Monday 29 March 2021

No Barriers in the Bush

 I was privileged to attend the 2021 Northern Territory Isolated Children's Parents' Association State Conference recently, and the opening piece was such a great reminder fo the challenges these wonderful families face. Read on and enjoy.

Richard Stokes

Good Morning, 

Welcome to the 2021 ICPA NT State Conference. It is a great honour to be the first to speak at the Conference, and set the scene for the theme – ‘No Barriers in the Bush’. First let me introduce myself, my name is Kerrie Scott, and I am the Katherine Branch President, and sit on NT State Council. I wasn’t born in the NT, but I’ve lived here for 23 or so years of my life, and my husband is a born and bred Territorian, along with our three children. All of our children have been educated through Katherine School of the Air, with my oldest daughter now in her first year of boarding in Charters Towers, whilst my Yr 4 and Yr 6 children continue to study through distance ed. We live on Mountain Valley Station, a cattle and buffalo property along the Central Arnhem Road, 225km from our nearest town, Katherine. 

When I was approached to say a little something to introduce the theme of today’s conference, the first thing I said was “I’m sure there are far more important people than me that would be suitable to speak!”. As I said those words, I realised inside, I felt like my voice really wasn’t worthy. Who would want to listen to what I had to say? There will be so many amazing, accomplished people in that room, I’m just a Mum, trying to educate her kids in the bush, like all the other Mums, jumping the same hurdles. Our very persuasive President Mrs Cook replied “Who better to talk about Barriers in the Bush than someone who lives it, and is passionate about it!”, so here I am, overcoming one of the biggest barriers, the invisible one that feeds our self doubt, tells us we are wasting our time, that no one is listening, that we don’t count, that we will just make do the best we can, that we will sacrifice and go without financially, that it is our fault we live out here, where no one else wants to, so we must suffer quietly and ‘suck it up’. …the government has no money for remote education right?........... The Territory Government spent $1.108 Billion dollars on education in the last financial year, and with 43% of Territory students enrolled in remote or very remote schools, a big chunk of that must have come our way right?.... 

There just isn’t enough time for me to go through all the obstacles we face as parents trying to educate our children. But for the benefit of those that like to be reminded, there are the financial drains of the full time position we have teaching, (or as the more inexpensive term used ‘Supervising’) our children in the home classroom, which is literally being a bloody teacher, yet without the perks, the training, the pay or the time off…or stress leave for that matter. If you are not in a position to “Supervise” yourself, you must find a way to pay someone to do so, whether you dedicate one parent’s wage, or you negotiate a deal with an employer to allow you to have a Home Tutor, in any form, you are paying for your child’s free public school education like no other Australian Citizen is expected to. Then it might be Boarding School Fee’s, travel costs, extra support, perhaps you have multiple aged children and you’re doing it all…it is all adding up. Financially, we are sucked dry trying to educate our kids. But you know what, we are not victims, we are a people that are okay with paying our own way, in fact, our mantra is that nothing good comes easy, but when the one thing our country prides itself on is access to a free education for all children, where is the equity? Why is the starting point for every other family different to ours? Isolated families are literally leaving the Territory in droves because they just can’t afford to educate their children up here. So many good families, ready to contribute so much to our community and economy just say, ‘It’s too hard and it is just too expensive’ and head off to greener pastures. I know this, because I 

know them, I’ve seen it, over and over again. The only reason we have isolated families left at all in the Territory is that the ones that don’t leave are incredibly stubborn, relish in a challenge, and fundamentally just love the Territory. But I’ll come back to that. 

Okay, so it is financially crippling, but that is just one barrier. Try finding support services when you have children with special needs. Feel the guilt of not identifying developmental issues or learning difficulties in your child earlier because you just didn’t know, and the precious little contact time with peers and professionals just wasn’t enough to pick up on those subtle signs. Try finally finding health and teaching professionals that ‘get it’, only for them to move on and leave before you even had a chance to let that breath of relief out. 

Okay, so this is not a conference theme of ‘Here are the Barriers’, it is ‘No Barriers in the Bush’, and here’s where the good news comes. ICPA NT has been on the front line advocating for isolated children since 1981, and every single entitlement, support and allowance currently in place to help these kids, is there because of the dedicated councillors and members working constantly to improve our circumstances. I’ve been involved with ICPA for around 6 years, and on State Council for 4 of those, and I can tell you that these amazing women work their butts off getting it done. We’ve experienced some amazing achievements, but I tell you, it can be a hard slog. Our recent success with advocating for internet subsidies for distance education classrooms took two long years of phone calls, letters, delegations, teleconferences, research of legislation and statistics, information on classroom demographic and data usage in distance ed classrooms, and our own personal stories and case studies. We had to find the answers that no government department had ever bothered to look for, and our ducks had to be in a row every single conversation, every single audience. I can’t express the emotion we felt when at what felt like the 11th hour, we had success. If only it was that quick and easy to get results on all of our issues, but if you ever think for a moment that we can’t change the situation you are wrong. We are the ONLY ones that can change the situation. 

So I did say I’d come back to our love of the Territory. The ICPA branches in the NT have the majority of their membership cohort coming from the Pastoral industry. This industry contributes over $450 Million dollars directly into the NT economy and in excess of $1 Billion dollars indirectly. But one of the barriers we face is the total misconception by the general public that all the people in the cattle industry are wealthy, and they pay because they can…and they should. The families on the coal face of this billion dollar injection of funds into the NT economy might have something to say about that. They’re ordinary people, working their butts off every single day, in the heat, in the flies, battling the tyranny of distance, where no one else wants to be, and you’d be embarrassed to work out their hourly rate. They’re working every single day, even when they’re not there, the existence of their livelihoods depends on them not dropping the ball…ever, and the majority of these people are not wealthy, if they were they might be on a yacht sailing the Whitsundays instead of processing cattle in 46 degrees, and whether it is pulling dying cattle out of bogs on Christmas Day because it hasn’t rained, or pulling bore pumps out of rivers because it has, they are there, and there is no ‘I’ve knocked off’. Our life is our industry, it is one. Any quick browse of a boarding school article on social media where remote families are asking for financial assistance, you’ll see hundreds of comments from the blissfully naïve suburban keyboard warriors, telling us to ‘just send them to the local school like we all have to’…only problem is our local school might be 700km away. We don’t want to send our children away to school, but what we do want is for them to have an unabridged education, and if we can’t provide what they need at home as they progress, we have no choice. For some families, there may be a small school offering a limited program nearby, or to home school through distance ed all the way through may be the preferred or ONLY option. 

Anyway, my point is, it is of utmost confusion to me, why these isolated kids are not supported completely and without question in every way, as much as they need, to access an education – whether that be in the distance ed classroom, in a boarding school, or at university – wherever that might be. Our options in the Territory are extremely limited compared to other states, and so is our support. There are motions that will be presented today that have been put forward for many years, and it breaks my heart. Why do we need to fight so hard for every single thing? These are the kids that have an instilled love of the Territory, they have an incredible work ethic, they don’t see the social issues, the distance, the terrible roads, the lack of assistance…they see home. These are the kids that will return to the Territory, will remain in the Territory, as Doctors, as Truck Drivers, Cattlemen, Nurses, Teachers, Tradesman, because this is their home. The Territory needs these kids. 

Access to education is the key, whatever your level of disadvantage, education is what will save us. Isolation is a complication that is difficult to quantify, yet if we don’t acknowledge the financial and social implications of neglecting to fully support isolated children trying to access a quality education throughout this geographically broad community, regardless of their colour or culture, we are doing more than just a disservice to the people within, we are essentially ensuring the demise of the Territory lifestyle we want to protect. Our kids need us to be their voice, and we need to break down every single barrier to ensure their right to an education, that will bring opportunity, fulfilment, success and achievement. 

Thank you.

Kerrie Scott, Katherine Branch President, ICPA NT State Councillor. 

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