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