School's in - Educating kids in remote Australia

05 January 2015

studying hard smlIn the bush, no day is 9-5. On a remote property, families rise early and finish late. Everything fits around the work that has to be done to sustain the family's income. Throw into the mix raising a family and the education of children and there are a whole lot of extra challenges that families deal with every day.

Kim Hughes is a mother of three and Vice President of the Isolated Children Parent's Association Qld Inc. (ICPA). She knows all about educating kids in the bush.

She lives with her family on Harrogate Station, six hours west of Townsville between Richmond and Julie Creek. They run 12,500 head of cattle on 180,000 acres. Things are busy, to say the least.

Kim's eldest child Keeley, 15, is in Year 10 at boarding school. Her younger two, Ben, 13 and Sarah, 10, are completing primary school through Distance Education.

They do lessons by correspondence at home, communicating for part of the day with their teacher in Mt Isa via audio.

It is a way of schooling that was totally new to Kim when she moved to the bush.

"It is a steep learning curve when you live out here and you have children," she says. "It wasn't until I started looking around and thought, 'wow, I'm a bit far away from the nearest school', that I realised I'm going to have to do this myself!"

Because they are so remote, outback families face a number of challenges when it comes to education – inadequate internet access to conduct lessons remotely, juggling hours spent in the classroom with the demands of running a property as well as the financial costs and emotional toll of sending children away to boarding school as young as 11 years old.

It is these issues and the lack of awareness in the city where education policies are set that prompted Kim to join ICPA, a network of parents dedicated to ensuring rural and remote kids have equitable access to educational opportunities.

"It is really important that we make governments aware of the needs of kids in the bush. As far as I can see, if you don't have quality education for kids in the bush, we will not have people here, we won't have small communities. We won't have graziers. We won't have a live export industry. It is critical for Australia to look after the bush community. The only way we are going to achieve that is to have as close as possible equitable education as what mainstream students receive, or else people are going to leave."

As well as contending with the worsening drought, in the last two years families have had to adapt to the standardised National School Curriculum. Kim describes the changes for families studying by distance education in Queensland as a "baptism of fire".

"It was a real cultural change for people enrolled in Distance Education in QLD. They were used to taking school papers out with them if they had fencing to do or needed to camp out. They could tailor the lessons around their lifestyle and that was a big advantage. The implementation of the National Curriculum in Queensland is very reliant on technology and being there Monday to Friday to do the lessons."

The increased focus on technology is a battle for families who cannot access fast or reliable internet.

"A lot of stuff is now available in distance ed schools like web conferencing, but it chews up a lot of internet (bandwidth and download). It is wonderful to have these tools to increase the learning experience but if families don't have capacity to run the programs, then it doesn't work," says Kim.

One of the realities for many remote families is sending their children to boarding school when they reach high school age. For most families it is a matter of giving their children access to new opportunities, such as a greater range of sports and extra-curricular activities. Regardless, it is a major change for both the parent and the child.

"It's huge," says Kim reflecting on when her daughter started boarding school. "I don't think you realise until you send the first one away – they are actually leaving home. It is a bit of a loss. But you put your tough shoes on and you adapt." 

Her daughter Keeley refused to ring home for the first two weeks, knowing that if she did, she would fall apart. There was a whole new world to adapt to – new rules, community living, the constant noise. However, now in Year 10, Keeley has found her feet and is thriving.

Rachel Weston and members of the ICPA Branch of Charters Towers have acknowledged how dramatic the change is for young people moving from the family station to boarding school. They are putting together a two-day workshop for students in the region who will start boarding school next year. The program is designed to give students the life skills and confidence they need to manage this next stage of life.

With the help of Frontier Services Dalrymple Rural Family Support, and funding from the local council, the parents have organised service providers to run a number of different sessions. These include coping with stress, cyber safety and social media, hormonal changes, self care and hygiene and drug and alcohol education. They are also bringing in an expert in deportment and etiquette to help students polish off their table manners.

"We will take the children to a local restaurant so they can practice those skills," says Rachel. "Living out on a remote property, I can't even remember the last time we went to a restaurant. It just doesn't happen."

Next year Rachel sends her eldest, Grace, 12, to boarding school. They are both a little nervous but excited about the new opportunities.

"The biggest issue families face out here is access," says Rachel, "regular access to things like local swimming pools. People can drive four hours once a week to teach their kids to swim. Also the opportunity to take part in a team sport. We're quite active and kick a ball with the kids on the lawn, but you don't get that team atmosphere."

Right now, the drought is putting a strain on an already tight schedule for outback families. Rachel says: "We don't work Monday to Friday and have the weekend off. Every day is a work or school day."

The children also help with mustering, feeding the animals and other chores. With the drought there is more to do and often school has to squeeze in around the extra workload.

As circumstances change for families, Frontier Services also changes the way it works, bringing support to families where they are at, recognising that now more than ever they can't afford the petrol or time to leave home. Frontier Services QLD and SA Regional Manager Karen Harvey says: "You don't clock on and off in remote Australia. Families are constantly juggling their family life, workloads and educating their children. That is why our services are so vital. Our programs are flexible and adaptable, providing meaningful support to families at their place. We take it as a great honour and an enormous sign of trust that we are working with third and fourth generation families, the very ones that John Flynn established contact with a century ago."