by PETER GRACE
Some Catholic schools are struggling to permanently fill positions the law requires them to have.
Neither of Wanganui’s three Catholic primary schools has a permanent director of religious studies (DRS).
The Private Schools Conditional Integration Act requires Catholic schools with more than four teachers to have a DRS.
Wanganui’s smallest Catholic primary school, St Marcellin’s, has 100 pupils and six teachers — including the principal. The other two schools are St Mary’s, 180 pupils and St Anne’s, 280.
The principal of St Marcellin’s, Campbell Harrison, said his school had advertised eight weeks earlier for a DRS, but no one applied.
One of the problems, Mr Harrison said, is that becoming a DRS was something of a “career stopper”. It might bring a smallish pay increase, but much greater responsibilities, and tended to lead nowhere in terms of career progression.
Mr Harrison said he had made some internal changes to cover religious education through to the end of the year.
The principal of St Mary’s, Chris Gullery, said it was worse at his school than not having a DRS. St Mary’s was required to have a certain ratio of Catholic to non-Catholic staff . Two Catholic staff were on overseas experience, and when they left there would be one Catholic
teacher, plus the principal.
“That means there will be four vacant positions that must be filled by Catholic teachers,” he said.
The school would not be able to make another permanent appointment until it had filled the tagged positions (those with particular Catholic requirements).
“There won’t be a snowflake’s chance in hell of filling these places, so what it means, we are going to be in a nasty position year to year,” said Mr Gullery.
Any staff who covered the gap short term wouldn’t feel good about it, even if they were good people.
The principal of St Anne’s, Karl Zimmerman, said his school was in a second round of advertising for a DRS, after getting no applicants the first time.
In the meantime, a team of three staff with DRS experience were covering the gap.
The Chief Executive Officer of the NZ Catholic Education Office, Sir Brother Pat Lynch, told NZ Catholic that it is not a new problem. That was partly because it was more difficult to fill tagged positions outside the main centres, because there was a smaller pool of potential applicants.
There was a gradual improvement, Br Lynch said, because teachers could now get better qualifications as a result of courses available through Australian Catholic University, Good Shepherd College and The Catholic Institute.
In some cases, Br Lynch said, small schools might work together so one person covered a position in more than one school. Money might also help.
“In Dunedin diocese, there are financial incentives put in front to assist.” A suitable candidate might be offered a sum to cover the cost of study courses.
Mr Zimmerman said there was a need to run the system so there was always someone coming through to take over when a more senior staff member left.
As far as DRSs were concerned, authenticity was a key, Mr Zimmerman said, plus succession planning.
“You need somebody with this authentic Catholic understanding of what it means to be a DRS.”
Wanganui parish priest Fr Brian Carmine said local schools aren’t struggling just to get DRSs, but to get Catholic teachers as well.
“I think one thing is that the role of the DRS is bigger than what most people think it is,” he said.
Often anything remotely Catholic seems to be loaded onto their shoulders, even if it’s not to do with religious education, and so their commitment is not just to RE but to a lot of material just associated with Catholic character. So they get tired or need a break.
A DRS should get the same level of training as any subject teacher, Fr Carmine said. And the same resources, the same teaching time and the same level of non-teaching hours.
“I think that a person who’s a DRS has to have a really solid understanding of the catholicity, so that they can attract and guide,” he said.
The president of the Catholic Primary School Principals’ Association, Michael Mokai, said he had heard stories from some colleagues of their frustrations with filling tagged positions.
“I think it can happen anywhere,” he said, “but it can be very difficult in rural areas. Just with the lack of people willing to travel to rural areas to teach, there’s always less applicants for starters.”