David Feeney Celebrates $500,000 Grant For 'Age of Enlightenment' School

School with 50 students practises 'consciousness-based education' and transcendental meditation.

31/05/2016 2:32 PM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:53 PM AEST
Fairfax Media
David Feeney is back in the hot seat.

Labor MP David Feeney is again facing criticism for supporting a $500,000 grant for a controversial alternative school with 50 students that encourages transcendental meditation.

Feeney, the Member for Batman who came to national attention for failing to declare a $2.3 million house, posted photos on his Facebook account on Monday after attending the unveiling of $500,000 of funding for a school in his electorate, which he described as a "great local win".

The Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment operates on a system of "consciousness-based education". The curriculum section of its website details support for transcendental meditation, Science of Creative Intelligence, and Maharishi's Vedic Approach to Health.

One mother who withdrew her child from the school this year, citing a lack of testing or tracking of students' learning progress, described Feeney's support for the grant as "embarrassing" and "ridiculous".

The school has also attracted scrutiny for its alternative teaching methods and approach to children. The Age reported in April that the school was under investigation over whether its methods contributed to students' levels of stress, and back in 2015 it was reported that the school had supplied alternative herbal medicines to students. The school has also seen its already small population halve in the last year, from 100 to around 50 students.

Lefa Singleton Norton enrolled her son in the Maharishi school for prep year in 2015. She pulled him out of the school this year, one of many parents who had done the same

She said the school did not live up to the ideals or promises that had been made on its website or made to her in person when she was considering the school for her child.

"One child, her work book hadn't been marked for a year. They weren't doing any testing of kids, and there were question marks about the school facilities," she told The Huffington Post Australia.

"The kids were using portaloos, there weren't any inside toilet facilities... My son wet himself because he hates the portaloos, they're gross and full of spiders."

School principal Steve Charisis confirmed to HuffPost Australia that Feeney, Greens candidate for Batman, Alex Bhathal and National Party Senator Bridget McKenzie were all invited to the event, to celebrate the opening of a new administration block at the school.

When asked about the media reports on the school's controversy, he said he had only started as principal this year but acknowledged that "the school went some difficult times last year" and attendance was now down to around 50 students.

"We're regenerating, it's a beautiful environment to be part of. People are embracing change. The school is heading in a positive direction," he told HuffPost Australia.

On the grant, he said the school had applied for the money when enrolments were around 100 students, and claimed the school had raised around $500,000 on its own to go toward the costs of the new building.

"It was a federal government grant for which the school applied last year or the year before. As an independent school, we apply for a grant... that is adding to the money the school added in," Charisis said.

Charisis admitted the school used portaloos during the construction of the new building, as the construction rendered other toilets unusable.

"It was because the new building was being built, the school invested in portaloos for the students who were here," he said.

"There were toilets in the old building that was replaced with the new building. On occasion you will need to bring in portaloos, to make sure there are enough facilities."

Fairfax Media
Students meditate at the Maharishi school.

Feeney claimed in a follow-up comment the Coalition government had committed the funding.

"This particular capital grant was presented to the school by National Party Senator Bridget McKenzie on behalf of the Turnbull Coalition Government," he wrote.

"In 2014 the Federal Government allocated over $1.5 million to non-government primary and secondary schools in Batman through the Capital Grants Program (CGP), which aims to improve capital infrastructure where they otherwise would not have access to sufficient resources."

Feeney was criticised by many online for his support for the program.

"Have you not read all the complaints and media reports about this school? You're rewarding a school that is poorly managed, has lost significant student numbers, is under investigation and giving them half a mil? " wrote another on Facebook.

A spokesperson for Feeney told The Guardian "he was there in his capacity as a local member alongside Greens and government representatives doing his job as a local MP".

Maharishi School website
The Maharishi school, from its website

Singleton Norton has since enrolled her son in a local public school, and said it was "inexcusable" that such a large amount of funding had been directed to a school as small as Maharishi.

"My son's school now hasn't had capital grants funding for almost 10 years. The buildings were built decades ago, and little significant work done since then," she said.

"There are other schools, private and public, have a lot more need than this tiny school serving a tiny community.

"For Feeney to be calling this a local win is ridiculous," she continued.

"Embarrassing is the perfect word. If anything could have shown him as more out of touch than the housing debacle, then this it."

The Huffington Post Australia has sought comment from the Department of Education around how the grant was assigned and whether the funding had been reconsidered in lights of reports of the school's operations.

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