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The future of small Catholic schools could be at risk as four inner-city Catholic primary schools face potential closure due to tiny student numbers.
Melbourne Archdiocese Catholic Schools has confirmed the review, saying all schools with fewer than 150 students were assessed for enrolment prospects, financial and education performance, and whether enrolled families were open to attending alternative schools.
Becky McDonagh and her son Harry. Harry attends St Joseph’s, one of four Catholic schools that might close. Credit: Simon Schluter
More than 175 of the 300 Victorian Catholic schools have fewer than 150 enrolments, raising concerns more campuses – particularly in established inner suburbs and low-growth country towns – will close in the coming years.
The four primary schools now under review are St Bridget’s in Greythorn; St John’s in Clifton Hill; St Mary Magdalen’s in Chadstone; and St Joseph’s in Black Rock, which had a combined 309 students last year.
Families at St Joseph’s in Black Rock learnt last week the school could shut down at the end of the year. St Joseph’s had 75 students enrolled last year, down from 136 in 2017.
School parent Becky McDonagh said she was worried about her boys Harry, who is in year 5, and Sebastian, in year 4.
She said nearby schools did not compete on class size or immediate help for Harry, who has special needs. “The other schools are 600-plus students,” she said. “He won’t get extra help [immediately] in the classroom.”
Dr Emma Rowe, education lecturer at Deakin University, said small schools were often attractive for parents and students, particularly those with special needs.
“A bigger school you get to share more of your resources, so it’s cheaper, but it’s a shame for parents who want small schools,” she said.
Rowe said the four schools under review were in wealthier areas, which typically favoured independent or high-performing state schools.
“Catholic schools provide a low-fee private experience, but they are caught in the middle of social and cultural challenges.”
Close to 21 per cent of Victorian students attend Catholic schools and the number of children enrolled in Catholic primary schools rose by about 400 this year to 78,335, MACS said.
But the system shed students in 2022, as families increasingly chose independent schools.
The Catholic system has opened more than a dozen schools in Melbourne’s fast-growing outer suburbs and the regions since 2017, and received hundreds of millions of dollars from the Andrews government for new schools and upgrades. Catholic schools also get capital funding from the federal government.
In recent years, the system has shut down a handful of tiny primary schools in the inner suburbs, including St Benedict’s in Burwood and St Kevin’s Primary School in Ormond.
MACS, which was established in 2020 to govern and operate around 300 Catholic schools, said a decision about St Joseph’s would be made by term 3. Archbishop Peter Comensoli has the final say. Before 2020, schools were owned and operated by parishes.
Black Rock has a median age of 49, well above the Victorian median of 38. The 2021 census showed 588 students were enrolled in preschool or primary school across the wealthy bayside suburb.
MACS told St Joseph’s families that while certain areas were experiencing rapid residential growth and high demand for schools, others had declining demand.
It said low and falling enrolments led to less government funding, troubles employing specialist staff or offering specialist subjects and difficulties retaining staff.
“To ensure that MACS fulfils its mission to provide the best education possible to our students, we continually review all 300 schools across our organisation,” it said.
“As a result, we are currently consulting with four primary school communities to better understand how we can address their current enrolment challenges.”
MACS made its first school purchase last year, of De La Salle College in Malvern, for an undisclosed sum.
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