First National Conference on the
Future of Australia's Country Towns
The Regional Institute

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Education - the litmus of rural well-being

Chris Sidoti

Human Rights Commissioner

Address to the Conference on A Future for Rural Towns, Bendigo, 28 June 2000


At Nguiu in the Tiwi Islands north of Darwin last May a teenage student told our inquiry into rural and remote education:

"School is about education and education is power for me. And there are a lot of things that I need to know about the whole world. When I leave school I might go to a university in Darwin, I want to be a scientist. In future I hope to be President of the Land Council."

Education is power - personal and political. That's why it's recognised as a human right. Everyone has the right to education.

Education is also fundamental to the full enjoyment of most other human rights: most clearly the right to work but also the right to health. And to the exercise of social responsibilities including respect for the rights.

This core significance of education was the reason the Commission chose rural and remote education as the subject of its inquiry in response to Bush Talks consultations we conducted during 1998. You may recall that we consulted extensively throughout the country during that year on the human rights concerns of regional, rural and remote Australians. Their concerns were many. We were told of fading towns, dwindling populations, withdrawal of services, wholesale departures of young people, lost jobs and lives lost to accidents and emergencies which could not be reached in time and to suicides.

The Commission decided to investigate school education in rural and remote Australia as a way of understanding what was happening in all sectors of rural and remote community life and as a focus for recommendations which, if implemented, may help country people to meet the many challenges they face with creative solutions for local conditions addressing local needs. We saw good education as essential if small towns are to have a future.

The inquiry looked into the availability and accessibility of primary and secondary schooling, its quality and the extent to which it included, in an acceptable way, Indigenous children, children with disabilities and children from minority language, religious and cultural backgrounds.

Inquiry procedures

We called for submissions in February 1999 and commenced our hearings and meetings in March. We were delighted to be joined in most States and the Northern Territory by expert Co-Commissioners.

In Queensland we appointed Lady Pearl Logan from Malanda near Cairns who had been active in the ICPA and the Country Women's Association and was instrumental in the establishment of James Cook University in Townsville.

In the Northern Territory we worked with Associate Professor of Education Dr Brian Devlin from the NT University. In WA the Co-Commissioner was Sister Pat Rhatigan, now Dean of the Broome Campus of Notre Dame University. Both had worked extensively as teachers in remote communities and education administrators before joining academia.

In NSW we appointed Barbara Flick who has long been an Aboriginal community leader in NSW, Central Australia and Cape York, working in legal and health services among others.

The South Australian Co-Commissioner, Dr Alby Jones, is a former Director-General of Education and Tim Roberts from Victoria is a senior secondary student in Cohuna.

We conducted formal hearings in every capital city, at which witnesses gave evidence and answered questions, all of which were transcribed. We always convened student focus groups - one each for secondary students and primary students. We also held informal community meetings, open to the public, and heard from parents, teachers, education support workers, local government, child welfare and many other community members.

The great bulk of the inquiry's material, including transcripts and many submissions, can be found on the Commission's website at .

Of course, we couldn't hope to visit every community or even every region, although we visited every State and the Northern Territory. To offer an opportunity for focused participation by as many interested people as possible, we commissioned a survey from the University of Melbourne's Youth Research Centre.

3,128 people responded - either in writing or during a 2-day phone-in - and 55% of respondents were rural and remote students.

The inquiry received 287 submissions including from every education department and many Catholic Education Offices. Topics raised in significant numbers of submissions were

  • the provision of special education and the needs of country students with special needs (82)
  • the added costs of accessing education in the country (81)
  • the quality and the challenges of distance education (73)
  • the need for improved IT infrastructure and the opportunities IT offers for improving education delivery in the bush (66)
  • Indigenous education (62) which was simultaneously being investigated by former Senator Bob Collins in the Northern Territory1 and, nationally, by the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations, Small Business and Education References Committee2
  • and school-related travel (57 submissions).

We summarised the evidence and submissions received by the inquiry in our March 2000 publication Emerging Themes. This publication has been widely distributed, most notably, with the assistance of State and Territory education departments and many Catholic Education Offices, to most schools in the country.

The Commission's role and perspective

Before I describe our findings on these major topics, I would like to comment on the particular perspective the Commission brings to the subject of rural and remote education.

The Commission is Australia's human rights monitoring body. As well as dealing with discrimination and human rights complaints, we are charged with promoting public awareness of human rights and advising the Commonwealth on actions it should take to protect and advance human rights. We report to the federal Parliament and, indeed, this afternoon our inquiry report, Recommendations, will be tabled in the Parliament by the Attorney-General.

Our approach to education is a human rights one. The human right to education is recognised in at least three international treaties, the UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education of 1962, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1966, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child of 1990.

International committees assess whether any particular country fully respects the right of its children to education by reference to five criteria.

  • Education must be available for all without discrimination.
  • It must be accessible, either within safe physical distance or by correspondence or some other form of distance education.
  • It must be affordable; in fact primary education must be free and once a country has succeeded in providing a free secondary education, fees can only be reimposed for very compelling reasons.
  • Education must be acceptable, culturally and in other ways, to both students and their parents.
  • And it must be adaptable so that it meets the different circumstances and changing needs of each individual student.

The inquiry evaluated the evidence it received against these five criteria. We found that some Australian children are failed on one or more of these criteria. And there is strong evidence that rural and remote children are generally disadvantaged in comparison with their urban counterparts. For example, rural and remote students are less likely to stay on at school after the compulsory years or to finish secondary school. The average Year 12 retention rates for boys in the capital cities is 63% and for girls it is 74%. The average for students in rural centres is 54% for boys and 66% for girls. And the average for students in other rural and remote areas is 54% for boys and 74% for girls. Year 12 retention is particularly low in the Northern Territory: only 23% of rural/remote boys and 25% of rural/remote girls stay on to Year 12.

Tertiary participation is lower for rural and remote students: they constitute 30% of the population but only 19% of tertiary students.

There is some evidence, too, of less consistent attendance and poorer performances.


Is education available? Is it provided to all? Well, no, it isn't. We are particularly concerned about the lack of primary education for many children living on Indigenous Homeland Communities and outstations, of which we heard evidence in the Kimberley region of WA and in the Northern Territory. In the 1987 report Return to Country, which investigated the homelands movement, it was estimated that between 700 and 1,000 children in north-east Arnhem Land alone had no access whatsoever to school education. There are still 15 East Arnhem Land communities without education provision.

Perhaps even more disturbing - given the very substantial numbers affected - is that secondary schooling is simply unavailable - that is, it is not provided - outside the six major urban and regional centres in the NT. Community Education Centres in remote communities provide only the most basic primary education, with limited tuition support for secondary students to study by correspondence. Very few do so. This near total lack of secondary provision in non-urban NT has been strongly criticised by both Bob Collins and the Senate Committee. One elder suggested a solution - a solution proposed years ago to the NT Department of Education.

A long time ago, we were planning and discussing the possibility of having a school for the outstations, a school that would be situated in the middle where it is accessible to the Homelands people. The school should be standing in the middle of the Homelands area so that all the people from the Homelands can access the school.

We were talking like this many times previously, but nothing came out of it. But if the government can see us and our children and recognise our situation, we would get a central school for the Homelands, a school situated in the middle of the area.3

The failure to act is inexcusable, particularly in light of the Senate Committee's revelation that $90 million of Commonwealth funding earmarked for Indigenous education was `misallocated' by the NT Education Department to its core funding.4

The Territory presented us with the most dire and disadvantaged examples of neglect as well as some of the most exciting examples of community action on education. Yirrkala Community Education Centre in Eastern Arnhem Land is one of these examples. Yirrkala is a strong Yolngu language community that administers a large area with many smaller Homeland Centres. The Yirrkala CEC is a Northern Territory Education Department school with 191 students. It has

  • a combination of Indigenous and non-Indigenous teaching staff (it has frequently had a Yolngu principal, including Yothu Yindi's Mandawuy Yunupingu)
  • a bilingual - Yolngu and English - teaching program
  • a culturally-appropriate learning approach.

Local people are involved in teaching the children their culture and use cultural concepts and norms to deliver key learning. The Yirrkala Sober Women's Group, for example, teaches the dangers of alcohol abuse.

The education is based on Gurrutu, which is the kinship system for the extended family. When alcohol was discussed it was placed in reference to Gurrutu. All children at the Yirrkala school were placed in groups to describe and discuss Gurrutu and their skin groups and the importance of Gurrutu to Yolngu (Aboriginal people). It was then shown that alcohol `puts shyness to sleep' and that people then go off and live with the wrong related kinship group. This is wrong for Yolngu culture.

At Nguiu the community there has identified all the jobs required to be done and the skills needed for them. It has now developed and is implementing a program to ensure that Tiwi people are adequately trained and qualified to take each position by the year 2010. We were told at a public meeting there:

We're heading towards 2010, maybe sooner, to take over the main positions that the non-Tiwis have on this island. We are heading towards this position and as you know education is a major key; it plays a major role towards that. So the education has to be one that our children are happy with and we want our children to succeed and to achieve outcomes in that process.


Inaccessibility is perhaps the most widespread problem for school education in rural and remote Australia. Accessibility is undermined by so many factors that we have decided to publish a separate report just on access to education (to be published 3 August). I will give just one example among the many issues raised with us.

A child with a disability - let's say she uses a wheelchair and needs assistance with toileting - will confront difficulties enrolling in the school of her choice in any Australian city. Imagine how her difficulties are compounded when her town has only one school, and that school is built on two levels with no lift to the upper floor, no ramps at any entrance, no handrails in the toilets, all of which are too narrow anyway to accommodate her wheelchair. There is no funding for a special education teacher and no local resident qualified to take on the role of aide. There is little awareness at either the school or the district level of the requirements of the Commonwealth's Disability Discrimination Act or the State's own Equal Opportunity legislation - both of which apply. And the school bus is probably inaccessible for wheelchairs.

This child and her family have faced many hurdles over the years: her specialist visits only once each year - or not at all. When she develops an infection she must travel to the nearest regional centre or the State capital. There is no physiotherapist in town; although that professional visits irregularly, it is not always possible to get an appointment and it's usually a different person each time.

There is a special school at a regional centre - perhaps 50 or 150 kilometres away. If her parents feel a segregated education is acceptable - which they probably don't - that special school would refuse to admit her anyway as it only enrols children with intellectual disabilities.

This example may seem rather extreme. Admittedly it is an amalgamation of multiple problems we were told a child with a disability may face on enrolment to a school. Many schools are able to accommodate the special needs of children with disabilities. And often the problems are balanced by the benefits of attending a mainstream school. However, a number of families told us of the torturous and complex processes that they went through trying to surmount these barriers.

The full inclusion and adequate support of rural and remote students with disabilities is going to require a substantial infusion of funds and training, starting with a major attitudinal shift. These students are entitled to education equality and, like other children, to fulfil their potential. It is not appropriate to segregate children with special needs or to expect their parents to provide an education - of sorts - at home - or to rely on families moving to regional centres and cities to solve their education problems. In schools with adequate resources and training, the integration of children with special needs can benefits all students. For example:

The Traralgon Deaf Facility is attached to a mainstream school of approximately 460 students who have developed an understanding and acceptance of deafness. A large percentage of the school population can also sign, thus immersing the children in their first language.5


I was frankly astonished to find that most education department staffing and funding formulas make almost no compensation for the extra costs and time involved in providing education in rural areas, in participating in professional development for staff and in sports competitions and other extra-curricula learning opportunities for students, in getting repairs done - both to buildings and computer equipment.

The major compensatory program is the Commonwealth's Country Areas Program - administered through State departments - and not always equitably we were told.

There seems to have been a surrender to the tyranny of distance in the past an issue that has yet to be comprehensively revisited. Even in Victoria we heard how difficult it is to have professional development seminars scheduled so that country teachers can participate without missing hours of school - how very much harder it is to find relief teachers in the country - and without having to pay for their own overnight accommodation (one-line school budgets rarely including a professional development component sufficient to cover accommodation costs).

On one view country teachers don't need professional development as much as urban teachers. They've mostly only just graduated after all. On another view, however, these teachers are the frontline of Indigenous education and education in dramatically changing economic conditions. They often don't know how very much they will need cross-cultural training, basic IT skills and professional development in a range of subjects beyond their specialties until they arrive in town. They need professional support at least as much as their urban colleagues but find it very much harder to obtain.

We heard, too, how, although there are now incentives offered to take up a country posting (except in Victoria), the incentives also work to encourage people to leave after 3 years or so. Indeed many leave before that. Their new expertise is thus lost to the school. Staff turnover at the rates experience in most parts of rural and remote Australia is as detrimental to the education of country students as it the very high proportion of inexperienced teachers passing through their lives.

We were very impressed by the Griffith Service Access Frame which offers a model for evaluating disadvantage. It is the most equitable instrument for measuring the relative disadvantage of Australian schools. It is a model for developing education profiles in rural and remote areas. Using the smallest Australian Bureau of Statistics data collection unit (that of Collector District), the GSAF weighs a number of resource variables to calibrate the relative disadvantage of each community. They include

  • population size, as a well established indicator of the range of services available in any given centre
  • time/cost/distance variables, indicating access to the nearest service centre, the time taken to get there, the condition of the roads and the average cost to travel there and
  • the economic resources that are available to the population as determined by the ABS Index of Economic Resources.

These three elements are combined to determine the relative access disadvantage of each Collector District group.

The advantage of a measure such as the GSAF is that it can distinguish between small disadvantaged groups located within larger more advantaged populations. For example, in a remote mining community itinerant miners may be co-located with an Indigenous community. While both groups may be similarly geographically isolated, one has access to resources for travel and therefore to services while the other may not. The GSAF can distinguish between those who have the means to access resources and services and those who do not.

The GSAF has been applied in a number of Australian States and Territories covering 87% of Australian schools, so it's well tried and widely accepted. It should be adopted nationally to enable national comparison of schools and equitable national distribution of supplementary funding such as the Country Areas Program. It could also be utilised at the State and Territory level to inform the allocation of school budgets, including those for professional development.


Is the education on offer acceptable to all students and their parents? Data on Indigenous children's school participation indicates that their needs are not being met. Only 87.6% of Aboriginal boys in the Northern Territory participate even in the compulsory years of schooling. Participation in post-compulsory schooling in the NT drops to 39.7% for Aboriginal females and 28.2% for Aboriginal males.6 Absenteeism among Indigenous children in the Hedland WA area is about 30%. This is partly attributable to travel times - the school bus departs very early in the morning, giving children little time for breakfast and other preparations. Nationally in 1994 over one-third of Indigenous 15 to 24 year olds had not completed Year 10.7

These outcomes have been turned around in schools which have been designed on cultural lines and which incorporate Indigenous people as staff, managers and advisers. Barramundi School in Kununurra WA is an example.

Barramundi School was set up in 1995 because a lot of Indigenous teenagers were not going to school. Barramundi School aims to

  • create a discussion with the community about the needs of teenagers in terms of learning, employment, cultural maintenance and identity
  • bring `schooling' to the community rather than the community to the school which is what the other Kununurra schools try to do
  • involve traditional learning by community members as a basis for all learning that is done in the program.

In 1999 the school was re-located to a parcel of Aboriginal land of about 10 acres near the town. There are two small classrooms separated by a breezeway so that the boys and girls can be taught separately. In 1999 there were two teachers - one male and one female - and an Aboriginal Education Worker who was female and worked with the female students. Many community members also participate in the school. Examples include the police who teach defensive driving, the Aboriginal Medical Service which teaches first aid, TAFE teaches welding and Elders teach law.

Community agencies also offer work experience placements for Barramundi students, including Kimberley Land Council, the youth centre and the police station.

Barramundi School was evaluated by Edith Cowan University in 1999.8 It was successful in

  • attendance - attendance rates were up to 85% +
  • literacy and numeracy - every student improved
  • reducing offending - crime among the Barramundi boys dropped from 80% in 1998 to 20% in 1999 and the 20% was committed during school holidays
  • community approval - the community strongly approves of the Barramundi School
  • student approval - the Barramundi students are proud of their school and like to learn together.


My reaction to inflexible, urban-centric school year and school day timetables was similar to my reaction to revelations about staffing and funding formulas: I was astonished. As in the case of country incentives, not only education authorities but also teachers' unions must appreciate and act on the need for greater flexibility. It seems crazy to schedule term weeks in seasons when, year in, year out, since time immemorial, the entire Aboriginal community leaves town for Law business.

Another example of inflexibility is the resistance in both the Catholic and government education systems to working together. In a small town where neither can afford to hire, for example, a full-time music teacher - and few will move to a small town for part-time work - why are they not offering a full-time contract between them? There are some good examples of where this and other initiatives are being explored. I'm happy to say that the school-TAFE divide is gradually breaking down with the new emphasis on VET in schools. These courses are often offered in cooperation with local TAFE colleges.

But that raises another example of inflexibility: TAFE students - as distinct from school students who may be studying a TAFE course - are not entitled to travel on school buses. All of these petty, arbitrary regulations - regulations which disadvantage some urban young people, making it harder for them but not usually impossible - can actually deny opportunities to country students.


The inquiry has made 73 detailed recommendations aimed at enhancing the availability, accessibility, affordability, acceptability and adaptability of school education for all children in rural and remote Australia. These recommendations will be made public later today.

What is needed to ensure they are implemented effectively?

There can be no denying that more funds are needed. That is particularly clear in the context of the examples I've mentioned - provision of education for Homelands children and of secondary education in the NT, ensuring schools are accessible to and supportive of students with disabilities, provision of adequate rural staff incentives and professional development.

But there is also a need for a shift of perspective - a much sharper focus on the individual child. Education must be directed to the development of each child's personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential.9 The old `one size fits all' - or if it doesn't you can like it or lump it - is simply no longer an option.

There is a need for this child-focus to be central to a national rural education plan. Many have argued that such a plan needs to be part of an even broader national rural development plan. Certainly we can affirm the significance of local and regional cross-sectoral collaborations and partnerships to advance education participation, quality and outcomes. The Bourke Joint Schools Council is one example of such an initiative. The following is a brief description given by the high school principal.

It has brought together virtually everyone involved in education in Bourke: the high school, the public school, the pre-school, there are people from the TAFE, and the principal of St Ignatius has been to some of the meetings. The Aboriginal Education Consultative Group who also have a place on the Joint School Council provides some advice for us also.

Our stated aim is for every kid who leaves school in Bourke to go to some sort of work placement or specific training that they're interested in. It's a fairly steep call. I don't know that we are going to achieve it every year, but we do have employers on side. The Cotton Growers Association has actually got five of our students working there. They took some of our kids who were going to university this year over the holidays to give them work so that they had money to take away with them.

1 Bob Collins, Learning lessons: An independent review of Indigenous education in the Northern Territory (NT Department of Education, 1999):$file/AbEdRpt.pdf .

2 Senate Employment, Workplace Relations, Small Business and Education References Committee, Katu Kalpa: Report on the inquiry into the effectiveness of education and training programs for Indigenous Australians (16 March 2000): .

3 Gawirrin Gumana, from Gangan, quoted in Nambara Schools Council submission.

4 Katu Kalpa, March 2000, paragraph 1.46.

5 Suzanne Harrison, Traralgon Deaf Facility, submission.

6 NT Department of Education submission, page 5.

7 ATSIC submission, page 15.

8 The evaluation was undertaken by Dr Gary Partington, Cheryl Kickett-Tucker and Les Mack from Edith Cowan University and published for Kununurra Youth Services in November 1999. Referred to with permission from the authors and KYS.

9 Convention on the Rights of the Child article 29(1)(a).

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