Candlebark is an extraordinary school.
But I knew that. I read the principal John Marsden’s books as a teenager and young adult and have I have been reading articles and following their development as a school since before I became a teacher. Candlebark and Brightworks are two of the most interesting experiments in education I know of and only Candlebark is accessible to us.
Hanging Rock is quite close to the school
One of my overarching impressions is of trust. This school trusts its students. They do not expect them to always do the right thing, or recognise all risks or behave with ‘adult’ maturity.
But they do trust them.
They trust them to move around the school independently, they trust them to feed themselves at the communal meals, they trust them to clean up after themselves.
I can’t stress enough that trusting students is a really radical idea in modern Australian education. I spend an inordinate amount of time, particularly as a relief teacher, setting expectations for and making students, often by repetition, walk in quiet neat lines for movement about the school. It is completely pointless, an activity that they will never repeat outside of the military in adulthood. It serves no useful purpose whatsoever. Children after all really only have two speeds; run or sleep, this school indulges that. Teachers say; meet me at such and such a place in five minutes and they leave the how up to the children, many of whom have bikes and scooters on campus for just such purpose.
They trust students to finish tasks and they expect them to do so. They do not set weekly busywork homework but they do expect incomplete work to be done in a student’s own time and returned. Students do take on tasks and projects that will only reach completion in the students own time.
They trust students to play safely within a large area of wilderness and to take first aid kits and walkie talkies if they are going out of what I gather are mostly visual limits. Pre-prep spend half days in the bush with sandwiches playing and learning how to move safely in that environment.
I asked a lot of questions but not enough and for my inattentiveness, N didn’t get to ask enough of her own at all. They had good answers for most. I didn’t ask enough questions about how a typical school day ran for students. How it is they incorporate National and Victorian curriculums into their format. I saw within different classrooms evidence of work on homophones, multi modal science units, the only pleasant sounding recorder lesson I have ever heard and a great variety of visual art. I saw students using blades and hot glue, riding bikes, playing chess and reading.
I saw not one single piece of Crafp.
The Crafp Cycle (Illustration due an update to comply with my ‘No stick figures’ class rules)
They have a Stephanie Alexander model school garden and they are actively using it. They have chooks and a pig, horses and a school dog. Students are able to spend time with the animals and be involved in their care. Food is prepared by cooks and the whole school eats together informally but off china with utensils. Food as with all excursions, camps and materials are included in the moderate but far from extreme fees. Only the instrumental music program costs extra.
They actively teach and have lessons devoted to chess, performance, public speaking, self reliance, bush craft, animal husbandry and problem solving. They do week long single topic focus study. They have an exciting curiosity driven pedagogy.
They only have one computer lab and students are only allowed in it accompanied by an adult. The justification here being that they believe “Students spend enough time device focused at home”. The limits of trust found here with screen time are interesting. Although each room has a projector and teachers use them widely, students are not permitted devices at school except on buses, where music is allowed. I am sure some people will think this is all very well and it is clearly working for the school. I think that there is perhaps a kernel of neo-ludditism to the protocol. But the children and screen time debate is a rant for another evening altogether.
It appeared visibly less multicultural than even the local public school here in Cobar. Unfortunately I think that this is a common feature of alternative education in Australia. I am not going to speculate on the why, only say that it is disappointing. The cultural melting pot of an inner city school doesn’t work everywhere but it does have real value in breaking down cultural barriers and stereotypes.
Candlebark is much better suited than most schools to prepare children for the challenges of the coming decades.
In particular this school better than any other I have so far been to is set up to give students the skills to survive mass automation and runaway climate change. Unfortunately it is also poorly geographically situated. Bush fires are an ever present risk and climate change will only exacerbate this.
The school takes fire safety very seriously. They have a fire bunker building (The library) capable of sheltering for the whole school, but they plan on never needing it. The school has its own buses and will evacuate well in advance of a fire front if it ever came to that. Also as red alert days are usually announced at least a day in advance they simply close the school on such days. At the moment they typically lose three to six days of school this way each year. That number is destined to rise. The Macedon ranges are pretty but very, very vulnerable to fire and the school and the new high school they have purchased are both in fairly thickly forested areas.
I would love to work there, it is clear that teaching is valued and rewarding and fun in that school. I would be happy to send my children there and we will be lodging an application pack even though we are not yet sure that we actually want to live close enough to do so. It isn’t perfect but it is a bloody good school and we can’t rule it out.
We had planned to drive direct from our Candlebark interview home to Cobar, but as we didn’t get on the road until three thirty the eight and a half hour drive had to be broken up for safety. We spent the night in a dive motel in Griffith after nine. Ate Mc dissapointment for breakfast and were home for lunch yesterday. All with a touch of sun and a feeling of serotonin debt that hasn’t quite passed yet. F has gotten sick and I’m fighting a sore throat. I got to see the local dance troupes annual performance on relief with year ones today. Which was… lets say an experience. Learning to use the public school’s 3D printer tomorrow.