Real Life

Inside the outback education crisis

In regional and remote Australia, getting an education isn’t as easy as A, B, C. The Weekly goes bush to meet the women battling to close the outback education gap.

It’s a sunny morning at Athelle Homestead and a group of kids, aged one to 10, are excitedly playing shop in the shade. They pretend to serve hot coffee and dunk make-believe bikkies into cups of tea. Their smiles are wide and giggles contagious.

This could be an average morning in any playgroup, except it’s not. It’s a rare occasion and a muchneeded moment of connection. The last time this playgroup was held was seven months previously. The facilitator, Kylie Jones from RAISEducation, has driven seven hours to be here, and a number of families couldn’t make it because a fire in the region needed fighting. This is the reality of living in the bush: Fires, floods and far-reaching distances.

Athelle Homestead, at Anmatjere in the Central Desert Region of the Northern Territory, is located at the end of a corrugated, red-dirt road. The nearest major supermarkets and schools are a two-hour trek away in Alice Springs (Mparntwe). Further still is the closest capital city, Darwin (Garramilla), a 13-hour drive north.

Heath and Theo's classroom which is an old shipping container.
Heath and Theo’s classroom with their governess Charlie White.

“We can go weeks without seeing people,” says Athelle owner Danyelle Haigh, who lives on the 2000-hectare property with her husband, Anthony, and their sons, Heath, nine, and Theo, four. “It’s hard for the boys because they don’t get to see other kids – or a teacher – all the time.”

Heath and Theo don’t have classmates to play with or teachers to look over their shoulders during class. Their classroom is an old shipping container on the back of a road train that’s been converted into a schoolroom with air conditioning and headsets for their School of the Air classes. When the Haigh family are out drilling for water on cattle stations across the outback – which they do every other month – the boys spend their days in the shipping container with governess Charlie White.

Having a governess is a necessity for Danyelle and Anthony, who work full-time running Murranji Water Drilling and Athelle Outback Hideaway, but it comes at a cost: $60,000 a year. They pay the expense –there’s no assistance from the state or federal governments.

“The financial burden of constructing our own classroom and governess quarters atop our mobile business, [as well as] funding a governess, internet connectivity, schooling materials, and intermittent in-school weeks weighs heavily on us,” admits Danyelle.

Education is a fundamental human right, but for kids in isolated areas it’s increasingly difficult to access. Last September the Isolated Children’s Parent’s Association (ICPA) released a call to action “vehemently urging both state and federal levels of government to take resolute steps to rectify the glaring issue of education inequality that continues to burden remote families across the country”.

Their ask is for the Assistance for Isolated Children Scheme (AIC) to be raised, proportionally, to the level it was when it first launched in 1973. Back then, the payment covered 55 per cent of the average boarding fee to help kids from the bush get an education. Over the past 50 years though, the percentage covered by the AIC basic boarding allowance has been eroded, and many families are paying more than $20,000 out-ofpocket – per year, per child – just in boarding fees. For parents battling the cost-of-living crisis, the expense is pushing them to the brink.

“I [recently] had a truck driver crying because he didn’t know how he was going to make it work when his youngest two kids joined their older sibling at boarding school,” explains ICPA Federal President Louise Martin. “With the cost of boarding fees, plus tuition [around $20,000 each], he was looking at $120,000 for his three kids each year. And that doesn’t include travel to and from school each term or extras like sport and music.”

Louise raised her twin girls on a sheep and cattle property 30km from Tambo in central Queensland. They finished their education at boarding school in Brisbane, so she understands the financial bind remote parents are in. She is calling for a $4000 raise in the basic boarding allowance.

“Families don’t want to leave their [remote] communities, but they’re having to pack up and move in order to educate their children,” adds Louise. “The bush is dying, and we don’t want it to. We need fair and just assistance to educate our isolated kids.”

Louise Martin.
Louise Martin is fighting against education inequality in rural and regional Australia.

Funding is one necessity – and it’s a big one – but there’s also a need for more resources and support to address the education inequality gap between the city and country. Reading and numeracy levels of students in remote areas are consistently below the outcomes of the general student population. According to the 2023 NAPLAN results, 56 per cent of remote students in Year 9 were below expectations in reading, compared to 31 per cent of metropolitan students. There is a direct link between a child’s postcode and their probable school “success”.

For Heather Carter, the Assistant Principal at Ngukurr School in the Northern Territory, the first step in improving these stats is getting kids to class. At her school in the tiny community of Ngukurr on the banks of the Roper River in southern Arnhem Land, there are around 250 students from Prep to Year 12. On average, only half of those students attend school each day.

“When I first came to Ngukurr for my teaching placement [six years ago], I was surprised at how low the attendance was,” admits Heather, who is originally from Manchester in the UK and moved to Adelaide as a teenager. “In my first year teaching in Ngukurr, improving attendance was one of my big goals, and I worked on building relationships with my students, making the classroom a safe place for them and building on their strengths. As the year went on, kids started coming more regularly.”

Progress is possible – Heather and her students are proof of that – but it takes a certain kind of person to make a difference. Currently, there’s a severe shortage of those kinds of people. According to The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education, the average length of stay for a non-Indigenous teacher in a remote school can more easily be measured in months than years. This high turnover of teachers is a major factor in the low academic outcomes for students in remote communities.

Heather Carter, Assistant Principal at Ngukurr School in the Northern Territory with some of her students.
Heather Carter, Assistant Principal at Ngukurr School in the Northern Territory with some of her students.

“Teachers come and go,” says Heather. “Some are only here for three or six months, which is hard for the kids because consistency is so important. There needs to be more advertising and placement opportunities for remote teaching roles.

“Every year when I drive back into town after being away for the Christmas holidays kids run after my car and to my house, so excited to have me back.”

The connection between Heather and the kids of Ngukurr is special and sacred. Little ones follow her around and give her cuddles, older ones drop into her office to say g’day and tell her that her hair looks nice. There’s an enormous amount of respect between Heather and her students, and it goes both ways.

“Making these connections with the kids and seeing their progress is life-changing. Being here has shaped who I am as a person,” says Heather, who has a Master’s in Indigenous Education and is a walking advertisement for remote teaching.

Granted, it’s not for everyone. The community of Ngukurr is a sevenhour drive from Darwin. The dirt road into town floods when the wet season hits and the community is cut off. The average high temperature in summer is 39 degrees. The internet is patchy and the electricity drops out intermittently. There are no restaurants or Uber Eats. A packet of Tim Tams at the local grocery store is more than $8. There are crocs in the rivers, snakes in the schoolyard and, sometimes, cheeky horses in the playground.

These are just some of the unique challenges faced by teachers in remote schools and governesses on isolated stations. As beautiful as it is, the bush can be brutal. Educators need strength and support.

Notes and drawings from students in an office.

Enter: RAISEducation, founded by primary teacher turned governess Kylie Jones, in 2020. “My original idea for RAISE was to provide support for kids doing distance education and School of the Air, but I quickly realised that the parents, home tutors and governesses needed support too,” explains Kylie, who provides home visits and face-to face learning support to isolated families across the Central Desert
Region, where she is based.

“I travelled over 33,000 kilometres with RAISE in 2023 and set up nine playgroups in Central Australia that we’re hoping to hold monthly in 2024,” she tells The Weekly.

The importance of the playgroups cannot be understated, says Kylie, who has seen how vital in-person connection is for kids, parents and tutors alike. In makeshift classrooms and without the supervision of a
qualified teacher for eight hours a day, five days a week, learning difficulties can be missed and kids can fall through the cracks.

“So many children doing distance education are struggling and falling behind, and because teachers only see them for an hour here and there, it’s difficult to diagnose developmental issues or learning difficulties,” says Danyelle, whose son Heath was diagnosed with ADHD a few years ago thanks to her then-governess, who was also a speech therapist.

“Being able to identify problems early on means we can step in before they become a major issue,” says Kylie. “I hear so often from parents feeling guilty they’re letting their kids down or not doing enough for them, and I have to keep reminding them that no one can do it alone. If they were in a town and their kids were in a school, they wouldn’t have so much on their shoulders. Life isn’t easy out here, parents can’t beat themselves up.”

They say it takes a village to raise a child, and it takes a community to educate one. “Kylie’s a godsend, we need more people like her,” says Danyelle at Athelle Homestead where the November playgroup was held.

Teacher turned governess Kylie Jones.
Teacher turned governess Kylie Jones does her part for education inequality with her charity RAISEducation.

Danyelle’s governess, Charlie, echoes the sentiment: “Kylie is amazing. Any time I’m having trouble, I know I can always go to her. She’s been a massive help for me and the boys. We need more funding for services like RAISE, as well as access to OTs [occupational therapists] and speechies [speech therapists].”

After living with the Haigh family and tutoring their boys for a year in the Territory, Charlie will soon return to her home and family in Victoria. Danyelle has found another governess to replace her thanks to
word-of-mouth and social media, so the cycle will start over. Another year, another governess, another $60,000.

As Heath nears double digits, Danyelle is wrangling with the decision to send him to boarding school. “I don’t want the kids to miss out on the social side and sporting opportunities of going to an actual school, so I’m looking into boarding schools for Heath at the moment,” she says.

“I’m really struggling with the decision because I don’t know how he will cope with being away. He has really bad anxiety and has cried himself to sleep over it, so we’re looking at all the options.”

The options include Heath continuing with School of the Air until Year 9, going to boarding school in Alice Springs (200km away) and coming home over weekends, and going to boarding school in Brisbane
(where Danyelle’s family is based) and only returning during holidays. It’s a lot to weigh up, and each comes at a cost in the tens of thousands.

Danyelle backs the ICPA’s campaign for a basic boarding allowance. “I know we choose to live out here, but if it weren’t for families like us, what would the rest of Australia eat? Where would they get their clothes from? How would they get food on their plates?”

Danyelle Haigh and her husband Anthony and sons Theo and Heath.

It’s a simple equation. We need farmers and workers in the bush, but to keep them there, we need schooling opportunities for their kids. The future of outback communities depends on accessible education.

In Ngukurr, Heather’s office is covered in photos, notes and drawings from her students. “Dear Heather, you’re my best friend,” reads one. “You are the best teacher in the world,” says another. “You are so strong in my heart.” This is what keeps Heather going: The kids.

“They’re the best kids, and they deserve the best education,” says Heather, her eyes glistening.

She talks about a young boy who she taught to spell his name when she first arrived at the school. That same boy is now serving lattes in the recently opened school coffee van, Bagai Barista Cafe, and has a job lined up with the local rangers service next year.

“I still have a box of cards from the Year 5-6 class I had for my placement, and now some of those kids who wrote those cards are driving cars and getting jobs. It’s amazing to see the students grow and to know that I’m making a difference,” she says.

More than one of the cards in the box from Heather’s placement students says, “We hope you come back.” She did come back, and she has kept coming back for the past six years. Heather came back again to
Ngukurr this year, and she hopes to be joined by more teachers to fill the current shortage.

“I’m not sure where I’ll end up after Ngukurr, but this school and community will always hold a special place in my heart,” she says, knowing her impact on these kids will live on even longer.

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