Victoria

John Marsden's creative school aims for clean break with tradition

The Alice Miller School is not your usual independent secondary college.

Classes start at 10.30am and year 8 students are encouraged to enrol in VCE subjects. They also have to mop floors.

Model pupils: At the new Alice Miller School in Macedon, students will start at 10.30.
Model pupils: At the new Alice Miller School in Macedon, students will start at 10.30.  Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

The arts-based secondary school is the brainchild of bestselling children's author John Marsden, who believes there is no point opening a new school if it replicates what is already out there.

"I just wanted a place where kids with an artistic passion would have a chance to develop," he said.

John Marsden in the science lab of the new arts-based secondary school, the Alice Miller School in Macedon.
John Marsden in the science lab of the new arts-based secondary school, the Alice Miller School in Macedon.  Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

"Traditionally, creative arts has been relegated to the last period of Friday as an afterthought. I want it to be treated seriously."

The Macedon school is one of four new independent schools that will open their doors to students this year. No new state or Catholic schools will open in 2016.  

The Tomorrow When the War Began author bought the sprawling bushland site, which was formerly Macedon Grammar, last February.

The old school's contents have remained, including a library that boasts some of Marsden's work as well as "hardcore Christian books".

John Marsden in the school library.
John Marsden in the school library.  Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Authorities closed the Christian college in 2014 after it was deemed financially unstable.

It appears the closure took teachers by surprise. They didn't have time to pack up their classrooms, which have remained frozen in time.

Petri dishes have been collecting dust in the science laboratory for more than a year, and a big bottle of hydrochloric acid sits on a bench awaiting a chemistry experiment that never happened.

But all that is about to change.

Next Tuesday, 85 excited students will begin at the school.

It is the author's second school - he also founded the alternative P-7 Candlebark School in Romsey in the Macedon Ranges.

The Alice Miller School will run from 10.30am to 5pm to reflect teenagers' sleep patterns. Research has consistently shown that teenagers need more sleep and starting school later could have huge benefits. "I want this issue to be treated seriously, " Marsden said.

The school, named after a Swiss psychotherapist, will have a "university feel". 

Students will be encouraged to enrol in an eclectic mix of VCE subjects early in high school to widen their knowledge.

Marsden hopes relationships between staff and students will be "more civilised and less imbued with power".

It is envisaged that students will play chess, read the paper and chat with their teachers over coffee at the school's cafe. 

The school will not employ cleaners. Instead, students will spend 20 minutes at the end of the day tidying their classrooms, vacuuming and even cleaning the toilets.

Marsden has also made an effort to employ teachers who have led interesting lives. One teacher has published poetry, another has cycled across the Andes and one has done research in Africa.

"I don't think there's anything more important," Marsden says. "Bland lives are reflected with bland, pedestrian teaching."