FIFTY years ago today “a cold, frosty D day” for schools settled over Goulburn.
The threatening storm calmed but the week ahead whipped up debate that had enormous consequences down the decades.
And it all started over a toilet block. On July 16, 1962, some 600 of Goulburn’s catholic students were enrolled in local public schools in protest over the state government’s lack of funding.
The city’s movers and shakers, parents and religious were out to make a point. If the government couldn’t fund vital infrastructure at the city’s Catholic Schools, it should absorb them into the public system. The mooted six-week “strike” exerted maximum pressure and won national publicity.
After a week it was called off and shortly afterwards, Our Lady of Mercy Primary School won its new toilet block. More importantly, it catapulted the state aid debate to the fore and set men like the late Brian Keating on a lifelong mission.
As Fr Frank Keogh, former administrator of Sts Peter and Paul’s Cathedral would later say: “It’s not too hard to imagine the flag of justice flying over that toilet block.”
Politics and religion were not on the minds of students who marched off to public schools that day.
But somehow the divide hit a young St Joseph’s Primary School student, Trish Wyles (now Groves) full force.
“I hate Catholics,” a Goulburn North Public School student told her as she struck her in the face.
“I was so stupefied, I couldn’t move,” Mrs Groves told the Post.
For others like Brian Watchirs a St Patrick’s Technical School student, it was a time of adventure, a chance to play rugby league for the week.
Only later did many realise the significance of that action.
The years have rolled on but people have not forgotten. In two weeks the Canberra/Goulburn archdiocese will mark the 50th anniversary of the now famous protest.
On July 26, it is hosting a dinner for 150 people, including some at the centre of the debate, religious, staff and politicians, at Trinity Catholic College. The following day, up to 1000 people, including 700 students, will pack into Sts Peter and Paul’s Cathedral for a celebratory Mass.
Canberra/Goulburn Catholic Education Office director Moira Najdecki said the action was hugely significant.
“In terms of catholic schools it had an absolutely enormous and fundamental impact,” she told the Post.
“The biggest impact is the certainty to pay salaries, determine class sizes and educational outcomes.
“In the 1950s there were enormous class sizes and teachers were nearly all religious. This changed and in the 1960s there were still large class sizes but more lay salaries to pay, so it was absolutely essential there was money for this if the catholic system was to continue.”
Win for private schools
But Mrs Najdecki described the Goulburn protest as a “flash point” for bubbling discontent in other parts of Australia. The actions of a small committee shot the state aid issue into the spotlight. Eventually the campaign won recurrent funding and vital infrastructure for catholic and independent schools.
Subsequent reforms have come close in importance, Mrs Najdecki says. In 2004 catholic schools were funded on the basis of socio-economic status, with no net loss.
Now there’s the Gonski Review, calling for a minimum 20-25 per cent of each non-government student’s funding from the state and for wealth testing of parents.
Catholic schools are funded to the tune of 56pc of the cost of supporting their state counterparts, Mrs Najdecki says. Some 25pc comes from the government and parents provide 20- 25pc.
At the same time, schools’ make-up is changing. While catholics dominated schools of that denomination in the 1960s, now about 28pc are of other religions. “That’s great,” Mrs Najdecki says.
“Our school is open to all and we accept them regardless of their ability to pay…It gives us a whole different group to educate… and the curriculum has adapted to ensure all religious needs are being met.”
Meantime, students throughout the archdiocese are excited about the anniversary celebrations. While they may not understand the full significance of the 1962 strike, Mrs Najdecki says there’s a definite sense of something momentous.
* The Goulburn Post is running a feature on the 1962 school protest in its Wednesday, July 25 edition, coinciding with archdiocesan celebrations.
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