Why I care (and you should, too)

Last week the WA government announced a decision to have all 5 Schools of the Air remain open. This has been a huge win for rural and regional families across the state. The following was written before the government announced the reversal on their decision to close all 5 schools at the end of 2018.

Written by Anne Marie Huey

Western Australia is a big, empty state. Despite occupying almost one third of Australia’s land mass, it accounts for less than 10% of the nation’s population (approximately 2.6 million people). Of these 2.6 million, around 80% (2,000,000 people) live in the Greater Perth region. This doesn’t leave a lot of people to inhabit the remote, regional areas – particularly once you leave the southern agricultural zones.

This presents the government many challenges. It’s expensive to do business in the bush and the sparse population makes it costly to provide infrastructure and essential services. As a result, those of us who choose to make our lives (and livelihoods) in the great beyond are accustomed to paying more for most services than our city cousins.

Bulk billing is unheard of in my closest town. I know a visit to the doctor will cost me $80 just for a standard consult, $140 if I have concerns that may take a little longer to discuss. My internet comes through a satellite and I accept the most data I can access is 260GB a month. I also accept that I will have to pay $199.95 a month for the privilege, even though 140GB of that data is only available between the hours of 1.00am and 7.00am.

I shake my head at the inefficiencies that sees local produce picked, then sent south to be packaged, only to be trucked north again to end up on my local supermarket shelf. The end result is fruit and veggies that are either perpetually unripe or at the point of being rotten. Never mind, I pick through them as best I can and make do with what I have.

In fact, ‘making do’ is the hall mark of life in the bush. We cope with unreliable telephone services that drop out at the first hint of a storm blowing up. Mobile reception is a pipe dream, but the bush telegraph still works pretty well. Neighbours will relay messages via other neighbours, some of whom may have telephone or internet, until the information finally gets to its intended recipient.

We ‘make do’ with a dearth of available tradespeople and instead learn to take care our own problems. A busted water-pipe? No worries, just grab the necessary fittings from the shed and fix the problem. Road washed out after a storm? Fire up the grader and repair the damage. Damaged buildings, injured pets or livestock, mechanical troubles, power outages, droughts, floods, and bushfires. These are all part of our daily lives and we generally manage to get on with the job of getting on with it.

One area where we shouldn’t have to ‘make do’ though, is educating our children. Yet this is the very real threat facing hundreds of bush families from 2019 onwards. For those who haven’t heard, the Western Australian government has made the short-sighted and disastrous decision to axe the five Schools of the Air. The official line is that these schools will be ‘amalgamated’ with the School of Isolated and Distance Education to remove duplication and reduce costs. A noble intention but one that is ultimately doomed to fail. Unfortunately, the city-centric politicians and bureaucrats who concocted this policy fail to understand the two institutions are vastly different and offer completely different services.

For those that don’t know, School of the Air provides primary education to isolated children who are too remote to have access to regular schools. Students have a daily ‘on-air’ session with their teacher and with practical work being overseen by either their parent or governess.

School of the Air also offers invaluable social interactions that isolated kids desperately need. School camps, sports carnivals, and mini-schools all ensure that bush kids have the opportunity to develop the social skills needed to do well in life. One-on-one visits from teachers and valuable on-air time with their class-mates builds a sense of community and belonging that is taken for granted in traditional classrooms.

The schools are based in regional centres and also provide much-needed assistance for the parents and home tutors of these students. Being able to drop in and catch up with a teacher while in town picking up supplies provides indispensable support for families with questions or who might be having trouble with the curriculum.

Teachers, too. gain invaluable insights into the daily lives of the kids. This puts them in a much better position to relate to their young students and teach in ways that are meaningful to them.

The School of Isolated and Distance Education (SIDE), on the other hand, is based in Leederville, Perth. Its focus is to deliver on-line learning resources to students. While SIDE does offer on-air and telephone contact with teachers, it simply does not – and cannot – offer the same social development and targeted, one-on-one services as the School of the Air. To force primary aged children into the SIDE model would be disastrous for their development.

To add insult to injury, the government is claiming the School of the Air closures are necessary budget repair measures. This is despite no modelling being done to assess the cost of transferring remote students to SIDE. Our Premier, Mark McGowan, was quoted in The West as saying these cuts were targeted at ‘things at the edges that are nice to have, but not necessary to have’. Unfortunately for bush kids, access to an equitable education, at the cost of about $14,000,000 is only ‘nice to have’, but a brand new $120,000,000 marina in the inner-city electoral division of Perth is apparently essential. That this is the electorate of our Minister for Primary Industries and Regional Development shows just how ineptly this government has determined its priorities.

Some may wonder why I am invested in this campaign to have this nonsensical decision reversed. After all, I have no children of my own, nor did I attend School of the Air as a child. But there are a number of very good reasons why I – and anyone else who cares about the future of Western Australia – should care.

The Australian farmer is comparatively old.  In fact, the average age of farmers in Australia is 56 (compared to 39 for the rest of the workforce). This means that many of the people who produce our food will be looking to exit the industry in the relatively near future. In order for agriculture to continue to thrive in this country, young people must be encouraged to remain in – and enter – the industry.

However, answer me this: What young family would commit themselves to a working the land if it meant sentencing their children to a life-time of limited opportunities due to a sub-standard, second-rate education? Would you be willing to sacrifice the future of your children so you could continue in your chosen career?

Anyone who has decried the rise of ‘Big Ag’ or expressed concern over foreign ownership of farm land in this country should be very concerned about this policy. Closing the Schools of the Air will be a death knell for family farms in remote Western Australia.  As families are forced out, the only buyers will be the large corporates or foreign investors. Who knows, perhaps we will end up with a fly-in/fly-out agricultural sector, similar to that of the mining industry.

Losing the family farm is more than just losing ownership. It is losing a life-time, or in some cases generations, of connection to the land. It is losing the hard-won knowledge of seasons, land capability, animal behaviours and grazing patterns, fire regimes, and flood histories that are so vital to sustainably managing this country.

It is losing entire future generations of people who know how to ‘make do’. It is losing an iconic part of our national heritage and will slowly but surely ebb the life-blood of many regional communities. It is consigning our proud legacy of a pioneering spirit, the belief in a ‘fair go’ and the time-honoured tradition of standing by your mates to the history books.

It is unconscionable, unforgivable, and it is denying our kids the future they deserve. Western Australia may be broke, but if this policy is enacted it will prove our government is also morally bankrupt. Surely, we can do better.