Tuned in to learning on air

More than 100 children on cattle stations and remote homesteads across the Northern Territory were tuning in to an assembly addressed by Miss Australia.

The 120 children listened to high-frequency radios as beauty queen Suzanne Hayward broadcast from a small studio with Ed Boyd, the school's principal.

The Alice Springs school of the air is the largest distance education project in the world. Its pupils live on isolated properties scattered across the 1.3 million square kilometres of Australia's unyielding "dead heart" or "red centre". Survival is a struggle and unless there are siblings, it is a lonely existence.

Yet the results achieved by the school's 13 teachers grow ever more impressive. By the time pupils leave to go to boarding school at 12 or 13, they test consistently above city counterparts.

"Academically after several years with us they are well above average, " says Ed Boyd. "Socially when they come to leave home and go to boarding school they find it a huge challenge."

Their isolation contributes to academic success. The close participation of parents needed for the system to work gives pupils a head start, according to Ed Boyd. "A few parents will employ supervisors but usually it is the mum who is in charge of the schoolroom. They are our hands, eyes, ears and mouth and we couldn't teach without them."

Students spend up to half an hour on the radio each day in a "classroom" situation and are expected to spend five to six hours a day on lessons under home supervision. Written work is submitted to Alice every fortnight. In between parents are the monitors of progress. "It is an excellent form of education for children in isolated areas," says Jan Heaslop who educated her four children through the School of the Air on a remote cattle station at Bond Springs, north of Alice.

Yet she admits there are difficulties in being mother and teacher. "The children's joys were playing barefooted in the red sand with the aboriginal children and sneaking to their camp to eat kangaroo and snake cooked in the hot coals.

"It wasn't always easy keeping them in the schoolroom when the horses were being saddled and everyone was off to the camp mustering. You may as well give in and catch up on school next weekend. You have to be flexible."

New technology is changing the school, first set up in 1950, and homes are now provided with videos, fax machines and, increasingly, personal computers. Since 1992 lessons have been beamed into homes by satellite television, further reducing the anonymity of distance education. Yet the two-way radio remains the main method of generating a relationship between pupil and a teacher they will hardly ever see.

Community spirit within the school's vast area is fostered by a weekly radio assembly. Baroness Thatcher, Pam Ayres and Rolf Harris are among those who have addressed students over the airwaves. Ed Boyd says: "The remarkable thing is that our students are adept at dealing with adults but they often don't know how to deal with other children. When we get them together they frequently find it difficult to make friendships on the basis of equality - even learning simple things like queueing to get through a door. They have never had to do it before."

About 60 per cent of the school's funding comes from the government. Pupils and their families raise the rest.

Alongside pupils' lessons they learn the techniques of survival in a hostile environment. From an early age they are familiar with horse-breaking, castration, branding and slaughter. The usual concerns of city children are almost unknown to them. While they benefit from the individual attention which distance education involves, they miss group situations.

Despite these drawbacks the pupils who questioned Miss Australia showed a maturity beyond their years. For every child who asked Suzanne Hayward what was her favourite food, there were half a dozen more interested in her work for children with cerebral palsy.

"Despite the obvious difficulties we are determined to make sure that geographical isolation should not disadvantage our pupils," Ed Boyd says: "We like to think that the Alice Springs School of the Air is one of the unique educational institutions in the world."

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