MLC: Parents at principal’s former school speak out

MLC School at Burwood. The school has lost four heads of its junior, middle and senior schools in the past two years, and this week a further 30 staff left the school. Photo: Dallas KilponenMLC: private Sydney girls school in turmoilMLC: School council working on stability

Parents of students at a former school run by MLC principal Denice Scala​ have told Fairfax Media they had concerns over her management style in the late 2000s.

Ms Scala, who has faced an ongoing campaign against her leadership following allegations of questionable workplace practices, low morale, and teachers being forced to leave, was formerly the principal of the St Andrew’s School in Adelaide and the head of St Catherine’s junior school in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.

This year 30 staff left the 129-year-old school in Sydney’s inner west. In the last two years it has lost four heads of its middle, junior and senior schools and key members of its world-renowned music department.

A parent at St Andrew’s School said the situation was “absolutely identical,” to what occurred at the school in Walkerville, one of Adelaide’s most affluent suburbs, after Ms Scala joined the school in 2007.

“It was really frightening,” said Vicki Moore, who had three children at the school. “It started with the music department and then moved through. We had the most beautiful school, within a year 30 families had left.”

Another former parent at the school, Judith Lukas, said the 160-year-old school moved rapidly from a family-friendly environment to a corporate workplace, as key services such as after-school care were outsourced and fees rose by 20 per cent in one year.

“The lack of consultation was disturbing,” she said. “There was a fair amount of evidence early on that Denice had very strong ideas. If you weren’t going with her you were gone.”

The Adelaide school, established in 1850, charges primary school students up to $19,000 a year.

Before her tenure at St Andrew’s, Ms Scala was the head of the junior school at St Catherine’s for more than a decade.

St Catherine’s headmistress Julie Townsend said she could not comment on past events.

“We’ve got a united junior and senior school and a very committed staff, that’s all I can say.”

Ms Scala has denied Fairfax Media’s repeated requests for comment.

Paul Stanhope, the former director of composition at MLC, told Fairfax Media in 2013 that the school had gone from a place of innovation to a feeling of suspicion and micro-management.

“It takes 20 years to build up a [music] department like that and it takes less than a year to completely destroy it.”

On Thursday, Bob Connolly, a former parent at the Uniting Church school and the director of Mrs Carey’s Concert, a documentary about the school’s music program, told Fairfax Media he had raised concerns about the direction of the school with the board two years ago.

“Citing documented examples of questionable workplace practices, low morale and excellent teachers being forced to leave, we warned Ms [Pauline] Johnston [the chairwoman of the school council] that unless something was done, the situation would eventually blow up in her face.”

“Judging by the teacher exodus that has so many parents now tearing their hair, and by the ferociously critical comments by parents and former students now appearing on various education websites, it’s beginning to seem as though our warnings have come to fruition.”

Former MLC teacher James Humberstone, who now lectures at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, said that the process of airing complaints to the school council was flawed.

“They wouldn’t let any staff speak to the school council without the principal being present.”

Fairfax Media has seen documents showing teachers’ complaints to the school council have to be passed on to the principal under school protocols.

Internal documents show the school maintained that this was in the interests of natural justice.

The Uniting Church has been at pains to distance itself from the controversy at the school despite two of its chaplains leaving this year. On social media parents have called on the synod to intervene.

“The Uniting Church remains confident that MLC School [is] continuing to practise Uniting Church values and ethos, and offer strong pastoral support for students in their care,” a spokeswoman said.

On Thursday the MLC school council emailed parents stating that they were aware of concerns within the community and were working on stability.

“The recent turnover has certainly been higher than the principal and the council would have liked, and we see it as an important priority that it quickly returns to more normal levels,” the statement said.

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