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Meeting the challenges facing Catholic Schools

Clare Deignan  |  22 August 2018

Early this year, the National Catholic Education Commission (NCEC) released the ‘Framing Paper: Religious Education in Australian Catholic Schools’, a resource for Catholic diocese and schools across Australia, endorsed by the Bishops Commission for Catholic Education. Australian Catholics magazine spoke to the NCEC’s Senior Education Officer of Faith Formation & Religious Education John McGrath about the purpose of the framing paper and how it will help Catholic schools shape future generations.

John McGrath refers to Catholic schools as the jewel in the crown of the Australian Catholic Church.

‘Today, Catholic schools are increasingly more articulate about their identity and about the imperative to serve God’s mission by enabling all in the school community – students, parents and staff – to find positive evangelising moments in their Catholic school experience’, says McGrath, who has held numerous leadership roles in Catholic education for more than 41 years.

In the last three decades, Australian Religious Education has come into its own, becoming more academically rigorous than in past generations. McGrath explains, ‘Before that, it tended to have less structure and formal assessment and appeared to have less academic credibility and value in the eyes of students, teachers and parents. These days RE tends to be organised structurally in a similar way to frameworks for all other learning areas.’

Not ‘what’ but ‘how’

Although Religious Education in Australia is thriving with one in five students attending Catholic schools, the Framing Paper still hopes to further support the development of the RE curriculum in diocese and schools, and inspire further RE discussions and partnerships. In 24 pages, the Framing Paper examines the aim, context and mission of Catholic schools while considering the needs and changing demographics of the Catholic learner and teacher.

‘It is less about ‘what’ to teach and more about ‘how’ students learn and teachers teach’, he says.

Speaking about the curriculum, McGrath says, ‘It must engage with the actual situations of students, each of whom is a unique individual who shares in the familial, social, Church and educational contexts that typify the world and Australia today’.

A change of era

The Framing Paper also addresses the issues facing the wider Catholic Church. According to the NCEC’s 2015 annual report, 69 per cent of Catholic school students identify as Catholic. Fewer vocations to religious life have led to a decrease in the number of religious men and women teaching in Catholic schools. Gone are the days, where most Catholic school students are Catholic and taught by Catholic religious. Across Australia, Catholic schools are finding fewer students and teachers are actively engaged with the Catholic faith outside of school.

There are also some broader changes in the fabric of Australian society, including a rise in secularism, a decline in religious observance, and the outcome of the Royal Commission into child sex abuse.

‘We are in a change of era. The past cannot be revived in its old form’, says McGrath. ‘I believe that Catholic schools have a real role to play at this time when the Church is experiencing a loss of moral authority.

‘The Catholic school can now be a bridge-builder, pointing the way to an inclusive, dialogical community.’

The Framing Paper and the classroom

The Framing Paper aims to complement dioceses’ current curricula. A Framing Paper resource that Catholic educators can apply to their own school is a list of high-quality Religious Education standards.

‘There are some points we suggest educators create as their own checklist and ask, “how do we do that in our school?” Or “to what extent do we need to improve in this area” ’, McGrath suggests.

But he emphasises that the Framing Paper isn’t meant to address a shortcoming in schools’ RE. ‘The paper is not identifying a deficit but building on good work and pointing to the future’, McGrath explains.

‘Religious Education needs to interpret signs of the times and to reread the memory of faith so students can engage in an open narrative between the richness of Catholic tradition, their personal experiences and contemporary cultural contexts.’

Learn more and read

‘Framing Paper: Religious Education in Australian Catholic Schools’ at:


Topic tags: thecatholictradition, vocationsandlifechoices, healthycommunitylife

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