Catholic education formally commenced in the Port Phillip District in 1840 with a school attended by approximately 40 students. In 2004 Melbourne had more than 200 primary schools, 58 secondary schools, and six special schools, educating more than 30% of the city's children. The Melbourne campus of Australian Catholic University (ACU) had an enrolment of over 2000 students.
Until the 1960s a sectarianism characterised by exceeding bitterness divided the community. Education before 1872 was not immune. Attacking the proposed removal of government financial subsidies to church schools, the Catholic bishop of Melbourne, James Alipius Goold, called on his followers to oppose the move through prayer and political action. Goold saw the 1872 Education Bill as another instance of persecution of Catholics: 'it will be the duty of all to meet it with that steady, firm opposition which the sainted and martyred Christians of the early years offered to the persecuting laws of the Pagans'. In these words, reported in the Age in 1872, Goold laid the foundation for a Catholic school system.
The Education Act 1872 represented a radical realignment of the relationship between Church and state. Where, traditionally, education had been seen as a religious activity, the state took on an expanded role in placing demands on its citizens, for example requiring them, compulsorily, to attend school. The challenge for the churches was to decide whether to accept the state's new role or to provide education for their adherents without state aid. The Protestant churches largely accepted the state schools, maintaining relatively few schools. The Catholic bishops decided to maintain a system of Catholic schools with the ideal - never to be achieved - of having every Catholic child in a Catholic school. This policy was based on the theological understanding that life is essentially religious, and something as important as the rearing of the young should take place in a home open to religious sensibilities and practices and in schools which extended that environment - an understanding that continues today.
The struggle for state aid did not end in 1872. The claim was reiterated at every new school opening by Archbishop Daniel Mannix and his successors. Before 1872, parish schools were staffed largely by lay teachers. With the removal of funding, Catholic bishops invited English, Irish, and European religious orders to help staff existing schools and establish new ones. The period between 1872 and the early 1950s is one of gradual expansion, with emphasis being placed on providing places in primary schools.
Aiming to outperform the state schools, the Catholic education system was focused on results. In 1874 the minutes of Goold's Education Subcommittee recorded that 'the State schools obtained only a low percentage of passes - much lower than the average for the Melbourne Catholic schools'. The aim was to reassure parents that Catholic education gave their children a quality education. With the advent, in the mid-20th century, of the Victorian Junior Government Scholarship and, later, the Commonwealth Scholarship, the Church set up specialist scholarship schools (e.g. St Anne's North Melbourne for girls and St Colman's Fitzroy for boys) which coached specifically for exam success. Scholarships meant that many Catholic parents were able to afford to have their children complete their secondary education. From the early 1960s an increasing number of Catholic students gained access to tertiary education, creating a significant sociological shift by transforming the largely blue-collar Catholic community to one that had solid representation in the professions. Along with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, the development of a broadly based and highly educated laity has challenged and changed traditional authority patterns in the Church. Vincent Buckley's Cutting green hay (Melbourne, 1983) is a notable memoir of a Catholic coming of age in Melbourne.
Although the Commonwealth Government had been providing some funding for Catholic schools since 1964, it was the election of the Australian Labor Party in 1972 that brought regular grants for non-government schools' capital and recurrent costs. This secured the financial viability of Catholic education, although recent policies have seen the real value of grants falling. While Catholic education aims to nurture a distinctive religious ethos, unlike the 19th century when its relationships with other churches and the state was often marked by rancour, today, in the spirit of ecumenism fostered by Vatican II, it participates actively and creatively in all aspects of Australian education.