholic world religions for a whole semester. This was a school, mind you, that I was not at all happy attending – I wanted to switch to a local state school at some point, but that really wouldn’t have gone down well with my parents.

    So, while I don’t necesarily see a reason to think we need to outlaw religious schools, I do think that having some pretty strict regulation and monitoring on what you’re allowed to teach kids in those schools is extremely important. Which is a large part of what the Dawkins child abuse argument is all about.


  23. Christine – This shows a rather high level of confidence in the state curriculum, which seems to be leaving many kids with seriously deficient outcomes.

    And the solution here is surely for you to switch to the state school, not the Catholics switch to suit you?


  24. But she did want to switch, and couldn’t. Some parents will privilege religion/culture over education, but don’t we believe that children are entitled to an education?


  25. Russell – People can’t choose their parents of course, but why should school curriculum choice default to the state rather than to parents? I suspect few students regret private education, so we should not let the exceptions drive the rules.


  26. “why should school curriculum choice default to the state rather than to parents?”
    The parents have rights, others in the community have rights and the child has rights – and it’s good that we keep discussing how these interact, whether it’s curricula or vaccinations or whatever.
    I think the state has the obligation to children to set minimum standards of education and to see those reflected in the curriculum, and achieved. Despite the education I received from the Marist Brothers, the Catholic education system today generally falls within an acceptable range of variation, but out on the ‘independent’ fringes, where some schools are promoting beliefs that seem to contradict accepted fact or our basic values, we, as a community need to assert our rights, and the child’s rights, and remove those elements from that school’s curriculum. Parents can teach their children those beliefs at home.


  27. I too went to a Catholic School and found the Brothers were very broad minded when it came to religion. Now that may be my experience only. (It may also be a uniquely South African experience – the Christian Brothers were cosidered to be progressive educators relative to the state education system). Half the school wasn’t Catholic and there were separate RI classes. In our final year we had a whole term of classes from the Family Planning Association. The head master did outline his own views but didn’t suppress anyone else’s opinion. (I admit to telling him that he didn’t play the game so shouldn’t make the rules).


  28. Brendan – assorted rights. Say you have a child at school and the government/community decides to defend itself from polio by immunising all children. But you believe that this procedure will increase your child’s chances of becoming autistic or getting cancer or something, and refuse to have the child immunised. The government says your child can’t attend school without being immunised. The child has a right to education. So there’s a conflict of rights – who has the right to make the decision for the child?


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