Award-winning children’s author John Marsden says overprotective parenting is ‘passive abuse’, and his schools in rural Victoria seek to educate kids through a sense of empowerment. By Joseph Friedman.

John Marsden’s school of life

Author and educator John Marsden established Candlebark school in 2006.
Author and educator John Marsden established Candlebark school in 2006.
Credit: Supplied

There’s a school just past Melbourne’s northern edge, nestled among towering eucalypts on 445 hectares. It’s not quite like other schools.

Entry is via a gravel road, where goats greet visitors and old-school mountain bikes line the path. RipStiks, scooters and skateboards are the students’ preferred method of transport, and several trampolines perch in front of the classrooms. Adjoining one of those classrooms is a messy study with hundreds of children’s books on the walls. And among them is the man who has written so many himself – the world-renowned author John Marsden, the principal and founder of this school, Candlebark.

Marsden, now 72, has been preparing for the day since 4.30am. He leans back into his armchair, speaking comfortably in sprawling anecdotes, and he smiles easily. He gives his full concentration to his topic, undistracted by the racket of kids outside. Marsden is a principal with no formal pedagogical training but a scepticism of traditional teaching, which includes his own paramilitary-style education at the deeply conservative The King’s School in Parramatta, in the western suburbs of Sydney. As a student he would often ask, silently, “Why are you doing it like that?” He dropped out of law at Sydney University, overwhelmed by a sense of loneliness and alienation. A brief stay in a psychiatric hospital followed – an experience that gave him greater insight into an emotional world that would ground his teaching philosophies.

When Marsden finally stumbled into teaching after several years of working odd jobs, he rose quickly, becoming the head of English at Geelong Grammar and later at the renowned Timbertop campus. Writing began as a hobby, but it soon became a lucrative one as Marsden captured the prevailing sentiment of a teenage demographic.

For all the violence on their pages, Marsden’s books are stories of friendships – stories that take teenagers’ emotions seriously. For readers so used to doing what they were told by their parents and teachers, in a society that often regards adolescents as untrustworthy and immature, Marsden gave young people the chance to enter a world without adults – a world where teenagers are competent, courageous and empowered. It was these themes that led the Swedish government to recommend his 1993 work Tomorrow, When the War Began as the single book most likely to inspire a love of reading in young people.

Success brought Marsden fame and wealth. He travelled, teaching creative writing at schools around the world, and finally he purchased land in the Macedon Ranges, an hour from the centre of Melbourne. He first used the space to run writing workshops for children. And then, in 2006, he built Candlebark.

“In doing talks and workshops in schools, and from my own experiences as a teacher and a student, I kept seeing things that were fucking awful, counterproductive, destructive. Then I’d see schools doing great things. I thought if I took everything I saw that worked and put it all into one school, and didn’t take any of the things that don’t work, it should be pretty effective. And that’s all I’ve done.”

There are no uniforms here. The students – from prep to year 7 – dress comfortably and carry appropriately sized backpacks. Teachers go by their first names, and everyone seems to know everyone else. At 9am each day the students are seated on the carpet of a communal area, teachers interspersed, ready for the morning meeting.

Twenty-five minutes down the road is the Alice Miller School, Candlebark’s sister school for years 7 to 12, which is named after the Polish–Swiss psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor. School there starts at 10am to align with teenagers’ circadian rhythms, and the kids say they sleep more than their friends at neighbouring schools.

The sleep is necessary for their active days. From day one, Marsden tells parents to expect their kids to get hurt. They’ll play near the creek, climb trees and traverse the campus on wheels, he tells them. There’ll be grazes, scratches and bruises, and they’ll be better for it.

“It’s ridiculous to imagine that you should lock children up metaphorically in the dull collection of buildings that most schools are, and have them there for seven hours a day, for 13 years, and think that you’re giving them a worthwhile education,” he says. “Fuck that.”

Marsden describes an increasing trend of schools guarding excessively against risk. In his view, by prohibiting children from running, climbing and roaming unsupervised, society is repressing its children – promoting safety through fear and inhibiting young people’s ability to learn independence and initiative.

By contrast, Candlebark and Alice Miller prioritise firsthand experience. A month into their school lives, the preps are whisked away to a three-night camp with the older kids – parents are not invited. The grade 5s are in Canberra, grade 6s in Sydney and year 7s in the Tiwi Islands. The senior students can hike Tasmania’s Overland Track or the Larapinta Trail through Alice Springs. On the six-week “big trip” in year 10, students might be in Mongolia, Tanzania or the Balkans. This year they’ll be cycling through rural France and hiking the Camino. They won’t be allowed any contact with their parents.

“It’s not meant to be a total letting go,” Marsden says, “[but] the beginning of a gradual separation.”

Marsden is cutting when he speaks about the prevailing trend of “helicopter parenting”, whereby parents hover over their children, overly involved and reluctant to separate as they approach adolescence. He calls it “passive abuse”, a consequence of smaller families and declining community participation.

If it takes a village to raise a child, according to the proverb, the village has long since been overtaken by the rise of suburbanisation, dual-income families and screens in the home. These schools are Marsden’s attempt to re-create the village – a community in which relationships are paramount, with less entrenched hierarchy than at many other schools.

Beyond the camps and excursions, students spend about 10 nights a year at school sleepovers. Often the teachers and students cook a meal together to help build a rapport beyond the restriction of the classroom, says Sarita Ryan, principal of the Alice Miller School. There are no staffrooms, so the teachers and students eat lunch together daily – a cook prepares hot meals for the students, as they’re not allowed to bring their own food.

And Marsden wants teachers with life experience and their own successes, who have not simply gone from school to university and back again. They must be equipped to teach students the rules but also foster the creativity that enables kids to forge their own path. Core subjects are taught with tests and homework and teacher-led instruction in normal-looking classrooms, but much goes on besides. Beginning in year 7, students at Alice Miller enrol in six electives, with options including sound recording and design, debating, woodworking and publishing, all taught by experts in their fields. One group of students is helping to build a tiny house; another restores old tractors.

At a time of high burnout and low morale among teachers in Australia – a recent nationally representative survey suggests almost half of those in the profession are considering leaving it within the next 12 months – Ryan says the aim is to keep teachers feeling supported to develop their own ideas, with the time and energy to implement them. The schools reduce administrative burdens so teachers can do the things that attracted them to the profession in the first place. Marsden and Ryan keep their report-writing to a minimum, there are no scheduled parent–teacher interviews (though parents can request them) and staff have just one meeting a week.

Marsden believes Candlebark and Alice Miller could be models for schools elsewhere. But with just 167 and 243 students respectively, their tiny classes and vast expanses of land allow rare scope for educational experimentation. These are independent schools with private fees and more flexibility than the public system. That said, Marsden maintains that at roughly $12,500 each year, the fees – which cover everything but the senior school hike and the six-week trip – compare favourably with those of many private schools. Even the per-student cost of running government schools is similar, he says, as “we make savings”. Following a Japanese tradition, all teachers and students clean one part of the school at the end of each day so no external cleaners are required. There are almost no clerical staff, and the simple fee structure helps to minimise administrative costs.

Over the past few years, small primary schools around Victoria have made subtle shifts away from tradition, such as dropping uniforms and referring to teachers by their first names, and embraced bigger changes including relationships, especially through camps and experiences. Too often, though, students are forced back into a rigid framework in secondary school, Ryan says. “It’s as if adolescents are not people to be trusted in the way we can trust younger people.”

It doesn’t help that secondary schools are usually much larger, making warm and intimate relationships feel unattainable. Marsden and Ryan encourage support for a small-school model at the secondary level. Within that framework, they say, Australia has a “wonderful opportunity to run something more personalised and relationship-focused”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 27, 2023 as "School of life".

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