Education for Isolated Children: Challenging Gendered and Structural Assumptions
Australia has provided international leadership in the provision of education to young people living in remote areas (Queensland Government Education Queensland 2003), developing for example, the unique and iconic School of the Air programs across the country during the twentieth century--programs that provide critical support to remote area children and their home tutors. While there is no doubt that Australia's innovative approach to remote area education is to be applauded, a note of warning about remote education access was sounded with the release of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission (HREOC) report on the National Inquiry into Rural and Remote Education in 2000 (Sidoti 2000). Sidoti's report provides ample evidence of significant barriers to the availability, accessibility and quality of education for rural and remote students. Sidoti was so concerned about what he observed that he termed the problems associated with young rural and remote people's education access human rights abuses. What we intend to do in this paper is not to revisit the work of the HREOC Inquiry, but rather to raise new concerns about educational access resulting from the long-running drought gripping our remote areas, concerns that centre on the gendered and structural assumptions underpinning isolated education access. In particular we question the assumptions that mothers are a) available and b) able to home tutor their children allowing rural and remote young people to achieve educational parity with their rural and urban peers who have access to state funded and resourced schools.
In this paper we argue that ongoing and rapid restructuring in remote areas accelerated by more recent drought conditions is resulting in new pressures on remote families. These pressures challenge the assumptions that guide education delivery to students in our more remote areas, and therefore further corrupt education access. The paper draws on our 2005 study of the impact of drought on education access in rural and remote areas funded by the federal Department of Education, Science and Training (DEST) and the Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal (FRRR). Firstly we report briefly on the provision of distance education services to isolated Australian primary and secondary students, before outlining the impacts of ongoing rural restructuring and drought on the people and communities in remote Australia. Finally we present results from our study that indicate that gendered and structural assumptions underpinning remote education can no longer be relied upon, and thus that education access has become even more precarious for our remote young people.
Distance Education for Remote Primary and Secondary Students
Because of the immense distances in remote areas of Australia, for many young people the only opportunity available to them to access education is to study by distance education from their properties and outback stations. Primary and secondary education is provided to these young people by distance education from a number of centres across Australia. In Queensland the hubs for this mode of delivery are located at Longreach, Cairns, Charters Towers, Mount Isa, Charleville, Emerald and Brisbane; in New South Wales at Broken Hill, Tibooburra, Dubbo and Sydney; in the Northern Territory at Alice Springs and Katherine; in South Australia at Port Augusta and the Open Access College; and in Western Australia at Kalgoorlie, Kimberley, Meekatharra, Port Hedland, Carnarvon and Perth. For the purposes of illustration we will outline the services provided through the Longreach Centre, a typical distance education service, and one we visited during the course of our research.
Longreach Distance Education Centre services children across an area of over 470 000 square kilometres in the vast central western areas of Queensland, an area twice the size of Victoria and Tasmania combined and almost twice the size of the United Kingdom. They provide education for students from preparatory grade through to Year 10 of high school, and their motto, 'effort conquers distance', is an apt description of the way the service approaches its mission to educate the children of this vast area. The 220 children (1) studying at Longreach School of the Air are provided with correspondence papers to be done in their own home supervised by their home tutor and daily lessons are conducted over the internet. Students in upper primary and secondary classes have computers and are linked to their virtual classrooms by satellite for their lessons and discussions with their teachers--half an hour a day with their class group, and 15 minutes per day one on one with their teacher. In 2005 when we visited the service there were 28 teachers on staff (24 full time equivalents) and these teachers are allocated on a location and year group basis. Almost all students have the satellite facilities to study through the digital program delivered via computer with teacher support. Cluster days--that is, days where students in a particular geographical location are brought together--are held each term, and this allows the students to have classes in drama, music, dance, health, sport and physical education. In addition students spend one week boarding at the Longreach facility each year for intensive instruction and peer group interaction. Students also have an annual swimming and sports carnival that brings them together for competitive events and, each year, secondary students are taken on an excursion to a capital city. The staff of the service is deeply committed to the task of providing education to the children of the Outback.
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