Stress fear in $700 child forum

WA children as young as eight who attend "life-changing" coaching sessions by a controversial US company could have difficulty with their schoolwork afterwards, according to experts.

The Sunday Times, Australia/June 11, 2006
By Peta Hellard

Landmark Education, a multi-million dollar corporation based in San Francisco, is charging families $700 a child to attend its Forum for Young People, which it claims creates "breakthrough results".

About 40 WA children aged from eight to 12 are enrolled in the intensive three-day workshop, which will be held in Perth in August.

The course will see children skip school on a Friday, working from 9am to 6pm for three days straight over the weekend and having to complete assignments during lunchbreaks and for homework, then begin a full school week on the Monday.

WA child development and education experts are concerned about the intensive hours of the course and about children being taken out of school for a day to attend the high-cost forum.

Adolescent psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg urged parents to be wary of dipping into their family budget to send children to the course – which costs more than $230 a day.

"The personal-development material being taught in WA schools is perfectly adequate so I would regard this (course) with enormous scepticism and as a complete and utter waste of money," Dr Carr-Gregg said.

"If a child has a major psychological problem they should go to a fully qualified, government-accredited professional, rather than some `you beaut' system imported from America."

Association of Independent Schools of WA deputy executive director Valerie Gould said that without a regular weekend break to relax, children would likely be tired and distracted during lessons in the ensuing days.

"Overloading children on the weekend could make them less able to deal with the following week at school," she said.

"I think sticking a kid in there for three days is pretty awful. The only legitimate reasons parents should take children out of school is for a medical reason or urgent family business."

Landmark Education spokeswoman Deb Beroset said the organisation condoned parents taking their children out of school for a day so the youngsters could attend the course.

"We trust parents to make the appropriate choices for their children," Ms Beroset said.

"The schedule has been reviewed by our health and education professional advisers to their approval."

Course material says the program enables children to "gain clarity" and "examine their lives in a way which leaves them empowered", giving them "a new freedom in life".

Organisers also claim the course can result in breakthroughs in several areas, including "seeing rules and agreements as a way to have life work", "generating excellence in school" and "powerfully facing the risks and challenges of life".

A WA police officer told The Sunday Times that he was concerned after his former wife sought the required consent from him for their daughter to attend the course in Perth.

The officer, who did not want to be named, said after researching the group on the internet, he declined to give permission.

"It struck me as a money-making enterprise and I really thought that the three-day seminar could be quite stressful and draining," he said.

"An eight-year-old shouldn't be doing anything more stressful or draining than a times table or spelling test."

Adrian van Leen – director of Concerned Christian Growth Ministries, a WA organisation that investigates cult and other groups – said parents should think twice about allowing their children to participate.

"Children should be learning from general life experiences and growth rather than an abbreviated, pressure-cooker teaching course," he said.

Landmark Education's US-based legal counsel Art Schreiber said parents should not be concerned about their children taking part.

"There is nothing cult-like or religious about our programs," he said.

"Landmark Education is an international training and development company that offers a unique educational program that creates breakthrough results for people and organisations."

Previously known as Est, Landmark Education was founded in 1971 by Werner Erhard, a former used-car and door-to-door encyclopedia salesman, after he quit Scientology.

Like other US direct-marketing companies, it relies on word-of-mouth for promotion and recruitment of new clients.

Landmark Education has grown to become a worldwide giant, with courses offered in 140 cities through 52 offices across 23 countries. It made a total revenue of $100 million in 2005, with $9 million of that coming from its Australian arm.

Only children of people who have completed at least one of Landmark Education's adult courses are allowed to be enrolled in the course.

Ms Beroset said since the children's course was launched in Australia 12 years ago, 1940 children had participated.

Since 2000 when it was first held in its Hay St, Perth, office, 286 WA children have taken part.

Landmark Education's Perth office refused to make any comment to The Sunday Times about its upcoming course, referring all inquiries to its head office in the US.

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