IT’S an arms race with the most alluring artillery. Newborn lambs, glorious country properties and architecturally designed cabins that generate their own electricity and hot water. The target: your children. If you can afford it.

The yellow box timber cabins melt into the hills, a symphony of nature and design, some 500 kilometres and a hefty school fee from chilly Melbourne. The buildings fuse gently with a sloping paddock and surrounding forest as though inspired by the mythical shire in The Hobbit. Through this wonderland traipse teenagers, year 9 students from Methodist Ladies College – feeding lambs and calves, tending solar panels and doing lessons at the school’s 114-hectare Marshmead campus.

MLC is among a small battalion of the state’s elite private schools investing huge sums in their country campuses, offering ”experiential” and outdoor learning programs that run for up to a year. In a largely Victorian phenomenon, these rural campuses have become vital assets for schools seeking to remain in the state’s top tier. Each spruiks the benefits of its plush country seat and accompanying curriculum. Several have bolstered their pitch with psychological philosophies to help students cope with extended periods away from home.

And while some observers baulk at such abundance – or at least at its being available to so few of Victoria’s students – at Marshmead the real world feels like the dissolving memory of a dream. The school has recently spent $8 million on an upgrade. The campus is self-sufficient, producing its own solar power and capturing water in tanks. ”We’re essentially a little town here in the middle of nowhere,” says MLC director of remote sites Mark Gray.

It is a sunny and surprisingly warm August morning when Gray arrives to pick us up by boat at Mallacoota near the New South Wales border. From here it is another 15 minutes across the Mallacoota Inlet, which funnels into a small creek where the school has built a wooden jetty for docking. The inlet is glassy and flat as Gray powers the four-stroke-engined boat towards the campus. He skilfully nudges it into a slender berth at the jetty.

A short drive down a muddy track and suddenly it is ”Good Morning Marshmead” time. The students, all leggings and Blundstone boots, huddle inside a circle of towering wooden poles in the middle of a paddock. It feels more like a sacred tribal site.

A group of girls act out a Buddhist parable to their giggling audience, followed with a Bible reading. The students and teachers then scatter across the field for five minutes of silence or ”mindfulness”. Some crouch or stand, others sit in the wet, glistening grass. Kookaburras, chickens and cows offer the only soundtrack. Gray says the mindfulness philosophy helps students manage their busy schedules. ”It’s really about how we balance life to make it sustainable and have a healthy mind as well as a healthy body.”

The girls have left their main school, in Kew, to experience life on a farm. For eight weeks they will live in cabins with corrugated iron roofs and mud-brick interior walls. The cabins turn a rich brown in the rain, contrasting with the large solar panels mounted on metal stands in front of each house. Every household manages its solar power. The girls adjust their panels’ angle throughout the day, tracking the sun’s direction to ensure maximum exposure.

It is one of many daily duties. They mix milk formula and feed it to newborn calves. They collect eggs from the bird coop with its huge yard, protected with electric wire to keep the chickens, geese and turkeys safe from goannas.

”The farm doesn’t run at a profit, it’s here for educational purposes,” Gray says.

But it is an educational experience few high school students will share.

Monash University education senior lecturer David Zyngier says Victoria’s private schools are trying to outdo each other with their country campuses. ”It’s a race to the top of how much money you can spend,” he says. ”It’s all about market share. The elite schools create a perception among their customers that the students need the experience.”

MLC’s 2011 community report names its ”next generation $8 million capital campaign” at Marshmead as one of its achievements. The report says the school also received $200,000 in federal government funding for a renewable remote power program at Marshmead.

Zyngier says poor schools are suffering while genteel independent schools invest in their country campuses. And while the state’s public schools increasingly offer special curriculums to engage and challenge the supposedly troublesome year 9s (although Zyngier also questions this central belief), they can’t compare with offerings such as Marshmead’s. ”It’s further advantaging the elite and privileging the privileged,” he says.

Even so, it seems almost churlish to begrudge the busy enthusiastic MLC girls their once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Morning inspection. The cabins have open kitchens and lounge rooms, warmed by potbelly stoves, where the girls cook and eat their meals. Clothes dry on stands perched on mezzanine floors.

This morning Dana Stroynova (red gum boots, black tights and hair in plaits) must refold and straighten her bed sheets. The wall next to her bunk is plastered with pictures of Roger Federer and a newborn baby. Dana, 15, has spent four weeks at Marshmead, although she went home to Caulfield to meet her new sister, Maria, for four days.

Shy but articulate, Dana says she loves the farm life. ”In Melbourne we get things from the supermarket but here there’s quite a few things we can get out of a garden. It’s nice to go out and pick a potato,” she says.

MLC is one of several schools that offers as part of its curriculum the opportunity for its Victorian teenagers to have an extended period away from home in which to learn independence and other skills to equip them for life in the big world. Oddly, it is not such a trend in other states. Geelong Grammar started it all in 1953 with Timbertop at the foot of the Great Dividing Range, where students, including its most famous alumnus, Prince Charles, spend an entire year. Today, the goldmining town of Clunes, near Ballarat, hosts Wesley College’s country campus where students live for eight weeks. Lauriston Girls School owns a campus in Howqua in which their students complete year 9. Caulfield Grammar not only has a country campus, but one in Nanjing, China.

Lauriston deputy principal Nene Macwhirter says students learn sustainable living principles such as recycling at Howqua. The curriculum also focuses on ”physical challenges”, including six-day hikes and snow camping. ”Their last run is a 17-kilometre run up Mount Stirling and they all make it,” she says.

Lauriston has also introduced a personal growth component, similar to Geelong Grammar’s ”positive psychology” program. ”We’re very interested in positive psychology but what we work on is positive relationships,” she says. Students live nine to a house at Howqua with tutors living separately. Macwhirter says bullying is rare. ”There just isn’t the time for it up there.”

But Howqua is also a massive expense. Macwhirter estimates maintaining the bush retreat is twice as costly as a city campus. And parents pay handsomely – about $40,000 for the year, she says.

And it is an exclusive club. ”It’s very seldom that schools can afford to build and staff their own campus from scratch today,” says Independent Schools Victoria chief executive Michelle Green.

For MLC, its Marshmead campus justifies the expense. Gray praises the school’s ”vision” in buying the property in 1989 with the intention of focusing on sustainable principles.

The girls return to school with more confidence, he says, and better prepared for the academic challenges of senior high school. But they also make changes to their lifestyle.

Some families install solar panels, buy chickens or plant vegetable patches.

And these are lessons that cannot be taught in the classroom. ”I think Marshmead is more relevant now than it was 20 years ago,” he says.

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