A Scientology-linked primary school in Melbourne’s outer east has rebranded itself, erasing any public acknowledgment of the controversial religion while still using teaching methods developed by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
Earlier this year, Mooroolbark Grammar opened as a small new school on the site once occupied by Yarralinda, which used to disclose its use of Hubbard’s “Applied Scholastics” curriculum. The new Mooroolbark Grammar instead advertises links to a Montessori early education program taught on site, prompting concerns the school is using that as cover to hide its Scientology background to prospective parents.
The Montessori program – which involves a different teaching approach to Hubbard’s – is mentioned in the new primary school’s marketing materials, its website, a banner outside the school, a prospectus and in job advertisements.
But there is no mention in public material that the rebranded school is still controlled by prominent Melbourne Scientologists and that the primary school teaches Hubbard’s methods. Many of Mooroolbark Grammar’s students are bussed daily from Scientology’s headquarters in Ascot Vale across the city and then back again after school.
The new Grammar school, with a Latin logo that translates as “Reach your potential”, is on the site of Yarralinda, a small school which opened in 1990 and used the Applied Scholastics teaching methods. Its former patron was local celebrity Scientologist Kate Ceberano. Yarralinda’s website previously disclosed its links to Hubbard’s methods.
A local parent, who did not want to be identified, said she was concerned about Mooroolbark Grammar’s lack of transparency about its links to Scientology, which has been attacked by some critics as an abusive cult.
“I remember looking at the site while looking at schools in the area and was disturbed to see in [Yarralinda’s] fine print that the philosophy was based on the works of L. Ron Hubbard,” the parent said.
“Mooroolbark Grammar have avoided the same error of even a sliver of transparency by providing a generic philosophy on their website, so that anyone who has no idea of the history of the school would be none the wiser.”
A copy of Mooroolbark Grammar’s legal rules – which must be purchased from Consumer Affairs Victoria in a process that took The Age two weeks – shows the school is still teaching Applied Scholastics.
The purposes of the school include teaching Hubbard’s methods and are based on his “moral code” in a publication called The Way to Happiness. The school is affiliated with the Association for Better Living and Education, an international organisation set up by Scientology and says it wants to “communicate with Affinity and Reality at all times”.
Applied Scholastics uses a teaching method called “Study Technology” which was developed by Hubbard. It says it aims to teach students “how to learn” and apply what they’ve learnt to their everyday life, rather than rote learning and memorising content or concepts.
It claims that there is a widespread “hidden illiteracy” problem in society and that one of the main barriers for students is misunderstanding words. One of the simplistic techniques they use is to encourage students to look up definitions of words they don’t understand in the dictionary.
Montessori is a style of teaching that has an emphasis on children learning at their own pace and developing natural interests and independence without formal instruction.
Mooroolbark Grammar principal Gabriella Agosta, 29, whose name before marriage was Caligiuri, grew up in a family of Scientologists who regularly post on social media about the religion. In a statement in response to questions, she said that information on Applied Scholastics was not included on the website because it was a new school and “our website is still under construction”.
She did not answer questions as to why the school mentioned Montessori in all its public material and not Applied Scholastics. The statement said the school was proud of its links to Hubbard’s teachings and parents of prospective students were told of its educational methods.
Agosta has been a provisionally registered teacher with the Victorian Institute of Teaching since November last year. Provisionally registered teachers include graduate and early career teachers, as well as those who are returning after five or more years to the profession. She did not answer a question about her experience to run the school.
In March last year, Agosta’s brother uploaded a video to Facebook showing the pair handing out booklets for the Foundation for a Drug-Free World International, an American foundation sponsored by the Church of Scientology.
Mooroolbark Grammar’s website is registered to an adherent of Scientology, and according to the school’s social media, it recently had a music program developed by a sound engineer who is featured on the Scientology website speaking about the way the religion helped him “tackle life better”.
A Montessori Australia spokesperson said it was a national advisory body that “strives to support all authentic Montessori providers” but did not oversee the operation of any school or centre, which were all “independently owned and operated”.
They did not oversee Mooroolbark Grammar’s curriculum or practices and said the school had not undertaken Montessori Australia’s quality assurance program.
“It’s complete desperation. They’re still running Scientology but cloaking it behind Montessori,” said Paul Schofield, a former board member of Yarralinda and ex-Scientologist who had been heavily immersed in the religion for 30 years. He said Scientology would be “inimically opposed” to Montessori as it contradicted Hubbard’s writings.
“Montessori philosophy is a good philosophy, it’s all workable. Hubbard’s is completely the opposite. The narcissism of Hubbard is most chronic when you see how he treats children. They’re objects to be used,” he said.
“It’s right through the entirety of Scientology that kids are responsible for their behaviour. They were old beings in young bodies and could do any job required of them as they’d already done them in some of their past lives over the last quadrillions of years.”
Last month three Australian residents accused Scientology of child trafficking, covering up multiple sexual assaults, forced labour and other abuses in a legal claim lodged in Florida against Scientology leader David Miscavige and five Church-related organisations.
The plaintiffs were part of Scientology’s “Sea Org” and “Cadet Org” entities that involved them signing billion-year contracts to provide free or cheap labour to Scientology.
Critics of Scientology accuse it of being money-focused and dangerous – claims the church rejects.
Before the rebranding, Yarralinda was struggling to survive and had just 27 students according to the MySchool website. Its financial accounts for 2020 show that 64 per cent of its $804,000 in revenue came from federal and state government funding.
It had lost more than $100,000 in both 2020 and 2019 and had sold its Mooroolbark site for $4.5 million in early 2021 to Toorak-registered Runslow Pty Ltd. Yarralinda closed at the end of 2021. A planning application was approved by Yarra Ranges Council last year for a 127-place child care centre to be built on the Mooroolbark site. Agosta said her school was not connected to the development.
Church of Scientology of Australia spokeswoman Vicki Dunstan said it had “no corporate or financial relationship” with Mooroolbark Grammar. She said Applied Scholastics was an “independent non-denominational organisation” supported by Scientology.
Australia’s other Scientology-linked school, Sydney’s The Athena School, is also running a Montessori early education program. It still informs prospective parents the school is linked to Hubbard.
In August last year, while Melbourne was in its sixth lockdown, the Yarralinda principal Christel Duffy was among three Melbourne principals who called on the state government to reopen primary schools immediately, arguing that school closures caused more harm than good.
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