The experience has been, in many ways, life-changing for those who have participated. Since that time the staff of our schools and the CSO, through the Teachers Helping Teachers Fund, have raised over $100,000 to help support the work of the Church in education as the most significant step in overcoming poverty is a good education.
The efforts of Church agencies such as Catholic Mission and Caritas have been obvious to all those who have participated in these immersion experiences. In response to this our schools have made outstanding monetary contributions to both of these agencies over the years. The schools have raised more funds than most other dioceses in Australia.
This reflects the commitment of our staff and students to reach out to those who lack the many opportunities that we are afforded in our country.
We have been reminded of this during the last two weeks through the visit of Mr Soane Vahe, the Director of Schools of the Diocese of Tonga and Niue in the Pacific Ocean. Soane has come to the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle to observe a system of Catholic schools in operation.
The intention was for him to learn from us how a Catholic school system in NSW works but the opposite has been the case. We have learnt so much from him.
The system of Catholic schools in the Diocese of Tonga and Niue is very small by comparison with the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, with 3 Technical Colleges, 4 Secondary schools and 2 Primary schools. In total they have just over 2000 students and 199 staff.
However, it is the commitment of the Bishop of Tonga and Niue, Cardinal Soane Patita Paini Mafi, to the education of young people, that will see the Catholic system of schools grow.
The diocese originally had a number of Primary schools but because of a lack of funds had to hand them over to the Government. Unfortunately the Catholic schools receive very little Government support. Teachers are paid approximately one quarter of the salary of the teachers in the State schools and yet their largest school has 1300 students. The commitment of these teachers and support staff is admirable.
Despite this dearth in funding and the challenges of running a wide ranging system, Soane is very confident of the future. He has been supported in his endeavours by the Australian Catholic University who has provided advice to Soane and the Cardinal on how to develop the school system in the years ahead.
I am sure the many staff who have met Soane over the last two weeks will have gained a greater appreciation of the difficulties that small countries have operating a school system and advancing the message of the Gospels.
I certainly hope that our diocese will be able to assist Soane and his schools in the future as they embrace the challenges they face. We wish him a safe return to his country and thank him most sincerely for awakening us to the importance of education in developing countries.