Dozens of parents are pulling their children out of a new Gungahlin public school which they say has descended into chaos two years after it opened.
Students at Margaret Hendry School in Taylor are encouraged to be self-directed learners in multi-age, open-plan classrooms, an approach which the ACT Education Directorate says comes from its Future of Education strategy.
However, parents have told horror stories of their children being bullied, given three-day suspensions for minor infringements and falling years behind in literacy and numeracy during their time at the school.
Madeline, who did not wish to give her surname, said she was told her child was performing well academically for two years, only to receive a report this year that the year 6 student was reading at the level of an eight-year-old.
"It's been nothing short of a disaster," she said.
"It's very alternative. It obviously will work for some kids, but it doesn't work for a lot of kids, especially kids who have been to structured schools."
One mother said her five-year-old child was suspended 15 times last year before receiving a formal diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. She was forced to resign from her job when her child was only allowed to attend school three hours per day.
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Mikayla Elms' daughter was suspended seven times when she was in kindergarten, also waiting for an ADHD test.
Ms Elms said she tried repeatedly to speak with the school and Education Directorate to get more support to no avail. She has moved to another area and her children have changed schools.
"They're ruining a schooling system that didn't need to be ruined," she said.
An Education Directorate spokeswoman said the school delivered on the Australian curriculum with a strong focus on literacy and numeracy skills and was working to understand and respond to the concerns of parents and carers.
"The Education Directorate is also committed to working with the school community to understand the diversity of views about the school's learning and teaching models and operations," the spokeswoman said.
Another mother, who didn't want to be named because of her employment, said her eight-year-old daughter suffered severe anxiety because of relentless bullying at the school.
The year 2 student had yoghurt thrown in her face, her lunchbox destroyed, bunches of toilet paper thrown at her and came home covered in bruises.
"When I found out how severe this bullying was, my heart just broke," she said.
"We felt completely unsupported. There was no help for her, nothing put in place to make her feel safe at school. That this could possibly be the future for ACT schools is frightening."
The family has since moved to a Catholic school and now has to pay $90 per week in tutoring to catch up to the baseline literacy and numeracy levels.
"They were like a bunch of hamsters in a science experiment," she said.
One mother said her daughters' behaviour changed after attending Margaret Hendry School amid the lack of discipline and routine.
"It should be a specialised choice school, not a main school that everyone can go to," she said.
She said there was limited Indigenous education for her children despite repeated requests for cultural support.
"I enrolled my kids thinking, 'This is a fresh new start, my kids can really thrive here'," the mother said.
"This year it's crammed."
Several parents said the school's philosophy seemed manageable in 2019 with only 246 students, but the school has rapidly grown to 487 pupils in 2020 and has about 600 this year.
Cath Woodward said her family decided to move over the border largely because of their experience at Margaret Hendry School.
Within weeks their new teachers noticed her children were behind in their learning.
"We've felt wronged for my kids from a practical perspective," she said.
"My eldest couldn't spell apple but he could spell swear words."
Preschool parents have raised concerns over the high turnover of educators and that a purpose-built preschool room has now been turned into a community hub, forcing preschoolers to share a classroom space with upper-primary students.
Primary school parents have queried why the school does not give homework or home reading, does not have a canteen and hasn't hosted many whole-school activities such as sports carnivals or assemblies.
An external review of the school earlier this year found nearly half of the staff were new to the school and a large number of teachers were early in their careers.
"Students were mostly unaware of their goals and were unsure of next steps for learning," the review said.
A spokeswoman said the Education Directorate was unable to provide data on staff resignations and that suspension data was only available at a system-wide level.
The latest suspension data showed a large increase in the number of suspensions across all ACT public primary schools from 818 incidents in 2018 to 1426 in 2019.
The spokeswoman said the preschool students had their own facility and the school was restricted with holding events and sport carnivals because of the pandemic.
Some families have moved their children to private or Catholic schools, however, other public primary schools in Gungahlin were at capacity.
Opposition education spokesman Jeremy Hanson said inquiry-based learning could have real merit but younger children needed a base level of knowledge.
"Once you fall behind in literacy and numeracy, you may never catch up," he said.
"It's concerning when that is the only option offered because you are in that catchment area. That's why so many people choose to send their child to the non-government school system or are having to spend an inordinate amount of money on tutors in order to catch up."
In 2020 Margaret Hendry School was named by The Educator magazine as one of the most innovative schools in Australia.
This year it received the ACT public education award for partnership of the year for opening the community hub on campus.
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