THE Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle plans to expand its network of long day care centres to 20 within five years, which would put it at the helm of a collection larger than any other diocese in the country.
Diocese chief executive officer Sean Scanlon said the organisation had opened three of its St Nicholas Early Education centres in Chisholm, Cardiff and Lochinvar – which he valued at a combined $12 million – since the start of March this year, to join its existing centres in Newcastle West and Singleton.
The diocese plans to open another six, valued at a cost of more than $15 million, in the next two years.
All will be funded by the Catholic Development Fund and located near four existing and two proposed Catholic schools.
“There’s no oversupply if you provide what the market wants, which is co-location – it’s a pretty attractive proposition,” Mr Scanlon said.
“We’ve hit a magic formula trying to build centres next to Catholic primary and secondary schools.
“This allows parents to make one drop off for their children attending both day care and school.
“We’ve got a long history of more than 100 years in education and we offer CatholicCare Social Services and welfare programs.
“But this is a new direction and expanding what we’re doing – a new venture almost.
“This is a need we’ve identified and we’re trying to respond to what working parents want, which is a long day care centre and support to drop children off early in the morning.”
Mr Scanlon said other dioceses and parishes had established early learning centres and out-of-school-hours care services, but few had ventured extensively into long day care.
He said the Archdiocese of Brisbane had 10 long day care centres tied to its Centacare social services operations, while the dioceses of Parramatta and Broken Bay had four and five early learning centres respectively that operate mostly to mid afternoon.
“But there’s not too many other dioceses that would have the ambition we have to expand to the numbers  we’ve suggested,” he said.
“We’ve set this up separately to give it the focus and attention others haven’t.
“We’re also talking to other dioceses to roll out centres in their areas as well. We’ve got expertise and hopefully will build on that.”
Mr Scanlon said families did not need to be Catholic or intend to enrol at the diocese’s schools to attend its long day care centres.
Each St Nicholas centre has strong links to the region’s Catholic schools, but transition programs are also available to state schools.
“We do see a lot of children going on to Catholic schools but we don’t say they must go there,” Mr Scanlon said.
“There’s no hard sell – we allow parents to decide.
“We think it’s a good thing [to attend a Catholic school], but we leave it up to them.
“Kids go to public schools as well, it’s a bit of a blend.
“The philosophy is the same as Bishop Bill Wright’s for schools – they’re Catholic schools, not schools for Catholics.”
Mr Scanlon said while there were some nuns that worked with children, the centres used the commonplace Reggio Emilia Philosophy and there were “no overt religious elements” to teaching.
“We might take them on an excursion to the [Sacred Heart] Cathedral but it’s not overly religious, we feel it’s too early for children.”
Mr Scanlon said the diocese would convert an existing Raymond Terrace centre close to St Brigid’s Primary into its next St Nicholas centre, which is expected to open next January with 110 places.
It plans to open a centre in the former Maitland Ex Servicemen’s Citizens Bowling and Sporting Club with 60 places in February 2019.
It will be close to St John the Baptist Primary and All Saints College St Peter’s Campus and will be joined by a new VET [vocational education and training] centre for early education staff.
“This may be a good opportunity for students at St Peter’s and St Mary’s campuses if they’re looking to develop their career to study there, but it will offer programs to anyone in the sector.”
It plans to open a Branxton centre with 120 places across the road from Rosary Park Catholic School next March.
The diocese is preparing to submit a development application to Maitland City Council with a masterplan for land it owns at Gillieston Heights, which it hopes will accommodate a centre with 120 places to open in November 2019, plus a primary school and community centre.
It plans to open a Muswellbrook centre with 80 places and a Scone centre with 70 places in February 2020.
The diocese is also preparing to submit a development application to Port Stephens Council for the Catherine McAuley Catholic College site, which will open at Medowie in 2020.
Its masterplan includes a long day care centre with an initial 104 places and a primary school.
“This site could cater from six months old to year 12 and will draw in students from Raymond Terrace and Nelson Bay who are currently travelling to San Clemente [in Mayfield].”
The diocese’s movement into the preschool sector coincides with it forging ahead with its schools.
It opened St Bede’s Catholic College at Chisholm at the start of 2018, plus expanded St Mary’s Gateshead and the newly stand-alone St Joseph’s College Lochinvar to year 12.