In Depth

How do we save our Catholic schools from financial disaster?


Catholic Schools Week celebrates the contribution that Catholic schools have made to education and society. Despite these successes, Mark Potterton addresses the very real challenge of financial hardship faced by many Catholic schools. He examines the changing educational environment that places enormous economic pressures on schools and recommends collaboration by Catholic schools to protect their common future.

I hope and pray that this crisis will bring out the treasures of who we are called to be as disciples of Jesus, and to be the field hospital that Pope Francis dreams of. This means building on what we have achieved in the past – but then to be creative in imagining something new for the future.

Kevin dowling, Bishop of rustenburg

The involvement of the Catholic Church in formal education in South Africa goes back to 1849 when the Missionary Sisters of the Assumption opened the first Catholic school for settler children in Grahamstown. Since then the Church has faced many challenges and Catholic schools both echo and accentuate the ambiguities and conflictual nature of schools in South Africa.

Today we face a challenge unlike any before in COVID-19. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) reported that nine out of 10 of the world’s children were out of school at the start of April. The challenge around the world was to ensure that the negative impact on children’s learning was minimised and to keep institutions afloat in very difficult financial circumstances in an unequal world. The lockdown of the South African economy and the closure of schools is exacerbating the inequality that exists. We have no option in our current economic environment but to ‘reimagine the Catholic school’.

School ownership models in South Africa

The Bantu Education Act, 1953 provoked a crisis in the Church because Bishops regarded the school as a pivotal part of the Church’s evangelising mission: The Bishops decided to keep the schools going, and to cooperate with the government authorities in all aspects of Bantu Education without relinquishing control of their schools.

Two types of Catholic schools emerged after the publication of the South African Schools Act in 1996: public schools and independent schools.

Public schools are State-funded schools operating on private property (churches or religious communities) The owner of the property signed an agreement with the provincial MEC for Education for the school to be used. The agreement covers several aspects including the right –– protected by the South African Schools Act –– of the owner to keep the distinctive Catholic religious character of the school.

Learners at Dominican Convent School // Facebook

Catholic Independent Schools are privately owned and operated by a Board of Governors on behalf of the owner, which may be a diocese, a religious congregation or a trust. Independent schools must meet the norms and standards that the State expects of all schools and must comply with specific requirements of each Provincial Education Department.

Challenges our schools face today

Catholic schools in South Africa are distinctive because of the philosophy underpinning our approach to education. Our Catholic schools form a small fraction of the total number of schools in South Africa, yet our influence has been both remarkable and enduring.

We have no option in our current economic environment but to ‘reimagine the Catholic school’.

In the United States Catholic schools in urban areas operate on a lower per capita basis than their equivalent public schools, and yet have better educational outcomes than their public counterparts. These achievements have been attributed to their clarity of mission and ability to help students ‘to get a life’ by addressing social justice concerns. Pupils are encouraged to develop a personal identity in Catholic schools. One author explains that this is achieved through retreats, focused discussion on core values, social service projects on behalf of marginalised groups and opportunities for guided religious reflection.

Despite these successes’ Catholic schools both in the United States and here are confronted with many financial challenges, heightened by the impact of COVID-19.

Struggle for survival hampers sharing of resources

The ideas of collaboration and sharing resources amongst schools was strongly emphasised in the 1995 Newcastle Conference, where mainly Religious Congregations and Bishops in South Africa discussed the pressing issues facing education and committed themselves to:

  • address inequality in the spheres of relationships, structures and resources;
  • form a constructive partnership with the State and other organisations working towards the transformation of our society;
  • restore the human dignity of broken people in our society;
  • institute a plan of action to develop democratic Catholic leaders and to ensure that the voice of the voiceless is heard;
  • develop a culture of self-help and develop strong local organisations for support and action.

Inequality within the Catholic school’s network continues to be a concern, but the sharing of resources has failed to materialise because most Catholic schools are fighting for their own survival and fear the changes that a different model would bring.

READ – Blueprint for Change: Funding Catholic Schools, 22 March 2010 // Greg Fazzari

Making ends meet remains a very real challenge in many Catholic schools. Several Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Johannesburg are repeatedly unable to pay their teachers because of delays in receiving their government subsidy. One recent Church document noted that government cuts place a heavy financial burden on families who choose to send their children to Catholic schools and constitutes a serious threat to the survival of the schools themselves.

Moreover, such financial strain impacts on the recruitment and retention of teachers and can also result in the exclusion of those who cannot afford to pay. A serious concern is that this may lead to selection according to means which deprives the Catholic school of one of its distinguishing features of being a school for all.

One recent Church document noted that government cuts place a heavy financial burden on families who choose to send their children to Catholic schools and constitutes a serious threat to the survival of the schools themselves.

The reality we find ourselves in South Africa is that there is low economic growth and high unemployment levels. Families are experiencing increased financial pressure, exacerbated now by COVID-19, and some parents have been forced to find more affordable schools. Education economists argue that the deepening economic pressure will further test parents’ ability to afford more expensive private education.

External pressure from new private schools model

The rapid growth of New Nation, Curro and Advtec, as well as schools like Spark and Nova Pioneer has made independent schooling more affordable and competitive. The capital investments in these schools and collective corporate services make them more viable than traditional independent schools. These schools are a challenge for us, but are also an example of what can be achieved when schools work as a group.

There have been attempts in the independent school sector to deliver education in more cost-effective ways (such as blended learning or tablets). In some schools simpler building designs and construction have been explored to reduce costs. Researchers, however, argue that parents are looking for holistic approaches that combine academics, sport, culture and technology.

Across the Atlantic, a major US independent schools study identified that the top five reasons for choosing independent schools are good structure, safety, selective intake, care and personalised approach. 

The real challenge is that too many Catholic schools are fighting the same battle for survival in isolation.

It is difficult for most of our schools to compete with new competitors with their aging infrastructure and limited facilities. The location of some of our schools is another challenge; as well as the misperception that the academic standards at some Catholic schools may have fallen.

Consequently, the landscape of schooling in South Africa has changed rapidly over the last few years and has impacted on enrolments. Many Catholic schools have curtailed spending and are ensuring that they always get value for money when they purchase goods or services. They achieve a lot with a little. But this approach places tremendous pressure on the long-term sustainability of these schools. The real challenge is that too many Catholic schools are fighting the same battle for survival in isolation.

Looking for financial answers elsewhere

In the United States, the education market not been kind to Catholic schools in recent decades. The growth of reforms like charter schools, that offer tuition-free alternatives in many urban areas, has created a very competitive environment. Dioceses have been slow to respond to shifting market demands, and the recent financial crisis has also hit struggling Catholic school systems, prompting many to close their doors.

In 2010, The Centre for Education Reform (CER) in the United States assessed the issues facing struggling Catholic schools to determine whether there were any new, untapped solutions to stem their losses, reduce the closures, and sustain what is widely believed –– by teachers and experts alike, regardless of catholicity –– to be a national treasure.

READ – New Wine for an Old Bottle: Saving Catholic schools, April 2011 // CER Policy alert

They proposed two categories of solutions: those that depend largely on public policy initiatives (e.g. vouchers, tuition tax credits) and those that would be considered school-based.

The CER argues while public policy solutions could have a huge impact on the ability of the religious school sector to remain solvent, Catholic school leaders can’t wait for the next Administration to make school choice his or her other priority; the crisis is real and now.

School-based solutions, if they haven’t relied almost completely on subsidising revenue with philanthropic money, have more recently focused on the conversion of Catholic schools to something else, generally public charter schools. While this has been a benefit to many pupils outside of the Catholic culture who deserve additional educational options, the strategy hasn’t solved the problem of preserving Catholic schools and their ethos.

McAuley House initiative to create awareness and end women and child abuse // Facebook

The rich tradition of Catholic education is not something to be discarded so lightly. A variety of high quality, diverse schooling options can strengthen the Catholic schools system. A set of strategies explored in the United States have focused on non-traditional tactics that foster greater efficiency and new means of securing cash flow, and include among others:

  • Centralise finances.
  • Create day care centres and use surplus funds to subsidise costly secondary grades.
  • Oversee the business of Catholic schools and push the ‘catholic’ brand.
  • Contract out buildings to complimentary education entities.
  • Install tuition management systems.
  • Contractual management of Catholic schools by outside entities with proven track record.
  • Develop scholarships for talented students to build the profile of schools.
  • Invest in business and development training to promote Catholic leadership.

The second set of strategies emphasises free/comparatively cheap services:

  • Use of online schooling technologies, cut overheads for brick and mortar/teachers considerably.
  • Use free technologies (Google) for more effective communication across organisation/school districts.
  • Emphasise the need to make tough decisions.
  • Replace leadership where necessary.
  • In situations where the profile of the school is changed, for example into a Charter school, the Church retains control of the property.
  • Build a strong brand

Tuition per pupil in the United States is the primary way that Catholic schools are funded. Some have argued that this procedure has inherent injustices and was even banned in some dioceses in the past. This model is also short-sighted from a business perspective as we have seen. Every school that advocates this form of funding is in danger of failure in one of two ways; the school will close from lack of pupils, or the school will morph into a private school for the elite that is Catholic in name only.

These are unprecedented times, and we must respond strategically. In addition to worrying about the effect of lockdowns on teaching and learning, principals have also been thinking about the psychosocial needs of children. Financial sustainability is becoming an even bigger challenge as well.

These are unprecedented times, and we must respond strategically.

The challenges facing Catholic and other faith-based schools needs to be addressed systematically. If we want to survive and flourish as Catholic schools, then we need to focus on resolving the difficulties to ensure that the continued presence of these schools can contribute to the common good. In short, we need to work more closely as a system and collectively share the burden of operating our schools, particularly now during the COVID-19 pandemic. We need to agree among ourselves that Catholic schools exist with and for each other and for the greater common good, and act on this commitment.  More importantly we also need to realise that our individual futures are bound to our collective future.

What options do we have?

Firstly, we need to regionalise our governance structures and introduce highly competent regional Boards which oversee groups of schools. Secondly, we need to pool our financial resources and ensure that we have reserve funds and capital development funds. Thirdly, we need to centralise our payroll management, human resources management (hiring, development and labour law) and debt collection.

We need to pool our financial resources and ensure that we have reserve funds and capital development funds.

Some of these strategies are already being addressed in incipient trusts and other ownership structures.

But this all needs to be accelerated with urgency to ensure that we save our Catholic schools from financial disaster.

Creative Commons License Attribution-NoDerivsRepublish
* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


Did you enjoy this article?

0 notes
bookmark icon

Write a comment...

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Font Resize


You may republish this article online or in print under our Creative Commons license. You may not edit or shorten the text, you must attribute the article to Spotlight.Africa and you must include the author’s name in your republication.

If you have any questions, please email


Creative Commons License Attribution-NoDerivsCreative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs
How do we save our Catholic schools from financial disaster?