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Standing at the gates of St John’s Primary School in Clifton Hill, Lisa Gau said through tears that she felt like she was losing her family.
The Fitzroy mother-of-four was one of many parents who gathered at the Catholic school – which is more than 100 years old – on Friday morning, consoling each other and angry, as they grappled with the news that their school would be one of four closed by Melbourne Archdiocese Catholic Schools (MACS).
Parents and students of St John’s Primary consoled each other when they learned the school would be closing.Credit: Eddie Jim
“It’s a family to me. It’s a community, it’s the best thing for me and my kids. It’s the best thing that happened to me,” Gau said. “And I don’t want to lose it. If I lose it, I lose my family.”
The primary schools deemed unviable and set to shut their doors at the end of the year are St Bridget’s Catholic Primary School, Balwyn North; St John’s Primary School, Clifton Hill; St Joseph’s Primary School, Black Rock; and St Mary Magdalen’s Parish School, Chadstone.
MACS executive director Dr Edward Simons said the organisation was committed to helping students, staff and families transition.
The schools were told in May they were under review – all campuses with fewer than 150 students were assessed for enrolment prospects, financial and educational performance, and whether enrolled families were open to attending alternatives.
Parents and students of St John’s Primary in Clifton Hill.Credit: Eddie Jim
But St John’s parents are questioning the MACS process, believing that the consultation was a farce and saying the school met four out of the five criteria, including financial viability.
Emma Pullen, who has a child in grade 2 and another due to start prep next year, said the only criteria the school didn’t meet was enrolment – with 78 children – but believes they had strong projections for prospective students, with new apartments opening nearby in 2026 and a marketing campaign led by the school community. An open day was planned for next week.
“The plan was strong – solid with urban planning, demographics and marketing,” Pullen said.
“We are financially viable, we are a self-sufficient school – they closed us anyway. They closed all the schools in the viability review. MACS have left their Catholic values at the door.”
More than half of the students at the school have a learning difficulty or are neurodivergent, including Suellen King’s seven-year-old son Bailey.
The school has an occupational therapist, a psychologist and a speech therapist who support students, which helps parents and children minimise outside appointments.
King said other schools in the area weren’t suitable for her son, who experiences sensory overload and sometimes has to wear noise-canceling headphones. She said they may need to relocate regionally so he can have the same kind of school experience.
“I was trying to be positive; I knew it would be a predetermined outcome – it’s closed in the same year it’s assessed,” she said.
King said that the school had collected more than 100 pieces of community feedback that went through MACS, all of which were extremely positive.
“There’s a lack of concern for the welfare of these children,” she said.
Vicky Young, president of St John’s Clifton Hill Parents and Friends said the community felt blindsided.
She said the building would be sitting there empty, and while there may not be much they can do, they would “die in a ditch trying”.
“Why can’t we continue on and look at the early learning strategy and the three-to-five-year understanding of what the targets are?
“The fact they didn’t look at the data shows they had made their minds up. This process was a lie.”
St John’s school captain Charlotte Mann, who is in grade 6, said the news was really tough.
Vicky Young, with children Charlotte and William, outside St John’s Primary School in Clifton Hill.Credit: Eddie Jim
“I’ve been at the school for seven years by the end of this year, I was really upset. I knew it might happen, but I didn’t really want to face the reality of it,” she said.
Independent Schools Victoria general secretary David Brear said they were at each of the four schools to support their “dedicated and understandably distressed staff”.
“We will continue to work with and advocate for our members to make sure they’re properly supported. We want to make sure that every effort is made by employers to accommodate those who wish to be redeployed in other local Catholic schools, and that the preferences and circumstances of every individual are properly considered,” he said.
Lisa Gau and Suellen King outside St John’s Primary School in Clifton Hill.Credit: Eddie Jim
Simons said all school sectors had to make difficult choices to ensure the long-term viability of the system, and MACS would help families and staff transition with fee relief, uniform support and redeployment.
He said there were almost 300 schools and 110,000 students in the system, and their modelling showed the demand for Catholic education was growing in Melbourne’s northern and western corridors, where they had opened 12 schools since 2018. He said MACS planned to open seven new schools over the next three years in identified growth corridors.
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