Sally West says some distance education schools are losing their understanding of geographically isolated students. (ABC Capricornia: Erin Semmler)
On a 4,000-hectare grain and cattle property in central Queensland, Campbell West puts his uniform on and heads next door to log in to his virtual classroom.
- Distance education’s popularity is increasing, with Capricornia enrolments jumping 500 per cent in the past 10 years
- Schools of Distance Education were originally set up for remote students, and those who could not access mainstream education
- With more mainstream students switching to distance education, remote parents want to make sure their students are prioritised
His family’s property is in the Arcadia Valley and is around 110 kilometres north of Injune and a 670km drive north-west of Brisbane.
The Year 11 student is enrolled at the Rockhampton campus of the Capricornia School of Distance Education (SDE).
Distance education is a schooling service for geographically isolated and other home-based students with limited educational choice.
Teachers are based at a physical campus and conduct lessons via different video and audio technology to students at home.
The Charleville SDE had 200 enrolments in 2018, offering students schooling from prep to year 10.
Campbell West’s home tutor Bianca Sanders guides him and answers questions when teachers are not available. (ABC Capricornia: Erin Semmler)
The Capricornia SDE offers schooling from prep to year 12 and had 1,660 enrolments in 2018.
Despite school-of-the-air enrolments dropping in Western Australia, Queensland is observing a trend in the opposite direction.
Qld distance education school enrolments 2008–2018
- Capricornia — 505 per cent increase
- Charters Towers — 428 per cent increase
- Cairns — 415 per cent increase
- Brisbane — 23.5 per cent increase
- Longreach — 19.4 per cent increase
- Charleville — 5 per cent decrease
- Mt Isa — 16 per cent decrease
Source: Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority
Five out of seven distance education schools in Queensland experienced an increase in enrolments between 2008 and 2018.
Total enrolments at the Capricornia school rose by more than 500 per cent, while Charters Towers and Cairns each saw an increase of more than 400 per cent.
Before starting at the Capricornia school this year, Campbell spent 11 years at the Charleville SDE completing his junior certificate in 2018.
Campbell was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome halfway through prep.
His mother Sally West said the only option was to move Campbell to Capricornia because the Charleville school did not offer senior education.
“Charleville was just like a little country school compared to Capricornia,” she said.
“We’ve gone from a school that had enrolments of around 200.
“Now … there’s just over 1,600 students enrolled at Capricornia altogether.”
Campbell West, 17, has been enrolled in distance education for all of his schooling life. (ABC Capricornia: Erin Semmler)
Challenges of geographic isolation
Ms West said they had noticed some differences between the two schools, particularly in their understanding of geographically isolated children.
“There isn’t the emphasis for geographically isolated students as much in senior high school as what there would be in a more country-aligned distance education school — but we’re making it work,” she said.
“I know that some of the teachers find it hard to realise that our mail from Rockhampton can take two-and-a-half weeks to get here, [or] that it only comes twice a week.
“Sometimes the internet satellite can go out, and our data isn’t as available as what kids have got living in Rockhampton.”
Ms West said it would be helpful if the teachers could visit school rooms of very remote students to understand their unique challenges.
“I don’t know whether a lot of them have actually seen what it’s like to educate geographically isolated children,” she said.
Campbell West and his home tutor Bianca Sanders outside their schoolroom in remote central Queensland. (ABC Capricornia: Erin Semmler)
Has the original purpose of distance education been lost?
The federal president of the Isolated Children’s Parents’ Association (ICPA), Alana Moller, said more mainstream students had been switching to homeschooling and distance education across Australia.
“There is a trend towards increasing non-geographically isolated students who are taking on distance education because of medical reasons or they may not fit into mainstream situations,” Ms Moller said.
“The geographically isolated numbers are being watered down within schools that were set up originally for geographically isolated children, but are now catering for a much wider range.”
Five motions were put forward at the 2019 Queensland ICPA conference in June that related to the Department of Education ensuring geographically isolated students had access to classroom facilities.
“The last time they [held mini school] in Rockhampton, they sat outside under a marquee,” said Queensland ICPA president Tammie Irons.
“Our issue here is kids deserve a classroom, a space of their own, whenever they come in because this is their only classroom.
“They actually have no other choice as to their choice of schooling.”
The Capricornia School of Distance Education has seen a 505 per cent increase in enrolments between 2008 and 2018. (ABC Capricornia: Amy McCosker)
Ms Irons said geographically isolated students would be affected if the pattern of mainstream school students enrolling into distance education schools continued.
“It’s actually placing a strain on not just the physical resources but [also] teachers, space, and then your actual books and your internet,” she said.
Ms Irons said she understood distance education may be a good solution for children with medical conditions, travellers and others, but it should be a temporary option for those students.
“The problem comes in when people see this as a permanent solution,” she said.
“Unfortunately for geographically isolated [children], it is the only solution, they don’t have a choice.”
Ms Irons said distance education was originally created to support students living in remote areas but that premise was being “eroded”.
“That’s where the concern is, from parents around the state and then around the country, that the original intent has been lost,” she said.
“We really need to get back to making sure that our geographically isolated kids are prioritised.”
Campbell West and his home tutor Bianca Sanders connect to the Capricornia School of Distance Education via satellite. (ABC Capricornia: Erin Semmler)
What is the Department of Education doing to help?
A Department of Education spokesman said in a statement that the Queensland Government was committed to ensuring all students had access to a high quality education.
“[Our seven SDEs] were established to provide a schooling service to geographically isolated and other home-based students with limited educational choice,” the spokesman said.
“Parents decide if their child is to be enrolled in a state or non-state school, including any schools of distance education.”
The spokesman said principals were responsible for overseeing the enrolment process and making enrolment decisions.
“Principals also ensure any educational options are appropriate and take into consideration the student’s individual needs and circumstances,” the spokesman said.
The department said enrolments in SDEs had grown and future infrastructure planning work was ongoing.
Additionally, the department said and it had been working with Capricornia SDE to ensure infrastructure requirements were being met.
“In the past five years over $1.5 million has been allocated to Capricornia SDE campuses,” the spokesman said.
“There are more than adequate facilities across both campuses to accommodate students.”
The spokesman said the students sitting under marquees in Rockhampton were “undertaking small group activities and learning, not undertaking formal assessment”.
The history of distance education
In the early 20th century, the Queensland Department of Education employed teachers to travel, often via horseback, to provide schooling to remote children.
Between 1923 and 1967 domestic science and manual arts education was delivered from travelling railway cars.
Geographically isolated students originally received paper-based lessons form the Brisbane-based Correspondence School.
Eventually School of the Air was created and HF radio and telephones were used to offer interaction between teachers and classmates.
In 1988 official Schools of Distance Education were formed using both paper-based and on-air lessons from a single location.
Fast forward to 2019 and all seven Queensland SDEs deliver lessons via telephone and internet using varied audio and video programs developed for distance learning.