Australia’s School of the Air

By Kylie Hanson August 18, 2010
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School of the Air teacher Kylie Hanson takes us through a typical day in a 1.3 million sq. km schoolyard.

IT MUST BE THE biggest school in the world – its classrooms are spread over 1.3 million square kilometres, yet it only has 120 students and 14 teachers. It’s the extraordinary outback Alice Springs School of the Air (ASSOA) and it’s been running now for 59 years.

ASSOA and its short-wave radio link was once the only way for kids who lived a days’ drive or more from the nearest school, to get an education. Nowadays, many isolated communities have their own schools but ASSOA still plays a vital role in making sure that students in the outback get qual opportunity in education by providing curriculum subjects that may be beyond a community school’s resources.

While some students may live 1000 km from Alice, it’s my job as a teacher with ASSOA to make them feel as if I’m sitting right there beside them. One of the ways to reinforce that is for us to visit the students in person – a practice begun in 1960 by an ASSOA teacher, Nancy Barrett, who used her own car to drop by remote cattle stations and communities. It was such a success that now it’s an official part of out duties at the School of the Air, although the government supplied a vehicle and covers the expenses of these ‘patrols’.

On one such patrol, I motored up the Stuart Highway en route to Kintore, a remote Aboriginal community – also known as Walungurru – 460 km west of Alice, to visit once of my students, 10-year-old Paul Machado.


On the road

Siobhan Sharp – a fellow ASSOA teacher and I headed north-west on the Tanami Road, a one-lane bitumen road, following the rocky, red, sparsely vegetated hills of the MacDonnell Ranges.

After an hour or so we left the bitumen turning west onto the wide, red-dirt Papunya Road. Pausing for a break about halfway along this 100 km stretch, my day-to-day worries melted away. The silence and stillness of the desert somehow renders them insignificant.

Arriving at the Aboriginal community of Papunya, Siobhan directed me, following a detailed mud-map supplied by Paul’s family and without which we’d be lost. We had to drive another 260 km through the Gibson Desert red sandy plains dotted with spinifex, buffel grass, wattles, purple wildflowers and a few desert oaks and gums – before reaching Kintore. Along the way we spotted crows and wedge-tailed eagles feasting on road kill. We also came across camels, the odd lizard and flocks of small, bright-green budgerigars.

We arrived in Kintore around 3 p.m. After following our map to the family’s house, there was nobody home – we finally found Paul’s stepfather Peter Schaefer and his mother Jennifer Delima at Kintore’s medical centre. Jennifer is the community’s doctor, caring for about 600 Pintubi Aboriginals. Peter gave us a tour of Kintore before heading to our host’s home.

Peter is Paul’s home tutor and the family lives in a three-bedroom house in one of the most remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. They left Sydney 18 months ago to live totally different life. Peter explained the reason for such a dramatic lifestyle change: “It’s been out longheld wish to work with people in need in remote Australia.”

Teaching Outback Style

We’d brought with us a variety of items, including six goldfish, for the family. The plastic wading pool set up on their home’s enclosed veranda contained plants, rocks and a turtle. It would now have fish. We mused what a stark contrast this veranda oasis made with the dry desert just outside.

Paul, who’d just got home from the community school where he participates in sport, art and craft activities, proudly took us on a tour of his ‘collection’. He’d found many useful items around the place including nuts and bolts, as well as car parts. They all may come in handy with no hardware store in sight.

Peter told us about community life and the sacred men’s and women’s mountains that contain Kintore on two sides. The first afternoon of a patrol visit is for fun such as art and craft, scientific experiments, sport and making music – activities that aren’t part of the student’s weekly ‘set’ work or are difficult to do over the radio.

This year I’ve introduced the students to pottery, and Paul displayed endless patience manipulating the terracotta-coloured clay, changing his mind a number of times then remodelling it into a small bowl and decorating it with a colourful marble. Later, as we walked around the community, three young girls followed us and Siobhan sang to them in Walpiri (the language of a neighbouring group) a version of Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes. It amused and intrigued them and Siobhan made friends for life.

This was Siobhan’s first patrol visit and only her fourth week at ASSOA. She previously taught at Ti Tree (180 km north of Alice Springs) for three years. This was my 37th ASSOA patrol visit in two-and-a-half years teaching here. I’d not previously visited Kintore so this was a new experience for me as well.

All students receive a yearly visit from their teachers. Usually, with more than one student per family, teachers travel together when visiting. However, if there’s only one student in a family or locality, member of the administration staff accompanies the teacher. That evening we enjoyed a delicious chicken curry prepared by Jennifer. We sat chatting for hours after Paul had gone to bed. We discussed and witnessed the reality of being the only doctor in a remote community. The phone calls, visitors and call-outs to patients continued until late.

Next morning was consumed by serious schoolwork. Unlike over the radio, we can observe how students complete their work, including checking on basic things like pencil grip, level of confidence in and comprehension of different disciplines, concentration span and completion rates.

Being new to ASSOA, Siobhan hadn’t worked with Paul or assessed his set work before this visit. She discovered first-hand that he reads prolifically and with deep understanding, is able to work independently, possesses a broad general knowledge and displays enthusiasm and motivation to learn.

The second afternoon was spent cross stitch sewing a balloon design and making a card for Peter and Jennifer. Knowing that Paul is a skilful violinist, I’d packed my flute. Then we discovered that Jennifer plays the keyboard, so we had a bit of a jam session, playing some of Paul’s favourite songs.


Home and hosed

The next morning we headed out of Kintore, reluctantly farewelling Paul and his family. Halfway between Kintore and Papunya we blew the rear tyre and found the shredded remnants wrapped around the wheel rim.
Blown tyres and mechanical problems aren’t unusual on outback roads, so the ASSOA trains all staff in basic car emergencies. We managed to clear the remains of the tyre, change the wheel and continue on out way.

On reaching Papunya, we diverted from our original route – travelling instead through the western MacDonnell Ranges via Glen Helen Resort where we stopped for refreshment and to phone the base in Alice Springs to let them know we were alive and well.

Nine-and-a-half hours after leaving Kintore we pulled up outside the school’s base in Alice Springs. We were exhausted, mentally and physically, but it was a satisfying feeling. Like all ASSOA students after a hands on visit, Paul now knew his teacher and vice versa and the distance between radio handsets had been greatly diminished.



Base: Alice Springs           
No. of students: 140
Size of broadcast area: >1 million sq. km overlapping the SA and WA borders
Furthest student: >1000 km from Alice Springs
No. of staff: 14 teachers, five support staff
Age of students: 4-13 years
Grades: pre-school to year 7
Class size: 8-18 students
Student-teacher ratio: 1:14
Cost: twice the cost of mainstream schooling
Funded by: NT Department of Employment, Education and Training. Parents pay a voluntary donation of $100 a year for the first two children, $60 for the third and fourth.
Radio time: half an hr/day in group session plus 10 mins with class teacher once a week
Correspondence work: 5-6 hr/day
Daily supervision: most often the child’s parent. Only 30 per cent of families employ a home tutor

Source: Australian Geographic Issue 70 (Apr-June 2003)