Christian school enrolments have soared over the past 5 years, surpassing growth in the public and broader independent sectors, amid claims the rising influence of identity politics in many schools is alienating families with traditional values. Independent Schools Council of Australia data reveals enrolments in Christian schools have increased by an average of 3.3% a year for the past 5 years, accelerating to 4.4% in the past 2 years. Christian schools added more than 10,000 students between 2013 and 2018, with the 18% growth outstripping the 7.7% growth seen in government school numbers. The independent sector recorded only a 1.7% annual growth over the same period.
According to the Australian Association of Christian Schools (AACS), enrolment growth was driven by an increasing demand for a Christian education rather than the establishment of new schools. Fees are more modest, in the $3000 to $7000 range, making the schools more accessible than many non-government schools. AACS executive director Alithea Westerman said reports suggested an increasing number of parents were drawn to a Christian education in the wake of the public furore around programs such as Safe Schools, which lost federal funding in 2016 following controversy about its promotion of gender and sexual diversity. The program still operates in Victoria.
“Our principals report that enrolment discussions are revealing quite a number of both religious and non-religious parents voicing that their choice to switch is as a result of philosophies and social campaigns being advocated in public schools that they disagree with,” Ms Westerman said. “They are worried about what their kids are being taught and that it is not in line with their worldview.” Ms Westerman said Christian education schools, which differ from many church-affiliated schools in that a Christian worldview is embedded across all aspects of the curriculum, were upfront about what they taught and the behaviour expected of students, which many parents appreciated.
“They work in partnership with parents from many different backgrounds to uphold Christian values and ensure education milestones are met, while having a strong emphasis on holistic character formation,” she said. Christian Schools Australia director of public policy Mark Spencer said many incoming students were from families who did not count themselves as “regular churchgoers” but wanted the values of a Christian education. “It’s the ‘Howard battlers’, the ‘working families’ of Rudd and Gillard, ‘Tony’s tradies’, whatever label you want to put on them, they’re ordinary, everyday Australians,” he said.
“We are also attracting large numbers of students whose parents did not themselves go to a non-government school.” Mr Spencer said CSA represented about 120 schools, about half of all Christian education schools across the country, and many were at capacity with long waiting lists. “Without a large denomination behind them, it is very hard for any group to start a new school because of the huge start-up costs,” he said. However, that has not stopped many schools planning for further growth. Heathdale Christian College in Melbourne’s outer-west has about 1800 students across two campuses which is expected to swell to excess of 3000 in coming years.
Principal Ross Grace said families from Asia had been particularly drawn to the non-denominational school and its Christian ethos. “We are quite open about the fact we take our faith seriously, it’s not an add-on, it’s ingrained in all that we do. And our families want that for their children,” Mr Grace said. “But we also know that 40 per cent of our families are non-active in their faith and there is a concern that some state schools have developed a culture that is really counter-productive, particularly in regards to discipline and the expectations of the kids and what they can achieve.”
Source: Compiled by APN from media reports