Education: State Aid to Catholic Schools

Today’s grandparents who were pupils at Catholic schools can remember their daily tasks – sweeping classroom floors, polishing desk and table tops, gathering litter and emptying bins. They tell of classes crammed with 60, or more, children. They recall tired teachers in long black robes. Some still feel the burden of walking miles to school, passing one or two state schools on the way because the priests said Catholic education was a moral obligation.

That was in the post-World War II and “baby boom” years. Much has changed. The grandparents can explain the change with one word, “integration”. It refers to a radical change in funding for private schools.

Through the 1950s and 60s, New Zealand’s 270 Catholic schools were registered as “private schools”. They received no government funding, except for a small text books grant from the mid-1950s. Some private schools managed to exist, mainly by charging high student fees. They were regarded as elitist. Catholic schools charged low fees and even waived them for large families on low incomes. The key principle was that Catholic children must receive a Catholic education.

Donations, charitable grants, contributions from parish finances and revenue from fetes and galas helped keep the Catholic schools going. Economic austerity was hitting them hard. Spending was cut to a minimum. The schools “got by” without the latest equipment. One cost-saving measure was using pupils to clean their schools.

Many Catholics lived on labourers’ wages and had large families. Numbers of children rose dramatically in the “baby boom”. The Church’s insistence that Catholic children go to Catholic schools (where possible) meant more teachers, buildings and facilities were necessary. The schools were staffed by nuns, brothers and priests. They were paid stipends so measly that it was a virtually free labour force.

#D170 Bishop Ashby with Ashburton school children

Numbers of nuns, brothers and priests started to decline from the late-1950s. Lay teachers were employed to fill the gaps. They had to be paid a living wage. In the Christchurch Diocese alone, 24 lay teachers were employed in Catholic schools in 1961, and the year’s wage bill was 13,000 pounds. Just four years later, 37 lay teachers were employed, costing 33,500 pounds a year. The 50% increase in lay teacher numbers boosted the cost in salaries by 250%. And the figures kept rising.

The leading figure in New Zealand’s Catholic schools system was Brother Patrick Lynch. He was outspoken on the schools’ situation and was knighted for his work to improve it. Lynch was a Religious Brother in the De La Salle Order, principal of an Auckland Catholic school and tireless negotiator for several educational organisations. He was also a critic of the clergy’s command that Catholic parents send their children to Catholic schools. He could see the Catholic schools system was “struggling to survive” and dedicated himself to rescuing it.

Bee Dawson’s 2018 biography of Lynch states some of the lay teachers employed were not fully certificated. They were lowly paid and many did not stay in the job. The standard of education was sinking. Over-worked teachers with large classes and minimal teaching aids concentrated on the three r’s: “readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmetic”, (plus religion), at the expense of other subjects. The Catholic schools system was “close to collapse”, Lynch said.

The situation so deteriorated that, in the Christchurch Diocese, Bishop Brian Ashby felt forced to cut out “primer classes” (Years 1 and 2) from 1965. Children due to start in Catholic primary schools were enrolled in state schools instead. Clergy expected these children to come to their parish school for their third, and following, years. Many did not, as their parents were angered at having to move their children. Some chose to keep them in the state schools.

Primer classes were later re-established. However, the loss of these pupils emphasised the fall in Catholic school rolls that had already been happening. Lynch attributes this decline mostly to the falling standard of education in the schools.

Private schools other than Catholic were suffering too – in various degrees. They, and the Catholics, claimed the government should provide funding to support people’s democratic right to choose the sort of education they wanted for their children. They maintained that, as parents paid tax, some of which was allocated to education, they should receive some benefit from it. They argued that, if private schools closed, or if parents withdrew children, because of the falling standards in teaching, state schools would be flooded with enrolments.

Opponents to state aid argued that state schools were available freely for all. If parents chose private schools, they should pay all the way. They claimed state schools were under-funded and any extra money for education should go to them.

The anti-lobby was strengthened (some would say poisoned) by an anti-Catholic cabal. The political issue of “State Aid for Private Schools” became fiery, stoking fervent debate in national media. The country was divided.

Lynch notes that some Catholics, too, opposed state funding, fearing it would “water down” the schools’ religious aspect. This faction would find common ground with the antagonistic anti-Catholic band, albeit it an uneasy alliance.

A scan of newspaper headlines through the early-1970s shows momentum was building against “state aid”. Much of the opponents’ rhetoric was virulent and bigoted. Proponents seemed more rational and profound. Both sides aimed to influence politicians before the General Election. 

Labour Party Leader Norman Kirk had promoted state aid to private schools since the early 1960s. He saw the matter as one of equity and urgency. Becoming Prime Minister in 1972, Kirk called for action. A national State Aid Conference was held in 1973, giving all interested bodies opportunity to express their views and suggest ways to help the struggling private schools, especially the Catholic schools.

Prime Minister Norman Kirk

The outcome was Parliament’s passing of the Private Schools Conditional Integration Act, 1975. This meant schools seeking state funding could opt to become part of the state education system. The State would fund salaries and maintenance equal to state schools. Exemptions included the costs of school properties, which would remain the responsibility of the Catholic Bishops. Other supervisory principles also applied. A prime requirement of schools opting to become integrated was that they exercise a “special character”. Such a character could be Christian Education. A few other private schools, mainly of other religious denominations, followed.

The schools were required also to bring their properties up to state standards. This was a massive task for the run-down Catholic schools, requiring demolitions, constructions, retro-fits and renovations. Government suspensory loans made it possible.

These processes delayed implementation of the Act. Late in 1979 the Catholic Bishops finally announced their acceptance of integration for their schools. Within a year nearly 30 Catholic schools were integrated; within four years all 249 Catholic schools were integrated.

The decision to accept integration was a “Hobson’s choice”. Lynch says the Bishops realised the negative option would have caused Catholic schools to “virtually implode”. Instead, the quality of education began to “take off”. Improvements brought about by integration showed the real benefits of this radical change, Lynch says.




Michael Crean (author)

Catholic Diocese of Christchurch Archives 

Bee Dawson (2018)  ‘Sir Brother Patrick Lynch: A Life in Education and New Zealand’s Integrated Schools 1976-2016


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