By Harrison Malone
Browsing through a school’s website usually isn’t the most stimulating activity. I find this strange.
Take my high school’s website Caulfield Grammar for example. I’m greeted with a homepage that looks very bland. A long grey menu bar and a few action shots of smiling students, most of them probably posed. Yes, you learn a few things about the curriculum when you click through but overall I’m left wanting more.
I want to learn about the school’s famous alumni. I want to learn about its history, both good and bad. I just want something that’s honest.
Let’s compare this to another school website. It’s name is Candlebark.
It’s a stark difference to what I was presented with earlier. The content makes me smile as I read the opening few paragraphs. It talks to me like I’m a human, like I’m actually meeting a staff member. You know that it’s written by someone who is actually in the school; not by a marketing person.
Here we have something that has colour and soul. A school is a brand, and as a brand they should be aiming to inspire and uplift their potential customer.
This doesn’t require breaking any rules. It just means taking a few risks, telling some stories, and being honest. That’s what wins hearts and minds.
The way in which Candlebark is portrayed kind of reminds me how people from the sixties talk about living in that era. It seems to have this really free spirited vibe to it. That’s not to say they are off with the fairies. There are rules.
Set on around 1100 acres, the school must be one of the biggest campuses in the world. It has its own forest for goodness sake! The location is in Kyneton which is an hours drive north of Melbourne. Students number around 150 so classes are small. It’s currently prep to year eleven.
I spoke with Candlebark English teacher Donna Prince about what it’s actually like to be part of it all.
“Well teaching there is kind of freeing. The difference between teaching at John’s school and another school is that John lets you make decisions of your own. You don’t have to write everything down or report to someone who is higher up on the chain.”
She says that the classroom environment is an energised affair. They try to teach through first hand experiences, whereby the kids spend more time actually doing things rather than obtaining knowledge from books or from others. They just have a go.
This educational system definitely keeps the students busy. They ride bikes, they have sleepovers, they play chess, they climb trees, they go on hikes, they have writing competitions and they learn how to use farm equipment.
“The parents are after something different. We fill that gap in the market.”
All of this kind of forms into the overall vision for the brand.
In any good branding strategy there is this sense of yin and yang. It’s all about a balance between getting a bit weird and doing things differently, but also having goals and staying grounded.
The schools yin and yang is reflected in their motto: take care, take risks.
Its this sense of telling the students that you can be creative, you can express yourself and have a little bit of humour, but we’ll pull you up if you cross the line. In saying this, the teachers don’t so much discipline in the normal manner.
“We place a lot of trust on the students, we guide them to the right decision rather than saying you can’t do this. We foster a level of independence and resilience that you don’t find in other schools.”
I felt a sense of belonging and emotional attachment to the school just from going onto its website. This is because it focuses on beliefs rather than what services the school provides. There are three beliefs that I’d like to go into detail about.
The first belief revolves around the rules of the playground. The teachers let their kids play whatever games they want, to a degree of course. I laughed when I saw that rambunctious roughhousing games like British Bulldog were allowed. For those unaware, this is a game where kids get tackled to the ground and the last man (or kid) standing wins. It’s inevitable that injuries will occur. Consequently, its been banned in many primary schools.
“There’s sort of a deliberate lack of supervision too, so kids have to trust themselves. Even right down to playground disputes, if two kids are having an argument and we think they can solve it, we just tell them to go solve it.”
The second belief is in the teaching methods which the school uses. Whilst most schools have a really structured plan of how to teach, and exactly what textbooks to use, Candlebark takes a far more relaxed approach.
“I’m kind of one of those weird teachers that like to do standalone lessons on weird topics. Like I might find an article about flatworms or something really bizarre and we look at the English inside of that article. Its whatever interests me at the time.”
And the third belief is all about independence of the students. Being a farm school the students are already used to doing the chores around the property and taking responsibility. But it’s also important to have some time away from home too.
“Sleepovers are a really normal part of school life. We can organise them at very little notice. We have a bunch of mattresses up on the roof and we pull them down. We sleep in classrooms and make ourselves dinner…”
Smartarse, Creative and Real
For me, these three words sum up the school as a brand. They have these beliefs and they aren’t going to alter them based on what some politician or so called expert says.
Another example of this is based on the NAPLAN tests. For those who don’t know NAPLAN is an annual assessment for students covering writing, spelling and numeracy. Some like it and some don’t.
This is what John Marsden had to say about them in his annual report for 2015. You can find it on page nine of the document but I’ll also put a screenshot below.
Lastly, and this isn’t so much a belief, but more a response to television show that covered Candlebark a few years ago. Basically, the television show didn’t get it exactly right and the school needed to clarify a few things about itself.
The show said that Candlebark was a “school with no rules, no uniforms, and no bullying”. Sadly, the programme only got one out of three right. They don’t have a uniform. They certainly have rules, and although they aspire to be the only community, society or group in the world without bullying, they have not yet reached that “nirvanic” state.
The school’s stance on all of these matters is one that sticks it to the man.
I think Jack Black from the School of Rock would be the perfect teacher at Candlebark. He sees the safe option and steers away from it. He meets conservatism with belief, humour and honesty. He has an attitude about him.
These are the kind of people we want working for our brands.