Ed­u­ca­tion

Re­mote fam­i­lies all over Aus­tralia are mak­ing enor­mous sac­ri­fices to get the best ed­u­ca­tion for their chil­dren, writes Fran Mol­loy. Pho­tog­ra­phy by Clancy Paine.

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Fam­i­lies share the hard les­sons of dis­tance learn­ing

TARA AND Dan Locke love the wideopen spa­ces of Melinda Downs. “It’s pretty coun­try. There’s red dirt, gnarly grey-green gidgee trees, rocky creeks and big red ter­mite mounds,” says Tara of their 13,000-hectare cat­tle-sta­tion home on Dis­mal Creek in Queens­land’s far north-west. Their kids love it, too – they spend a lot of time out­doors, look­ing af­ter a menagerie of chooks, ducks, guineafowl and a poddy calf, swim­ming in the dam and bash­ing a cricket ball around their huge yard.

“Our chil­dren are safe and happy,” says Tara, who home­schools Emma, seven, and Matthew, six, while look­ing af­ter 20-month-old Jessica. “They have so much free­dom and end­less space to ride their horses and bikes.”

But home­school­ing beyond pri­mary level means kids miss out on sports, mu­sic and so­cial op­por­tu­ni­ties. Big de­ci­sions lie ahead for the Lockes – the kind that keep them awake at night. Do they send their kids to board­ing school and go through the pain of sepa­ra­tion? Or does Tara move to town with the kids and leave Dan alone on the sta­tion? Ei­ther way, the fam­ily will be split up. And how to fi­nance the dif­fer­ent op­tions, which all come with big, flash­ing dol­lar signs?

These are ques­tions tack­led by thou­sands of Aus­tralian fam­i­lies who live re­motely but don’t want their chil­dren’s ed­u­ca­tion to suf­fer. “Ac­cess­ing ed­u­ca­tion be­comes more dif­fi­cult when you are ge­o­graph­i­cally iso­lated,” says Wendy Hick, fed­eral pres­i­dent of the Iso­lated Chil­dren’s Par­ents’ As­so­ci­a­tion, which rep­re­sents more than 3500 fam­i­lies. “That’s whether you’re out on a prop­erty or liv­ing in a small com­mu­nity.”

It’s not just fam­i­lies in far­away home­steads who have to make hard de­ci­sions, she adds. Take the Tay­lor fam­ily in Tasmania. Their fifth-gen­er­a­tion sheep and cat­tle prop­erty is only 80 kilo­me­tres from Launce­s­ton but for years the three chil­dren spent up to three hours a day com­mut­ing to and from school in the city. Around Year 8, when home­work and af­ter-school com­mit­ments got too de­mand­ing, they all be­came week­day board­ers at Scotch Oak­burn Col­lege in New­stead, a sub­urb of Launce­s­ton.

“You never re­ally get used to them be­ing gone,” says mum Kate, who runs a gift shop in Camp­bell Town, the small town near their farm, to help pay the school fees.

It’s a huge in­vest­ment. One year’s board­ing school fees cost be­tween $30,000 and $50,000 per stu­dent, says Richard Stokes, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Aus­tralian Board­ing Schools As­so­ci­a­tion, which rep­re­sents the coun­try’s 189 res­i­den­tial schools. “Govern­ment al­lowances can help a good deal and most schools as­sist with fee dis­counts, bur­saries and schol­ar­ships aimed at coun­try kids.”

But with around 65 per cent of Aus­tralia’s 24,000 board­ing school stu­dents com­ing from re­mote and re­gional ar­eas, schools can’t re­duce fees for all kids. “We’ve heard some re­ally heart­break­ing sto­ries,” says Wendy Hicks. “Fam­i­lies some­times have to choose be­tween their chil­dren, try­ing to de­cide which child has a more vi­able shot at an ed­u­ca­tion.”

Think­ing ahead, Tara and Dan Locke bought a house in Clon­curry – a two-hour drive from their prop­erty

– a few years ago. “We hope to pay off enough by the time Emma is in Year 7 so we can af­ford for me to move to town through the week with the kids,” says Tara. An­other op­tion is to send the kids to board­ing school in Char­ters Tow­ers or Townsville – up to 10 hours away by road – or Bris­bane, a three-hour plane trip.

Fam­i­lies do the best they can, putting ar­range­ments in place that can be head­spin­ningly com­plex, all to en­sure their chil­dren get a de­cent ed­u­ca­tion. Here, three fam­i­lies around Aus­tralia share their ex­pe­ri­ences.

“Fam­i­lies some­times have to de­cide which child has a more vi­able shot at an ed­u­ca­tion.”

The Locke fam­ily at home on Melinda Downs sta­tion in Queens­land

Tara Locke home­schools her el­dest chil­dren, Emma and Matthew, while look­ing af­ter tod­dler Jessica

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