By Stephen Cauchi
11 November 2021
CHRISTIAN schools have an exceptionally bright-future as families seek a value-driven education for their children, one retiring leader has said.
Tony Sheumack is set to say farewell after 25 years as principal of Beaconhills College in Melbourne’s south east. If the growth of his school is any indication low-fee Christian schools have a bright future.
In 1982, Beaconhills opened in Pakenham with 34 students and five staff. The co-educational school now has over 3000 students from kindergarten to Year 12 spread over two campuses, at Pakenham and Berwick.
Mr Sheumack has overseen most of this growth, but he modestly ascribes it to the appeal of low-fee Christian education and the burgeoning population of Melbourne’s outer east.
“The success of that [low-fee Christian] model has enabled it to grow significantly from when I started to what it is now,” he told The Melbourne Anglican.
“Christian education and particularly affordable Christian education, with all the Christian values that go with it, is the basis for what so many families want.”
But demographic factors were also responsible for the school’s growth, he said. These included huge demand in the growth corridor surrounding Pakenham and Berwick.
Faith-based schools, for many families, were in many ways a substitute for church, he said.
Mr Scheumack said Beaconhills was the “centre of faith” for many families who were not church-going.
“They come from different faiths and of no faith, but we do believe that we are the faith community for this particular group,” he said.
“We advertise ourselves very broadly as being a Christian school for the community, not necessarily a Christian school only for Christians.”
Mr Scheumack said probably the majority of parents at Beaconhills were not practising Christians. But all of them wanted for their children the values that come with Christian education.
Beaconhills was founded by both the Anglican and Uniting churches, so not all of the school’s chaplains are Anglican-ordained priests.
Mr Scheumack said he had developed a large chaplaincy team to provide for the faith community.
“[This] really reinforces the Christian values of our community, but they’re teaching chaplains so they are really part of the community,” he said.
Mr Sheumack, whose father was Bishop Colin Sheumack, was awarded a Federal Government university scholarship to study teaching in the early 1980s. However, he only truly settled on teaching as a career when he started doing practical instruction.
“It was being in a classroom – that’s when it resonated with me that teaching would be a career I wanted to do,” he said.
“That interaction, making a difference in the lives of young people, was really an experience.”
A maths and science teacher, Mr Sheumack initially taught at state schools with Prahran High School his first appointment. He then moved to the country, teaching at state schools in Rochester and Bendigo.
It was at Bendigo that he transitioned to working in independent schools.
He was at the Anglican Girton College in 1992 when it transitioned into Girton Grammar, a private school independent of the church.
Mr Scheumack said he learnt a lot during that transitional time, which was very difficult for both the Anglican church in Bendigo, and the entire Girton community.
At Girton he became boarding master and then, at Girton Grammar the deputy head of the school.
In 1997, he moved to Beaconhills to take on the principal position.
“From the work that I’d done at Girton I was encouraged to apply for the vacant role that was coming up at Beaconhills,” he said.
Mr Sheumack said the future of affordable faith-based schools was “very, very bright” because “we are privileged to be able to stand on Christian values.”
“We have been able to provide a relatively affordable Christian education for a very large community that would not have had access to that type of education,” he said.
The aim of Beaconhills, he said, was to have young citizens with a sense of service rooted in Christian values.
In doing so Beaconhills students would become “great citizens of the world”.
The last two years had reinforced the importance of the community feel that faith-based schools offered, he said.
“They are the centre of our community,” he said.
“Through the COVID period where so much has been online, there’s that real yearning for connection, a real yearning for well-being and being part of something that’s greater than oneself – the community that you serve.”