When Kate* was able to send her young son to Mooroolbark Grammar’s Montessori early education program earlier this year she was elated. A Montessori program had been recommended for her child, and Mooroolbark Grammar was the only Montessori kindergarten immediately available without a lengthy wait.
Kate was quickly offered a tour of the school and a place for her son.
“It looked fine. There were literally three children in the kindergarten part when we had the tour, but I was told it was because it was just after the school holidays,” she said.
“I wasn’t going to question it because I was desperate to find somewhere for him. It sounded reputable, Mooroolbark Grammar, a grammar school, so I felt like I didn’t have to read the fine print.”
Kate soon discovered some odd traits of the school. At pickup time the children all left at once and a staff member told Kate they were catching a bus to Ascot Vale, an hour away, with no explanation. She was simply told that was where they live.
The children, it turns out, were being transported to the headquarters of the Church of Scientology, a trip they make every day.
A recent investigation by The Age uncovered undisclosed links between Mooroolbark Grammar and Scientology, a religion described by critics as an abusive cult.
Since questions from The Age were sent to Mooroolbark Grammar, the school has overhauled its website and confirmed the links to the teaching methods of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard in a section titled FAQs.
Earlier this year, Mooroolbark Grammar opened as a small new school on the site once occupied by Yarralinda, a loss-making primary school. Yarralinda disclosed its use of Hubbard’s “Applied Scholastics” curriculum and had 27 students in 2021, with most of its income coming from federal and state funding, or $17,334 a student.
The new Mooroolbark Grammar has prominently advertised links to a Montessori early education program taught on site, which prompted concerns the school was using that as cover to hide its Scientology links to prospective parents.
That was Kate’s experience. There was no apparent mention of links to Scientology by staff, although she said she would not have recognised any mention of Hubbard, a science fiction writer who founded the religion in the 1950s, or Applied Scholastics. The school insists all parents are told of the school’s background and teaching methods.
In an email to Kate, a staff member said Mooroolbark Grammar was independent and non-religious and followed the Australian curriculum. The email, along with other documents sent to Kate, made no mention of Hubbard or Applied Scholastics.
Montessori Australia, meanwhile, said it had no oversight or responsibility for schools that say they teach its curriculum, as they were independently run. It lists Mooroolbark Grammar and another school linked to Scientology, Sydney’s The Athena School on its website.
“Montessori Australia provides a listing service of Montessori programs on the website and encourages prospective parents to contact them directly,” a spokeswoman said.
A Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority (VRQA) spokesperson did not directly answer questions about Mooroolbark Grammar’s links to Scientology and whether it should receive public funding. “Mooroolbark Grammar is a non-government school, not operated by the Department of Education and Training,” a spokesperson said.
All Victorian schools registered must meet five minimum standards including good governance, effective curriculum and a safe environment for children, the spokesperson said. “Beyond the standard curriculum, non-government schools are permitted to teach subjects, including religious subjects, of their choosing.”
Prominent former Scientologists said the use of Montessori techniques by the two Australian schools was highly unusual.
“I don’t understand this Montessori connection at all. That, in the world of Scientology, is ‘squirrel’ – any system other than Hubbard’s is not acceptable,” said Mike Rinder, an Australian who rose to become one of Scientology’s most senior international executives and an official spokesman.
“They must be very desperate to try to distance themselves from any affiliation with Scientology because the stench of Scientology abuses is just too great these days.”
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.
One of the 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.
A Consumer Affairs Victoria spokeswoman said that they did not comment on individual cases or businesses, but warned that under Australian Consumer Law, a business must not engage in misleading or deceptive conduct and must not make false or misleading
“Consumer Affairs Victoria takes breaches of Australian Consumer Law seriously and will investigate allegations of wrongdoing and take action where necessary,” she said.
Australian Education Union Victorian branch president, Meredith Peace, said the union was “deeply concerned” at the amount of public funding the school received and said all students should receive “evidence-based teaching and learning programs” and called for greater funding for public schools.
Mooroolbark Grammar principal Gabriella Agosta, 29, was born into a family of prominent Scientologists, the Caligiuris. She claimed the links to Hubbard had not been previously disclosed as it was a new school and the website was under construction.
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.
Kate’s experience with Mooroolbark Grammar was short-lived. She was told that the school was about to expand into childcare and to cater for 130 children, and they were not able to keep the Montessori kindergarten open while they were renovating.
“I hope Montessori starts listening to it because I’m shocked. They have a well-known and highly respected brand, I thought this was going to benefit my son and our family.”
Instead, she was disappointed about the misinformation and lack of transparency about the school.
*Not her real name
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