Would you send your children here? “Absolutely!,” is the resounding answer from Belltrees Public School principal Shane Roberts. It was a timely question, as Shane had just told the Murrurundi Argus he was about to get married the next day. “I’d have no hesitation. A small school just has the ability to really cater for each individual student’s needs.”
Walking around the paddocks surrounding this little Hunter Valley school with Shane and his students — who currently number just four — it is easy to understand why he would want such an education for his own family. Ruby, 7, and Trixy, 8, run ahead of us with a basket, eager to collect eggs. Housed in a hen caravan, the mix of Hy-Line Browns, Australorps and Leghorns scratch contentedly in their run, while the girls search. A few of the quieter chickens even allow the pair to gently pick them up and the basket is soon filled with a mix of earthy brown and chalky white freshly laid eggs.
Twelve-year-old Renzy, Trixy’s older brother, leads the way and opens the gate into the next paddock where a small flock of sheep are lying in the shade of a giant eucalyptus.
“I’ve focussed on the agricultural size of things and making sure the kids have a good understanding, something most primary school kids wouldn’t ever get the chance to do,” Shane explains.
This dedicated teacher started at Belltrees in 2018, at the beginning of Term 2, and despite the challenges of the drought in the surrounding district, he immediately felt at home.
“When I got here, I just fell in love with the style of teaching,” he explains. “One of the questions I get asked most is, ‘How do you teach kids from K to 6 at once?’ But in reality, every class at a bigger school is like that, there is such a variety of abilities in one class, and here it is actually much easier.”
Officially opened in 1879, Belltrees Public School has a rich history. Sited in the heart of the famous pastoral property Belltrees, owned by generations of the White family since 1853, the school was started to educate the children of the people who worked on the station as well as other locals. A school inspector’s report of the time makes for amusing reading today. Of the 28 children enrolled, their attendance was “reasonably punctual and regular”, their “moral tone promising” and their teaching “tolerably intelligent”.
Another lovely story in the archives is about a pupil called Alf Hawkins. Alf was given the job of catching the teacher’s horse on Friday after lunch so the teacher could leave at 3.30pm to ride to Aberdeen to visit his girlfriend. The once amenable horse quickly proved impossible to catch and Alf would take all afternoon to get a bridle on him —a welcome break from lessons!
Clearly the ties of history are strong. The White family are still closely involved with the school and one, Serena White, even relief teaches there. Her grandchildren will soon be sitting in the classrooms and playing in the grounds — just like the generations before them.
But despite the idyllic setting, it’s not all plain sailing. “There are a wide variety of challenges. Water supply, snakes, the remoteness, no phone signal — it can be very isolated here at a times,” explains Shane.
Regenerative agriculture is his passion and a trip to the Mulloon Institute in 2020 has kickstarted an impressive educational program at the school. Shane firmly believes that the younger children are introduced to these concepts, the better the result will be for everyone. The kids are now all familiar with wicking beds, pollinator garden beds, paddock rotation and composting. A major project was contouring the back paddock and creating ponds to slow down the flow of water down to the river. The transformation of this land, turning what was once a bare paddock into an area teeming with plant and insect life, is something the children have loved watching — just as they love to watch the fruit and vegetables grow in the gardens near their classroom.
On Wednesdays they vote on what recipe to cook that day, using produce harvested that morning. I ask the kids before I leave what their favourite dish is. “Frittata — you have to try that. I think it is delicious,” says Trixy shyly.
“There was a one-teacher school where I grew up and I used to dream about riding my horse to school so I was fascinated by Belltrees Public,” explains our editorial director. “No one is riding their pony to school at the moment, but you never know what’s possible…”
This Sydney-based photographer who usually works on fashion and beauty shoots loved spending the afternoon in the paddock with the kids from Belltrees. “What a wonderful education they are having,” she says.