The school that John built
John Marsden – and Coco the terrier – kicks off his much-anticipated new school.
Photo: Eddie Jim
Courtesy of the Age February 6, 2006
There’s no school bell, the principal’s name is “John” and even Coco, the terrier, joins in classes. Author John Marsden opens his new school to The Age. Christopher Bantick reports.
CANDLEBARK seems an entirely appropriate name for John Marsden’s new school. Secreted away amid the tall eucalypts on Marsden’s Tye Estate near Romsey, north of Melbourne, this year’s intake is the seed crop of a new venture.
Day one and there is palpable excitement and just a hint of nervousness. The students who arrive early, comfortably dressed in jeans and casual tops, play tennis while Marsden, in jeans, walking boots and a hand-knitted pullover, greets parents and their children in the refectory.
There’s a bustle and babble as each child is shown his or her pigeonhole. Parents line the walls and share the air of expectation. It’s not every day that you’re part of the inception of an educational idea. Marsden says quietly, almost thinking out loud, “There were moments when I thought this wouldn’t happen”.
Moving into a large central learning space, Marsden sits on the floor with the kids. He has their attention immediately. His topic is friendship and he speaks to each one while stressing Candlebark is a friendly place and “that’s what we want to offer you”.
As a hugely popular children’s and teens’ author, Marsden believes that by opening his own school, he can do the business of education better. It is hard not to agree with him. Children eagerly seek his attention and he welcomes interruption from the preppies as he talks quietly about being a muscly friend, someone strong and dependable. There’s an easy confident air that what the kids say is welcome.
Candlebark is one of the most anticipated openings of a new school – at least in Victoria – in the past 30 years, certainly since the alternative education movement began in the early 1970s.
Candlebark took shape last Tuesday morning with 52 students hailing mainly from local towns – Gisborne, Romsey, Lancefield, Woodend – and three from Melbourne’s metropolis.
There is a prep class and composite classes: ones and twos, threes and fours and fives and sixes. Year 7, the highest class, is separate. Fees for this small school that draws its spirit from an idyllic environment are $7800 a year, and student numbers will be capped at 100.
As Candlebark grows with new inductions each year, the year levels may increase.
“The kids just arrived, really,” says Marsden. “I was willing to screen anyone who I felt was going to be just too distracting. With a new school, I wanted to set it up strongly so that it’s on good foundations.
“In a year or two we can look at taking kids who’ve got destructive or self-destructive behaviour but I don’t want to jeopardise what we are trying to do here. In the long run, we’ll have a better school.”
Marsden hopes the students find the elusive balance between interacting with the 485 hectares of bush and gardens that make up the Tye Estate, and responsibility for others. He wants the kids to become more self-reliant and participatory in school community responsibilities. These will include cleaning the classrooms and chopping firewood, among other things.
Idealist certainly, but Marsden is also sufficiently well-grounded as a realist to know that what parents want from his fee-paying school is something different but also not too exceptional.
The subjects on offer are the traditional – English, science, maths, SOSE, PE art, music.
“As time goes on, we may evolve new ways of teaching those and ways of integrating subjects and bringing in new subjects. I’m not too bothered about that. It’s not curriculum that matters, it’s the nature of the teacher, the atmosphere, tone, style and climate of what is being done. The labels don’t matter so much.”
With books in one of every 12 Australian households, Marsden knows a thing or two about how kids think, what motivates them and what are their innate interests.
But as much as he is a writer, Marsden is at heart, an educator. He confesses to having never stopped teaching. Apart from his involvement with school-age children through his books – his hobby, he calls it – Marsden has taught part-time at Fitzroy Community School. There, he says, he got back into the rhythm of teaching.
After primary school in Devonport, Tasmania – where he discovered the town tip and found it fascinating – his pedagogy is about discovery. He confesses to learning much about how to teach at Geelong Grammar’s Timbertop campus near Mansfield, where, until the mid-1980s, he was head of English.
Here the outdoors was the natural environment and the classroom. Moreover, Marsden’s school visits – more than 3000 nationally and internationally – have given him a sense of what works and what doesn’t. Then there have been the writing camps at Tye Estate. These have been something of a dry run as to how to run a school.
But Marsden is a practical thinker. Running a school beyond the thrill of the first day will bring its own demands. So when did he realise this is what he wanted to do?
“I guess this was when I was about 15. I sat in school, Kings in Sydney, watching and thinking, how education should be done. I asked myself why things were done some ways and not others. In the mid-’80s I tried to start a school in Wagga. It failed. The buildings were more or less promised (but), didn’t materialise. It occurred to me after this that the only way to start a school was to get your own land, your own buildings, your own money and get into a position where you could just do it yourself without having to rely on committees and fund-raising.”
It is hard not to see him as a pedagogic pied piper. Before the Candlebark opening, we talked in Fitzroy’s Edinburgh Gardens. Children from Fitzroy Community School called out “Hiya John!” and ran up to him. Some danced and sang for him. He knew their names and slipped into easy conversation with each one.
“Eight years into doing the writing camps at Tye Estate, I wanted to get an ongoing relationship with kids, but not just kids, with teachers and parents too. One of the nice things about teaching is that you do have that sense of collegiality with those around you. I’ve missed what I’ve tried to do at the Fitzroy Community School – to get something continuing.”
Marsden says one of the fundamental issues in schooling, first confronted by him at Kings, is the alienation between staff and students.
“This was so unnecessary. I was baffled that at Kings they couldn’t see what was so blindingly obvious.” Breaking down alienation has become part of his core philosophy of education.
“If you alienate students and teach them in a disparaging, contemptuous, or sarcastic way, that is not going to bring about the results you want. Schooling is about the distinction between adults and children. Being criticised unnecessarily is not a good basis for any relationship.”
Marsden’s school will not be an anything-goes, loose, experientially based, discovery-learning kind of place. He has both awareness of and sympathy for alternative schools that are not mainstream in their delivery of curriculum or philosophy, but he says Candlebark will be different.
“In the alternative school movement, what I found was that some were not achieving balance. They were so into reacting against their own education and their own childhood that they established these schools, which resulted in too much freedom, nothing being done and too many kids just wandering around.
“At Fitzroy Community School I found the model I wanted. You have to have structure to have the other. That way, everyone feels secure and confident knowing they are learning and their education is progressing. That gives them the licence to have time off and play. Still, one without the other is not the way to go.”
A new school, Marsden says, not just in location but in philosophy and practice, calls for a certain amount of parental support and acceptance. He says the expectations of the parents who have sent their children to his school have been fairly consistent. The typical parent is quite young, articulate, well-educated, middle-class and very clear about what they want for their children.
“They talk about their kids going to nice schools but not being inspired enough and the education they have received has been just too bland and pedestrian. They felt that education should offer something more than a nice school and nice teachers. That’s the most common thing,” Marsden says.
“I know I am starting from an advantaged position as the kids are coming from that kind of background. There’s a couple of ESL (English as a second language) students and some with learning disabilities, but not a lot. It is not so much an easy run with these kids but more an opportunity to try things which other people may be able to with more difficult groups.”
Immediately obvious is Marsden’s belief that the teachers create what happens. On day one, they join in a big circle with the children and shake hands with each one. It’s first names only.
As much as he has never stopped teaching, even when writing, Marsden is a devotee of the belief that it is the teachers and the principals who determine what will and won’t work.
Even so, seeing Marsden in jeans, lying on the floor with Coco, his Maltese terrier cross in his arms, helping kids complete an induction survey, it is impossible to imagine him suddenly becoming, at least in terms of the formal role, a principal. What sort of teacher and principal will he be in his own school?
“I hope I’ll be the same as I’ve always been. I hope to be on top of what we set out to do, without power games or discipline issues. I see myself as the final arbitrator and authority. As a teacher, I have always thought I have been pretty conservative. People say otherwise.
“I’ve got a really conservative agenda when I teach, for the most part. I want people to be good citizens of this country. I don’t want to graduate people who are anarchists or revolutionaries, who are going to grow up to be Karl Marx or Che Guevara.
“I want people who can live in this society in a positive and creative way and to contribute to it. I am horrified by kids who act destructively or who are not committed to their education. That’s a very conservative agenda. I will try to bring that about by giving them an education that they can commit to with heart and mind and firstly, with heart.
“I think about motivation a lot when I’m teaching. I’m very aware of what is motivating and what isn’t. I’m extremely finely tuned to the mood of the class. If there is one kid who is just starting to lose interest, I think I pick up on that very fast. I try to do something to re-engage them.”
When prospective students initially visited the school for interviews, some were restless, even feisty and belligerent. “They didn’t necessarily want to be here as they had been dragged up by their parents. They were happy where they had been and had friends. Generally within about five or 10 minutes I’d have them talking freely about themselves and engaging with
me. I think that only comes about by treating them with courtesy and respect. Nothing more than that.”
In choosing the teachers, Marsden looked for “something that was brilliant about them, something that put them into a different category out of the ordinary”.
Candlebark has three full-time teachers and four part-time music and art teachers. “I’m looking for another as well,” he says.
He believes it’s important that teachers have a genuine and affectionate regard for each other. “If that’s there, everything follows pretty much automatically. If it’s not there, everything becomes false because we’re saying to the kids, we all must get along but as adults, we aren’t.”
Marsden has spent the best part of a lifetime thinking about the kind of school he would want to build and run. “There will be no bells,” he says decisively. “And they will call me John.”
The kind of school he wants is not something on which he’s willing to compromise. Parents will have a role in a “controlled way”.
For instance, parents are not permitted in the classroom “unless I know them really well”. And school camps are pretty much a disaster, he says, if parents are there. “They have different agendas to the school and are over-anxious. They just get in the way.”
He says there are plenty of ways he wants to involve parents, “but I would be very cautious about some of the traditional areas”.
Marsden admits that running writing camps or even teaching at Fitzroy Community School is very different to running his own school. As far as Candlebark is concerned, the education buck stops with him. He’s nervous (“Yeah, of course I am”), but also cautious. Candlebark is an enterprise undertaken with great care and thought. Failure isn’t an option.
“I’m not concerned about the whole concept. Some of the families have pretty intense feelings about past school experiences. I think it will be tricky for a while dealing with this. If you take your kid out of one school and send them to another school, one reason could be is that you’re not happy. If you’ve done that maybe three times in five years, then maybe that’s a problem or maybe you’ve been unlucky at that school. There is going to be a lot of adjustment needed by some kids and families, and we have to manage that.”
His promise is to offer an education that is “enriching” and a “lovely learning experience” for the kids as they encounter the world, explore the world and engage with it as they come to understand it.
“And I want it to be filled with joy so that coming to school is something that you look forward to joyfully. To live in this world and not recognise how extraordinary and wonderful and amazing it is would be a sad thing.”
Unfortunately, he says, some schools convey the idea that the world is a mundane and even an unpleasant thing.
Marsden takes off his jumper and rolls up his sleeves. It’s a symbolic gesture. There’s much to do.
Christopher Bantick is a Melbourne writer.