Speech: Tony Farley at the St John's College 2017 Fellow's Dinner

Speech: Tony Farley at the St John’s College 2017 Fellow’s Dinner


Executive Director of CCER Tony Farley gives a speech at the St John’s College 2017 Fellow’s Dinner on the changing nature of catholic education in Australia.


Chair of St John’s College, Bernadette Tobin, College Rector, Adrian Diethelm, both current and past Fellows and ladies and gentlemen

Thank you for inviting me and my wife Vanessa to join you this evening.

Most of you tonight will have heard that over the last 15 or more years that Australia has spent more on education than ever before. 

At the same time the performance of Australian schools has declined relative to other systems around the world. 

Theories abound about why this might be so, but it does suggest that simply putting more money to the problem is unlikely to change our results. 

There’s a lot at stake when it comes to education because the countries that can build the best systems are likely to be the ones that can build the most flourishing societies.

The Church in a way has experienced a similar problem. 

Never before in Australia have Catholic organisations employed more people – at last count over 210,000. 

And yet at the same time, participation in Parish life has relentlessly declined. 

Again theories abound about why this might be so and the search is on to find ways to reverse the trends.

It’s hard work to change a profession or institution, a Church or even a small workplace.

We’re creatures of habit who often resist change because we want to be in control of our lives and to belong to something that’s stable and constant.

Everything inside us seems to say ‘don’t change’ even when the thing we need the most is to change. 

If you’ve ever tried to change a Catholic Parish you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Try asking the person whose run the Sunday morning music for the last 30 years to let in some young ones to take control and you’ll get a great lesson in handling conflict and how to be comfortable with being disliked. 

Even moving a statue or the flowers in a Church can be cause of concern so great that it will get on the agenda of the Parish Pastoral Council for much of a year. 

Interestingly, these are issues that concern a tiny minority of Catholics because the majority of Catholics go nowhere near a Church from year to year. 

Who knows what they think about the music or flowers because nobody asks them. That’s 90% of Catholics who never get a look in.

More importantly, nobody invites them back and if they did the flowers and music may discourage rather encourage a return visit. 

It’s clear that if we don’t change and adapt now, our numbers will continue to decline.

In the 160 years since its founding the St John’s College has adapted to the profound changes in the world it inhabits.

One key indicator of an institution’s success is its ability to adapt and change while retaining its essence.

As a College inspired by faithful Christian living and witness, St John’s College has been a serious contributor to Catholic intellectual life in Australia.

And to do so over 160 years St John’s College has necessarily had to change.

One obvious example was the admission of women to St John’s in 2001.

While not knowing the circumstances that led to this significant change, it’s not hard to imagine that it was preceded by considerable debate that was likely to have canvassed the notions of tradition, foundational principles and the very identity of the College itself.

Of course in all of this, St John’s College is not alone.

Catholic education is now faced by the need to change on multiple fronts if it is to continue to thrive both educationally and religiously.

The consumerist, results driven nature of education sees parents take or leave schools without regard for the tribal or cultural connections that once made them loyal.

In a world of marketers, coaching colleges, Naplan results and fevered HSC comparisons our schools are searching to maintain their place in the sun. 

You might be familiar with educational buzzwords and jargon – pedagogy, authentic, growth and differentiation – all in the service of that journey we’re apparently all on.

These words do have meaning and despite my scepticism about their profligate use, they are important and applicable to where our schools need to be. 

But the hard grind of change in our schools is perhaps more mundane and driven by the capacities of our leaders to drive that change. 

In a school setting it means challenging the status quo and often industrial models of doing what is really professional work. 

It’s fostering a willingness to constantly change, to literally open up the classrooms, student results and share not just the successes but the failures as well. 

It’s asking parents and students what they want and expect and entering into an intelligent and ongoing dialogue about what’s both realistic and desirable. 

And its asking teachers, parents and students to build a school together rather than offering a take it or leave institution that’s a product an industrial age that’s long gone. 

And most importantly, it will once again become the key connection between non practicing Catholics and Parish communities through a more expansive approach to both school and parish life.

 So this is what I think a great Catholic School of the future will look like:

  • Schools will be open for up to 48 weeks in the year and have operating hours between 7.00am and 7.00pm because thats what busy working parents and communities need;
  • Students will no longer be classified and taught solely on the basis of their age but rather by their ability level at any given time which will spare many of them the experience of constant failure or mind numbing boredom – an explicit focus on human dignity can guide us out of what is for many is an educational process of humiliation and disengagement;
  • Assessments will be conducted on the basis of differentiation between students using technology to track where every student is in terms of both their personal growth and also in relation to the overall student population;
  • Parents will have real time access to where their child’s educational progress and will be invited more and more into the process of their child’s education – understanding and expanding the role of parents and caregivers in a child’s education increases the capacities of everyone involved;
  • Schools will become more integrated with professions, businesses and community groups by inviting them to be increasingly part of the fabric of the school;
  • Catholic schools will directly engage with school parents about faith, doubt, life, their own spirituality in a ways that respect where they are at and how they view the world;
  • The boundaries between schools and parishes will blur in so far as to be part of one is to be part of the other and they will be joined often through physical infrastructure and co-location of Catholic social services, aged care, health and other outreach services. 

These are tall orders indeed and yet the history of our Church is that in the most improbable and lest predictable of ways it has risen to the occasion to flourish and renew. 

And those who lead the change will need to draw from deep reservoirs of resilience, optimism, adaptability and tenacity. 

The author Paul Johnson opens his History of Christianity by saying that we are fallible creatures with immortal longings and I’ve always found those words consoling and even a little bit funny particularly when I’ve been in the process of promoting often difficult change. 

St John’s College has my best wishes and prayers for the important role it will play in forming leaders of the future who will guide our Church and society in this renewal to which we are called. 

I thank you again and wish you God’s blessings and ask you all to charge your glasses and toast St John’s.

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