In Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, once Catholic heartland, enrolments have fallen more than 12 per cent over the same period, or an average 31 students per school.
Of the 26 Catholic primary schools in suburbs such as Kew, Hawthorn, Balwyn, Box Hill, Burwood, Vermont, Mount Waverley, Glen Waverley and Ashburton, less than a quarter increased their student numbers between 2014 and 2019.
Four lost between 40 and 60 per cent of their students, My School figures show, raising questions of viability.
Emma Rowe, senior lecturer in education at Deakin University, said multiple factors had led to the overall decline in enrolment at Catholic schools.
“Financial pressures in capital cities in Australia may incentivise parents to seek out low-cost options, particularly for primary schools years,” Dr Rowe said.
“When I interview parents about this, it is more likely that parents feel the need to ‘go private’ for the secondary years.”
Dr Rowe said other factors were the social decline of traditional religion, a perception that Catholic schools may be religiously dogmatic, and the social stigma associated with the Catholic Church in the wake of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
“It really is a critical moment in time for Catholic schools, and if enrolment continues to drop, it is likely that enrolment will hit a record low in forthcoming years,” she said.
In addition, academic Christina Ho said Catholic schools did not resonate with Chinese migrants, who account for between a fifth and a third of residents in Box Hill, Balwyn and Glen Waverley.
Almost three quarters of students whose households speak a Chinese language attend a government school while 10 per cent attend a Catholic school, the Catholic Education Commission of Victoria said.
Dr Ho, author of Aspiration and Anxiety – Asian Migrants and Australian Schooling, said Catholic primary schools were not able to attract large numbers of Chinese Australians for two reasons.
“There’s not a strong tradition of Christianity and Catholicism in Chinese migrants and these schools are not necessarily high performing academically,” she said.
Catholic principals acknowledge the challenge but say they are doing what they can, including boosting their social-media presence and targeting kindergartens for prospective students.
St Roch’s in Glen Iris has bucked the trend, increasing enrolments by 29 per cent since 2014. And following years of declines, St Christopher’s School in Glen Waverley is reporting “very strong demand” after topping Catholic primary schools in NAPLAN last year.
The inner and middle eastern suburbs are also home to a large number of top-performing state secondary schools. Balwyn High School, Box Hill High School, Glen Waverley Secondary College and Koonung Secondary College were among last year’s top state schools, VCE results show.
Catholic Education Melbourne said it was “committed to providing the choice of a faith-based education for all families across the city”.
Madeleine Heffernan edits The Age’s Monday education page