By former director of the Catholic Education Office Geoff Joy
An unprecedented Catholic schools “strike” was carried out in Goulburn in July, 1962.
This was 80 years after the NSW Colonial Government’s funding for denominational schools was withdrawn following the passage of the “free, secular and compulsory” Education Act.
Influences impacting on that decision included the growth of secularism and sectarianism as well as economic factors.
The Archbishop of Sydney at the time was Roger Vaughan, an English Benedictine, but the other three NSW diocesan bishops were Irish and the Catholic laity were mainly of Irish stock. The bishops believed that religious education should be part and parcel of general education and so decided to establish a Catholic schools system without government aid.
It was an extraordinary brave or reckless move. How could some 25% of the population who were both economically and educationally poor fund and staff their own schools?
The bishops had two main strategies:
· “condemn the principle of secularist education and those schools founded on that principle…….. they are seed plots of future immorality, infidelity and lawlessness” (Bishops Joint Pastoral Letter 1879).
This would inevitably cause community polarisation (Catholic versus secularists and Protestants) but would unite the Catholics.
· Recruit members of religious congregations both from overseas and locally founded to staff the schools.
The wonder was that the existing Catholic schools not only survived, but an extraordinary growth occurred. More than 30 religious congregations took up teaching in Australia by the end of the 1880s and another 20 subsequently.
However, by the 1960s huge challenges began to impact on the continued viability of Catholic schools. These challenges included:
· Rapid increase in enrolments resulting from the baby boom and immigration (in the 20 years post World War 2 the Catholic population nearly doubled)
· Increased retention rates in secondary schools
· Wider curriculum
· Demands for smaller class sizes
· Demands for lighter teaching loads
· Longer pre-service teacher training
· Increased number of lay teachers as the number of religious began to decline
It was becoming evident that the school fees paid by parents, the fund raising by fetes and raffles, and working bees on school facilities were not going to be enough to sustain most Catholic schools.
The social climate post World War 2 in Australia was vastly different from the late 19th and early decades of the 20th century. There was no question of the loyalty of Catholics to the nation. Despite this more tolerant society, the general belief among politicians of all parties was that direct state aid to non-government schools would be political suicide.
Some forms of indirect state aid had been granted:
· Exemption from land tax
· Sales tax exemption
· Free student travel
· Tax deductions on donation to school building funds
Under the Australian Constitution, states had responsibility for education but the first instance of direct government grants to non-government schools come from the Commonwealth Government. By pure necessity because of the rapid influx of public servants into the ACT, Prime Minister Menzies’ government paid interest subsidies on loans for non-government secondary school buildings in Canberra from 1956 and extended it to the primary in 1961.
The campaigns in the states for direct state aid began in earnest in the 1960s.
There were two contrasting approaches:
· Diplomatic negotiations with the political parties
· Public demonstrations
By and large the Catholic hierarchy preferred the diplomatic approach. They did not wish to resurrect the vicious sectarianism of earlier times nor did they wish the laity to pursue a militant campaign.
In contract to the 1880s there was in the 1960s a well education and influential Catholic laity who saw state aid as a parent/taxpayer issue. It was both a matter of choice and justice.
The United Nations had declared that parents had the prior right to choose the kind of education for their children, and the state governments were using taxes from all taxpayers for government schools only. For the parents the state aid debate was not State versus Church but State versus parents.
Increasingly some lay Catholic organisations became frustrated with the slow progress of negotiations carried on by the Catholic hierarchy.
In the Wagga Wagga Diocese, for instance, the newly formed Catholic Parents and Friends Association held a public meeting in November, 1961, to which representatives of the political parties were invited; 1200 Catholic parents and friends attended.
Then came the Goulburn strike in 1962. The spark that caused an explosion in the state aid debate was the threat by the NSW Department of Education to deregister Our Lady of Mercy Primary School because it was short three boys’ toilets.
Bishop John Cullinane, Auxiliary to Archbishop Eris O’Brien who lived in Canberra, was the parish priest. He said the parish did not have the funds to comply. Meetings and correspondence going as far as the Premier of NSW were protracted over several years.
Eventually the bishop called a meeting for 8 July, 1962, of parents and friends of the school intending to inform them that the school would have to close until the required toilets could be provided for its pupils.
To prepare for the general meeting the Bishop held a meeting of some 40 men two days before the general meeting. He talked to his proposal. To his surprise, the meeting moved that all six Goulburn Catholic schools close to the end of term (six weeks).
Bishop Cullinane had doubts whether Archbishop O’Brien would support this drastic action. The Archbishop decided to go to the general meeting, which 700 people attended. After lengthy and emotional debate, the motion to close the schools (kindergarten and Leaving Certificate students were exempted) was carried about 550 to 120.
Archbishop O’Brien did not speak until after the vote and concluded by saying, “if you want to use your citizen rights in this way I am not going to restrain you”.
The reactions for and against went nationwide and beyond especially on Monday, 16 July, when only 640 of the nearly 1300 children from the Catholic schools could be accommodated in the state schools. The Sydney press particularly was scathing of the action calling it “demanding money with menaces” and urged the State Government not to buckle.
The publicity for their cause went far beyond the expectations of the leaders of the strike. Consequently, after a week, a further meeting of parents voted to call off the strike provided every effort was made to set up a state or nationwide organisation to further pursue direct state aid.
The Goulburn Catholic schools strike thanks to the extent of the media coverage, made better known:
· The emerging crisis in the sustainability of Catholic schools
· The depth of the anger of Catholic parents at what they saw as a justice and choice issue
· The immense burden that would fall on state schools and state budgets if the Catholic schools closed
· That more than half of the general population supported direct state aid.
The Goulburn strike was an explosion and a watershed in the state aid debate that advanced the movement to direct government grants both Commonwealth and State to non-government schools.
In the year after the strike Prime Minister Menzies, whose party held only a two seat majority, called an early election promising Commonwealth science laboratory grants and secondary scholarships for both government and non-government schools. The Government won a 22-seat majority.
There will continue to be debate about methods and amounts of funding, but the principle of direct state aid to non-government schools that had divided the nation for nearly a century is closed.
Historian Michael Hogan has noted that “in any history of state aid the Goulburn incidence must be given a central place”.