Author: Katharina Moser.
In 1951, the first School of the Air was founded in Alice Springs in the heart of Australia. Spread over 1.3 million square kilometers, its students grow up on remote cattle farms, in Aboriginal communities or national parks deep in the outback – and it is impossible for them to attend ordinary schools. A conversation with Kerrie Russell, the director of the first School of the Air ever founded.
By now, the School of the Air in Australia is not only an educational measure, but also a unique national characteristic and even a tourist attraction. How important is it really in Australian education policy?
On the one hand, it is very important – without the School of the Air, children in remote regions of Australia would not have good access to education. At the same time, distance education is only a small part of the school system. Only a small percentage needs this form of education. It is therefore not its most important element.
Is the quality of teaching the same as in the big cities of the east coast?
Yes, we can certainly say that. When the students leave our school and go to high school, they get along well. Although the school system varies slightly from state to state, there is an Australian curriculum that also applies to us. Usually our students score as well in the final exams as students do in regular schools.
What does it take to be a teacher at the School of the Air?
It’s a normal state school, you don’t need any special qualifications in that sense. For the School of the Air, I think people need to be open to a new way of thinking. You have to be able to adapt the techniques of a normal lesson to the particular situation. A certain attitude towards your profession is important: being open to new things, trying out new techniques… You should like to travel, because our teachers visit all their students once a school year. We also work especially hard to build up good relationships with our students. This is certainly important at any school, but if you don’t see the children every day, you should be particularly committed to building a positive relationship with them and their families. So maybe you don’t need a special certificate – but you should be a certain type of person.
Do you have difficulties finding enough teachers?
No, not at our school. Many people really want to become teachers here at the School of the Air.
In Germany there will be more than 26,000 primary school teachers missing by 2025. Could you imagine that in countries where more and more primary schools are closed on the countryside, a system like the School of the Air could be useful, even if the distances are not the same?
Oh yes, I think so; and especially with advancing technology I believe that the system of distance education could be used in many different contexts, regardless of whether the distances are actually so great. But the students in this type of school always need someone at home to help them learn. It needs commitment from the families, and that is not always the case.
How important is the School of the Air especially for children from Aboriginal communities?
Some children from Aboriginal communities attend the School of the Air, especially in high school. But many Aboriginal communities have a local school. This is probably the best if you have local teachers. Some communities have no schools or no secondary schools, and many Aboriginal children then go to boarding school. But it is increasingly the case that they make use of Distance Education in parallel.
The last few years have shown a high success rate of the School of the Air. Studies have shown that many children leave their home region for the big cities on the east coast after school. Isn’t that also critical for a vivid outback culture?
I believe that it is important for everyone, Aboriginal or not, to see different areas and broaden their horizons. But of course you want people to come back to the more distant areas, you don’t want them to leave forever. I think Distance Education means that you can stay or not. And many young people go to boarding schools. Very few people do their whole schooling through the Schools of the Air, it just gets a little difficult. It simply opens up options for young people in these regions.
Do you see a development that fewer and fewer people stay in such remote regions?
Yes, I think so. At least in terms of the large cattle stations, it seems to me that there are fewer families and fewer children than before. The number of students in our primary school is definitely lower than it was ten years ago.
Isn’t there a conflict that the School of the Air makes it possible for the children to get to know the world through good education on the one hand, and on the other hand perhaps encourages them to leave their home region?
Many of the children who come from the cattle stations want to return. Even if they have left their homes and have decided to go to a boarding school, they still want to return because they love the Outback lifestyle. They had the opportunity to live in the big cities and yet return. Many of the children who are with us have parents who also attended the School of the Air.
Your lessons run almost only digitally. Are your students prepared exceptionally well for the digital world?
Students receive lessons via the Internet, but we also send them paper material. They don’t sit in front of the computer all day but at their desks and work on normal tasks, writing and calculating. I think our students are better prepared than other schools. But the technologies are constantly changing, and we can still work on it.
Are children who learn most of the school year at home not missing an important foundation for acquiring social skills?
Yes, I think that is also the reason why many children go to boarding schools. They simply miss the constant direct contact with young people of the same age. But we also see that primary school children, who learn most of the time at home, get along very well when they finally meet their classmates in town. Every quarter of a year, all the students meet for a week and do activities together. Our students have no problem at all getting along with eachother, taking turns, working in groups… Although the children spend a lot of time without their classmates, they still learn social skills. After all, they see and hear their classmates via Internet and acquire skills such as being friendly, encouraging and considerate of others.
So it’s just a prejudice that students who don’t physically sit in a class together don’t acquire social skills?
Yes, but it still has to be taught. The family also plays an important role here.
So this is a counterargument against the radical representatives of group work in schools?
Yes – but I am also a fan of group work (laughs).
Could you imagine that with further technical development, the school of the future will look like the School of the Air for everyone?
I don’t know – I think a close relationship with the teachers is very important. All the research shows that this is very important for a successful learning process. We at our school are lucky, we are just a small school, and the parents take great care that the students do their homework. If all students had Distance Education and did not see their teachers, it would be much more difficult. There are few people in Distance Education at the moment and in a way they self-select. They love to live in remote areas and therefore believe in Distance Education. They do what is necessary for their children to learn. But there are many people who would not do that. It is easier for them to just drop their children at school in the morning and leave that to the teachers. So I think it just wouldn’t work. Nevertheless, it could be useful as a parallel measure for particular subjects that cannot be learned in a local school. But anyway, if you have the opportunity to be in one place with your teacher and classmates, it would be best to do that. The School of the Air only works on a small scale and with the great commitment of everyone involved.