Bush kids go the distance

In the Distance Eduation class room at the McArthur family's home.
They become very independent and resourceful learners
In the Distance Eduation class room at the McArthur family's home.

NO doubt Australia’s education system has changed substantially in recent years, but what’s it like growing up in the bush today, having to learn far from a regular school room?

Just how teaching and learning have changed were brought home to me by this story from Stan, an old station hand.

“So ‘off you go with the other blacks Stan, there’s toys in the corner and comic books to read’, the teacher used to say when she started teaching the class English - funny thing was, I couldn’t read the bloody things. So that’s why I never learnt, because I was black,” Stan recalled.

Part Aboriginal, and at school in that late 1940s, this story shocked me. As it turned out, Stan’s story is one of three personal accounts of adult illiteracy I’ve heard from older blokes who I’ve worked with on farms.

More recently, there have been reports of poor literacy in Australia, possibly a reflection on the antiquated education system we’re stuck with and the fact many kids don’t fit the mould.

So how do kids go who aren’t subject to the factory-like culture and process of bricks and mortar schools? Home schooling has always had a stigma, but Distance Education is something else.

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Since embarking on my Get Muddy On Tour, I find myself with a wonderful family of beef producers on 30,000 acres just under two hours north of Rockhampton in Central Queensland.

Ainsley and Rob McArthur have five children and whilst Rob works out on the property, Ainsley teaches four of them, as the “school run” would be nearly a four-hour return drive.

It’s like doing university by correspondence, but for kids. It’s not up to the Home Tutor (often the mother) to plan and find resources to deliver curriculum, like a teacher. Ainsley receives plans, guidelines and information to keep her and the kids on track. Not to say she doesn’t improvise with reinforcing the lessons through life on the farm.

The kids are a part of small classes, made up of children in the greater area. Some days Ainsley will teach or lay out tasks and projects for the kids on that subject, other days they’re online, sometimes one on one with a teacher going through material. The teacher holds a class with their eight or so students online complete with webcams.

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So to paint the picture. Lachlan, 7, could be playing a maths game online with his teacher also online, watching and chatting with him via a Skype-like system. Andrew, 10, is one of two kids in “class” learning Japanese, and is also online with his teacher on the other computer while Adelaide, 4, is practising writing her numbers and Hamish, 5, is building a dinosaur from bits and pieces he can find in the house.

They start school at 7.30am after doing morning chores on the farm and they finish around 1.30pm, then it’s out on the farm with Rob. The oldest two will head out on horseback to do cattle work or they all may go fencing or draft up cattle in the yards.

"They become very independent and resourceful learners,” Ainsley says.

From the outside looking in, as someone completely unfamiliar with this system of education, I’m gobsmacked at how flexible, engaging and effective it really is.

Ainsley’s discipline is at the core of its success, but that translates into lessons, a work ethic and a lifestyle these kids will flourish from.

I sat down and asked Ainsley some questions to better give you an idea on the pros and cons of this unique and effective system.

ST: What are a few of your favourite things about delivering distance education?

AM: Involvement in my children’s education. The program is quite prescriptive, so it’s so rewarding to begin the year with a child recognising some letters and end the year with them reading.

Also the individualised attention to each child and school flexibility; it can happen anywhere, anytime as long as we have access to computer and phone line.

ST: What are your personal challenges?

AM: Achieving family life balance. Being responsible for the education of four young people as well as catering to needs of a two-year-old is a big task! Not to mention my responsibilities in our family business and running a household.

ST: What does the Distance Education system do well?

AM: As it’s all happening in the family home, there’s more opportunity to recognise lessons and reinforce with real life situations, daily. Like measuring the perimeter of the paddock or learning to skip count in two’s as the cows come out of the yards.

It builds a great sense of community and interaction for both children and Home Tutors. Regional Clusters hold “mini-schools” once a term where all the kids come together for a week from the region. We also have camps. The support available to me through other Home Tutors and from teachers is very good.

ST: What are your frustrations with the system?

AM: The fear that the system will evolve to be wholly digital. While there is a cost to provide materials in colour print, this is a key component of ongoing delivery as children engage with all formats (digital, paper and voice). Also the quality and cost of our internet connection is a frustration. Being out of a major centre means we can only get up to 15G with Telstra.

ST: What does distance education not provide your children?

AM: Opportunity to participate in team sports or music tuition, but all being active on the farm everyday sees them develop great physical skills, strength and working in a small team.

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    Sam Trethewey

    Sam Trethewey

    grew up farming down south and now commentates on agriculture across Australia
    Get MuddyTo think clearly in farming and about farming, you need to get muddy - commit, roll up your sleeves and get involved. SAM TRETHEWEY gets stuck into some of the issues facing those on the land.

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