Ethnic mix changing in Catholic schools

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Last year was the first year that non-European/Pākehā students made up more than half the number of students in Catholic schools in New Zealand. 

Using Ministry of Education school roll data as of July, the New Zealand Catholic Education Office reported that students of European/Pākehā ethnicity made up 49.9 per cent of those attending Catholic schools in 2018. The next largest group was Pasifika students (15.7 per cent), Asian (15.3 per cent) and Māori (14.5 per cent).

In 2009, the figures were European/Pākehā (58 per cent), Pasifika (16 per cent), Māori (13 per cent) and Asian (11 per cent).

Schools in Auckland diocese and Wellington archdiocese, with their more multi-cultural urban populations, have more ethnically diverse student populations, followed by Hamilton and Palmerston North, the NZCEO report stated.

In Auckland diocese, the ethnicity breakdown of the student population at Catholic schools given in the report is European/Pākehā (39 per cent), Pasifika (28 per cent), Asian (19 per cent) and Māori (9 per cent). There is a further category denoted as “other” that completes the student population.

In Wellington archdiocese, the figures are European/Pākehā (47 per cent), Pasifika (18 per cent), Māori (16 per cent) and Asian (15 per cent).

The percentages in the NZCEO report of European/Pākehā students in other dioceses are: Hamilton (57 per cent), Palmerston North (59 per cent), Christchurch (64 per cent) and Dunedin (66 per cent).

Catholic Education Services manager for Auckland diocese Philip Mahoney told NZ Catholic he is not surprised at the ethnicity figures, based on what he and his staff see at school Masses and in doing school reviews.

“[I]t has been obvious in the last couple of years that the proportion of European students is a lot smaller than in years past,” Mr Mahoney said.

He noted, though, that the European/Pākehā proportion of Catholic schools in Auckland has been under 50 per cent for some time.


Growth in the proportion of Asian students, especially Indians and Filipinos, has been noticeable.

Mr Mahoney said that at some Auckland Catholic secondary schools, it can be seen that, of the students who are collecting academic prizes and who are taking roles in school liturgies, such as being ministers of the Eucharist, a minority are “New Zealand European students”.

The growth in Indian and Filipino families in parishes in Auckland is being reflected in the schools, he believed.

“In Auckland, our schools have had strong Pasifika representation for quite some time and some of our schools are almost 90 per cent plus Pasifika,” he said, “but the change has been in the growth of what is broadly categorised as Asian.”

He noted that Indian and Filipino people have their own cultures, which are “quite different”, but for the report they “are broadly categorised as Asian”.

An increasingly diverse school population is a positive, but it also brings challenges, Mr Mahoney said.

“It is a positive overall because they bring different cultural perspectives around not only the worldview in terms of the countries they have come from, which are quite different both in terms of size and structure and how they operate and degrees of wealth and poverty that we see in New Zealand, so they bring that, but they bring different cultural attitudes towards education, towards achievement, what they value, possibly
sometimes a lot of value on academic achievement, perhaps not so much on sports or if it is sports, it is different sports to what have been customary for the European [population].”


But having families who are relatively new to New Zealand and its education system can pose challenges.

“A lot of our schools are moving to ‘innovative learning environments’ with rebuilds,” Mr Mahoney said. “Although that is also new for European New Zealander families who didn’t experience that with the parents’ generation, they have seen it happening for a little bit longer than perhaps some of the new, recently-arrived Filipino, Indian families who don’t have schools like that. So that is one challenge for them as families and
for their children to adapt to learning in wide open spaces.”

Mr Mahoney said there can be challenges concerning “the religious background that they bring, again this possibly also has a lot more traditional devotional practices in it, which they seem to, after a little while, develop of their own accord in parishes, sometimes with the blessing of the parish priest as well, and sometimes alongside. . . other practices, so we see a growth of sodalities or devotions which are not common in New Zealand. . .”.

“For those children, who possibly attend some of that with their parents, . . . there is a little bit of an expectation [from] the parents that there will be some kind of devotional practices in the schools, and so the schools need to be aware that there is an expectation that a Catholic school will offer the rosary in the month of the rosary, and things like that, which we normally do, but not to the extent that they might expect.”


The changes in the ethnic make-up of the student population in Catholic schools in Auckland is not limited to the students. Mr Mahoney said it is represented among teaching staff too.

He said that, particularly in primary schools, when his staff visit on reviews, “we are seeing a lot more schools employing Filipino and Indian teachers”, notably for the tagged positions. (A teacher in a tagged position must be willing and able to take part in religious instruction in the school).

A lot of the names on the forms which come to Mr Mahoney’s office for approval for tagged positions in Catholic schools are Filipino or Indian, he said.


The NZCEO report also noted that, as of July, there were 66,888 students in Catholic schools, representing 8.3 per cent of the New Zealand schooling network.

This was an increase of 160 over the previous year. But, proportionately, it represented a decline of less than 0.1 per cent in terms of the overall New Zealand schooling network. In 2011 and 2012, the proportion of students at Catholic schools as against the overall school network was 8.6 per cent.

In 2018, in the Taranaki region, students in Catholic schools made up 15 per cent of the overall school network in the region. In the West Coast and Southland, the figure was 14 per cent. In Marlborough, the figure was 2 per cent and it was 4 per cent in Tasman and Northland.

Of the Catholic school population, 44 per cent were year 1-6 primary students, 39 per cent year 9-13 secondary students and the remainder year 7-8 intermediate level who may have been in primary or secondary schools.

There are 237 Catholic schools in New Zealand, with the average Catholic school size being 280 students. The average Catholic primary school roll is 175 and the average Catholic secondary school roll is about 750.

There were 23,007 students in Catholic schools in the Auckland region, 9644 in the Wellington region and 8110 in the  Canterbury region.

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Michael Otto

Reader Interactions


  1. John says

    Custodians of the faith have an obligation towards the practice of the faith, its continuance, and protecting it against heresy. It can be demonstrated easily that multi-culture is an area which if not monitored, can become detrimental to the host culture.
    A simple example is Turkey, once Christian.
    In 1900, it had a ratio of one Christian to five non-Christians.
    That has now changed to one Christian to five hundred Christians.

    • JD says

      I broadly agree with the caution and intent of John’s comment above. But I would assert that the inflow of believers from these source countries (particularly the Phillipines) is a shot in the arm for a declining ‘Kiwi’ Catholicism. Moreover, the willingness of non-Christian parents to engage with Catholic/Faith based education (such as some of the Indian (non-Catholic Indian) population, and others, returns to the roots and purpose of Catholic education in NZ – which was fundamentally evangelical in it’s original vision (age RNDM Sisters). What we can say is – pray for the teachers and leaders and students, that they would know and love Christ and obey the Word of God AND be salt and light with a different view of what a flourishing life should look like.

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