Candlebark School – the dream of an author realised

John Marsden is a prolific Australian author, teacher and principal of Candlebark School. His experiences and views on education inspired him to create an alternative to traditional schooling, though he says it’s not the ‘utopia’ some expect.

John Marsden, author and principal of Candlebark School
John Marsden, author and principal of Candlebark School

If a car is a dud, it doesn’t matter how often you respray it, change the tyres, fit spunky new seat covers, it won’t go. You can install a reversing camera, BOSE sound system and satellite navigation, but it’ll continue to sit in your driveway, gathering bird droppings…  

 As a school student, student teacher, teacher, and author-in-residence, I spent more than 50 years bemused, baffled, frustrated and appalled by the blind adherence of governments, bureaucrats and school leaders to a model which was inherently hopeless.  Changes to the curriculum, the timetable, the architecture, the seating, made, and continue to make, no substantial difference.  

Increasing teacher training from two years, to three years, to four; paying teachers more; keeping students at school longer; abolishing streaming or gender-segregation or corporal punishment…  as welcome as some of these measures have been, they can never compensate for the fact that the model is unworkable.

 For all the talk of excellence/realising your potential/achieving your dreams, schools are still sitting in the driveway, belching out toxic gases. 

 It’s easy to understand why the model doesn’t work. It’s because it is, was, and has always been based on economic factors. It started with legislators trying to squash the largest number of kids possible into the smallest space possible, and assign the fewest number of adults possible to look after them, so that the other adults could get on with business (keeping the factories working, the mines producing, and the wheels of commerce turning).

Music performance at Candlebark School
Music performance at Candlebark School

 How could such a model ever succeed in teaching children to be thoughtful, discerning, creative, generous, responsible and mature?

One inevitable by-product of the disproportionate ratio of adults to students is the development of subcultures which are rarely glimpsed by the adults but are often more powerful than the culture that the adults claim to be inculcating.

 In starting a school from scratch I had no complex philosophical treatise on which to rely. I had only a few basic beliefs. They were these:

1. I wanted students to have first-hand experiences. Recently, I watched a “wonderful” example of “stunning new technology”. An American teacher toured the Large Hadron Collider in France, while his students, sitting in a classroom in California, watched in live time and communicated with him. This was supposed to be an advance in education. The adults have the experience; the students sit on their butts and watch someone else doing stuff.

People need their own stories. Our stories define us, shape us, enrich us. They help us grow.  Stories do not come from watching TV or playing Xbox games. They come from riding skateboards, climbing trees, making jam, catching a ferry, meeting people, going to Sri Lanka, touring a factory, nursing babies, holding a post for a road surveyor. 

2. I wanted teachers who had stories to tell. People whose lives were filled with wide-ranging experiences, and who were creative, adventurous and interesting.

3. I was determined to strip out from the schooling model everything that could not be justified on sensible grounds. So many schools are obsessed with students wearing the `correct’ uniform. Ergo, let’s do away with uniform. At a stroke, 20, 30, 40% of the potential conflicts between students and teachers are eliminated.  Report-writing? A waste of time and energy – the involved parents already know how their children are going; the others don’t read the reports anyway.  Solution: reduce reports to a letter grade, sent out twice a year — the bare minimum to ensure that we comply with government regulations. Staff meetings: nearly always a further waste of time and energy. We have one staff meeting a week. To cut out the endless chasing of kids and parents for permission slips and money we require parents to sign a generic permission form when they enrol their children, giving us permission to take their darlings anywhere we want, any time we want. All excursions and incursions are “free”; that is to say, school fees are charged as a lump sum each term, and cover everything.  

 4. On a more abstract level, I thought it important to counteract the prevailing hysteria which valued physical safety above all other considerations.  Children can only grow emotionally, socially, spiritually if we encourage them to be adventurous, to take risks.  

Sword practice at Candlebark School
Sword practice at Candlebark School

Our Candlebark children get injured, sure, but mostly at home, doing banal things like crossing the room to get food, or playing Monopoly.  Despite the daring stuff our kids do at school our rate of significant injuries is extremely low. Go figure.

 Anyway, enough of the theory. It’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty of what it’s like to run Candlebark.

On the plus side, we have very few behaviour problems or classroom management issues. Those we have tend to be a result of deeply disturbed, badly damaged children whose behaviour, by our standards, may be seriously difficult but tends to be better than the behaviours they have shown in previous schools. Our students love coming to school, and are charged with energy and vitality. They look healthy and alert.

Using a blow-torch at Candlebark School
Using a blow-torch at Candlebark School

Staff members have a fantastic working relationship with each other – we have had virtually no tensions, political issues, feuds. We’ve also had no passengers – we’ve never had a lazy teacher here.

The kids are a delight to take on excursions and camps, and staff frequently remark that taking them off campus doesn’t feel like work.

The staff without exception embrace experiments, adventures, new ideas. When experts at educational conferences talk earnestly about the difficulties of persuading teachers to be innovative I can (smugly) get out my iPad and play Plants vs Zombies.

Eating together creates a lovely vibe, which helps make the school feel like a warm place. The word most commonly used to describe our graduates by teachers at other schools is “mature”. It seems that our kids are unafraid to ask questions or to take the lead. They treat teachers courteously but warmly, and they show a sophisticated understanding of complex issues. Sometimes, thanks to their parents, they would be like this anyway; sometimes it’s a mixture of influences from home and school; sometimes we have done most of the work ourselves.

But let’s get down and dirty now. Face it, it’s really the negatives that are the most interesting. Our problems include parents who think the school is utopian and are shocked if their child is insulted or hit. I’m about to draft a letter for parents who are contemplating sending their children here, which will include a statement to the effect that “whilst your child is at school there is every likelihood that he or she will be bitten, kicked, hit, sworn at, abused and insulted (and that’s just by the teachers – no, on second thoughts, I might leave that joke out). This will happen because we are a community of normal people, and normal life includes moments of friction, anger, tension, jealousy. It’s likely that your child will bite someone, kick someone, hit someone (etc.) at some stage too. We do not provide a magical oasis of beauty and peace. We do provide an environment where people can learn to cope with the vicissitudes of life. Every relationship has some ugly moments and some difficult aspects. It’s never too early to develop an understanding of that and acquire strategies to help us to keep moving forwards”.

In the last five years we have seen a staggering growth in the levels of anxiety among children and parents. This impacts on us every day and sometimes I feel we run ourselves ragged trying to support anxious children and teenagers, and pacify panicky parents.

Many teachers who are new here, particularly young and inexperienced teachers, make the mistake of thinking that because the children are “so nice and friendly”, the teachers can be nice and friendly too, from day one. Despite what I said earlier about the low frequency of behaviour problems, students and classes here will behave poorly if they sense a teacher, to borrow from the traditional chant of school kids everywhere, “can’t control us”. It can be a long hard slog for a teacher who loses the respect of kids in the early stages of the relationship. It seems very difficult for some teachers to understand that being respected is infinitely more important than being liked. Being liked is only ever a by-product of being respected.

Candlebark students enjoying the acres of school grounds
Candlebark students enjoying the acres of school grounds

But really, our only major problems stem from children or parents with mental health issues. And I guess every school struggles with such issues. I was talking to a principal from a Sydney government primary school the other day, and she mentioned that they have three psychologists, two speech therapists and an occupational therapist on their staff. I wondered how it is that so many schools have evolved so quickly and quietly into entities which almost seem to resemble community health centres, rather than the educational institutions that we are popularly supposed to be.

John Marsden

John Marsden is a prolific Australian author, teacher and principal of Candlebark School. His experiences, and views on education, inspired him to create an alternative to traditional schooling.

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