The Melbourne ‘school for open minds’ that’s run unregistered for a decade

“I was never in any trouble with behaviour, or whatever. I just didn’t show up,” he says now. “It got to the point where they kind of recommended… you can’t come back.”

Then his parents found Riverside Grammar and he thrived. When he decided to push himself to get a VCE score needed to get into university, the flexible learning style meant he could work in a way that suited him, he says.

Former and current students and parents of Riverside Grammar at the school with founder Jon Carnegie (left).

Former and current students and parents of Riverside Grammar at the school with founder Jon Carnegie (left). Credit:Paul Jeffers

“Everyone here has such vastly different needs and requirements, but they’re all kind of not fulfilled by a normal school,” he told The Age during a recent visit to the school, following an invitation from Dr Carnegie to meet current and former students.

“I don’t think there’s anything that my old school could have done.”

Several parents at the meeting said they had been at a dead end trying to find alternative education for their children, and Riverside Grammar’s flexibility meant it had delivered in ways other schools had not.

One father told The Age he wasn’t sure if his son would be alive today if not for the school. He credited Riverside after seeing his son change from being suicidal and hating school to having a purpose and “having his life from him back”.

A Department of Education spokesman declined to say who was legally responsible for students of Riverside Grammar.

“I never took into concern and never questioned whether or not the school is registered or not, it didn’t bother me. It was about that guy [Dr Carnegie], what he was doing, and what the community here was doing for my son. That’s all it was about.”

Mother Sue agreed the registration issue did not bother her.

“When no school will take your child, and he wants to go to school, it’s very difficult. I wish there were more schools and places like this that could cater for all these kids who are at risk, because there’s just such a lack … Ticking those boxes for compliance, saying, ‘There’s no handrail there,’ I couldn’t care less.”

‘no boundaries’

But not all students were as happy with their experience.

Jane (not her real name) was in her mid-teens when she attended Dr Carnegie’s school for two years from 2013. She had been bullied at her previous school, before her parents found Riverside’s predecessor, the Jon Carnegie School. At the time, there were about 15 students at a small campus on High Street in Kew.

“Essentially, I would go in every day, do whenever I wanted,” she told TheAge. “I was 15 at the time, rebellious and would rock up at whatever time. There was one big room at the back, and we would sit there and do our work on our laptop. It was really bizarre, there was no real structure. Jon would sit us down and give us random lectures.”

she told The Age she “boarded” for several months. “I was locked in a moldy room at the back with two teenage boys overnight, with no division, overnight, every night. I don’t know how this was allowed. The entire way it operated was horrendous,” Jane said.

There were no licensed mental health professionals there, she added, even though many teens suffered from eating disorders, addiction problems and other serious issues. One particular memory still troubles her.

The Jon Carnegie School in Kew in 2014.

The Jon Carnegie School in Kew in 2014. Credit:Google Maps

“I was really depressed, I was staying in my room in the back. It was probably 10am because I hadn’t woken up and I refused to get out of bed. I remember Jon giving a whole speech about ‘why don’t you get up?’ in front of everyone. He said, ‘Well, if you won’t get up, what will you take to stay in bed.’ What he did was he took an entire bottle of cola and poured it on my head.

“That was awful. I’m so angry when I think about it.”

This incident was witnessed by another student who attended for three years. Looking back, this woman is also troubled by her experiences of her there.

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“I get what he is trying to do, but there are no boundaries. It’s inappropriate,” she said. “When you are a parent of a child, myself included, and their behavior is extreme, parents are at their wits’ end, you don’t know what to do, and Jon empathises with that and gives them this hope. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”

Dr Carnegie agreed that, during its early days, the Jon Carnegie School “did not suit all students”.

“We were trying to give our students a voice and create something for which there was no blueprint. We were trying to do a ‘good thing’, but I certainly accept there were times when I got it wrong,” he said.

Dr Carnegie said that after the school’s registration was cancelled, he tried to maintain an environment where young people could go, which at one stage meant the local library.

“Providing a place for these kids has always been one of our core aims and I felt it would be selling out if I were to quit. It was a low point and our boundaries and formal processes were certainly not up to standard at the time.”

‘Impossible to legislate’

Dr Carnegie Told The Age that apart from a gap of about six months to a year, students have consistently been at the school since the registration was canceled in 2012. Until last month, he said it had not been contacted or visited by the regulator.

A Department of Education spokesman did not answer when asked whether the regulator had followed up after canceling the school’s registration almost 10 years ago, and declined to say who was legally responsible for students of Riverside Grammar.

“The [Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority] is currently investigating whether Riverside Grammar is compliant with the Education and Training Reform Act 2006 and does not comment on the details of open investigations,” he said. “It is an offense under the Education and Training Reform Act 2006 to carry on or conduct a school unless the school is registered. The VRQA can take action against unregistered schools.”

In the decade the school has been running unregistered and under the radar, all schools have had to introduce Child Safe Standards following the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which found that isolated and highly controlled schools could “provide more opportunities for abuse and make it difficult to detect” and that a disproportionate number of survivors had been abused in residential boarding houses.

The school was formerly named after founder Jon Carnegie.

The school was formerly named after founder Jon Carnegie. Credit:Paul Jeffers

Several weeks ago, Victoria’s Education Minister James Merlino said he was “extremely concerned about any entity masquerading as a school without the necessary regulatory oversight”.

The comments ranked Dr Carnegie.

The 56-year-old told The Age his school existed due to an “epidemic” of students refusing to go to school, describing how he saw “many, many great kids slip between the cracks” during his time in mainstream education.

“What we try at Riverside is sort of ‘open heart, open mind’ stuff. And where I’m having my conflict, it’s impossible to legislate ‘open heart, open mind’,” he said.

“When the people who can’t are in control of the people who can, the things that matter most fall victim to the things which matter least. That’s what bureaucracy does.”

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