Celebrating our Bicentenary

Facts about the history of Catholic Education in Australia

@SLSA – Strathalbyn, 1884

From humble beginnings almost 200 years ago, Australia’s 1,746 Catholic schools now educate over 764,000 children. This is one in five Australian students.
Catholic Schools in Australia are flourishing, as a direct result of the dedication of passionate priests, religious and lay people who have worked tirelessly to educate students and nurture faith. These efforts rely heavily on the support of staff, families, and students.  Notwithstanding the success of Catholic Schools in Australia, our journey has not been without difficulties and struggles.

By Pickering, Charles Percy (New South Wales. Government Printing Office)

In the early years of the colony, the only schools were ‘denominational schools’, and these were known as ‘church schools’. There were no government schools at the time. As the population of the colony grew, it was evident that the churches were not able to teach all of the school aged children. Public education was born in 1848 with the establishment of the Board of National Education, and the establishment of the colony’s first school at Observatory Hill in Sydney. The school was named the Fort Street Model School.
Image: Pickering, Charles Percy (NSW Government Printing Office)

Governor King [oil portrait by unknown artist], Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

In the early years of the colony, schools were viewed as a social experiment. They were promoted by the early Governors as a means of cultivating social stability and cohesion. The Governors allocated land and provided funding for them. Those who attended a school were typically taught by Anglican chaplains or free settlers. Historical records, indicate that there were exceptions, pointing to the existence of several schools for ‘Catholics’, taught by ‘ex-convicts’, James Kenny among them.

These fledgling schools, however, did not survive. It was for this reason, that the establishment of the school in Hunter St, Parramatta is considered the ‘starting point’ of Catholic education in Australia.
Image: Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW


The background of key anniversaries is usually well known, with information on the relevant people and dates clearly recorded, but this isn’t always the case. The historical records of the time when Catholic schools were first established are incomplete. While there is no foundation stone for the first school, some details are known.
In May 1820, Father John Therry arrived in Sydney as one of the first official Catholic chaplains to the colony. Within months, he established a Catholic school in Hunter Street, Parramatta. It is believed that the school was opened in late 1820. Uncertainties aside, records show that the school was operational in January 1821, with 31 pupils enrolled. And so, the story of Catholic education began!