By KATE BANVILLE
DEDICATED parents travelled thousands of kilometres to ensure education opportunities for geographically isolated children are plentiful. Here’s what happened at the annual ICPA conference.
While thousands of Queensland families are set to benefit from the state’s expansion of a free kindy program, the announcement also exposes a widening education gap for children living and learning in the bush.
MORE than 200 dedicated parents and volunteer delegates from 24 branches this month met in Julia Creek for the Isolated Children’s Parents’ Association (ICPA) QLD annual conference, putting education opportunities for children in rural communities firmly on the agenda.
And on day one they started with a win.
After months of campaigning for an increase in the Living Away From Home Scheme (LAFHAS), a welcome relief was delivered when the Queensland Government committed to increasing the LAFHAS by $4000 in 2024.
Right now the LAFHS covers annual tuition fees (maximum $6,276 payout) and travel costs (maximum $2,011) for students.
The association’s state president Louise Martin said the funding commitment would allow families to make ‘genuine choices’ about their children’s schooling futures amid crippling boarding school fees.
Catherine Wood was the Head Convenor of the event, while also filling the role of accommodation coordinator and branch treasurer.
She emphasised that this was how it’s done in rural communities with ‘honest, hardworking families’ living and working the land.
Mrs Wood said this funding would help keep these same families in their communities instead of moving closer to the coast for schooling.
“I don’t think people in the city understand just how far we are from everything when we live on working properties,” Wood said.
“This helps families who have to send their child away to boarding school because doing a daily school drop off isn’t possible when the nearest school might be hundreds of kilometres away.”
Education Minister Grace Grace said the government had ‘listened and responded to the ICPA’s position on cost-of-living pressures faced by families of remote students’.
“We recognise the incredibly important role people living in rural and remote Queensland play in the life of our state, and the challenges of raising and educating children in these areas,” Grace said.
Days later the Queensland Government would also announce an expansion of its kindy program with costs for each student covered for up to 15 hours a week for government-approved educational program.
This too was a hot topic of debate at the conference and while the announcement has been welcomed, Catherine Wood said it wasn’t a simple scenario families living in isolated areas.
“There were a lot of motions around kindy, and kindy kids in rural areas needing support to get to school,” she said.
“How do you get them there? At the moment they can’t get on the bus with siblings.
“There were a lot of motions around making sure that small schools are structured with infrastructure and staffing to support that younger age group on campus and class sizes in rural and remote schools.”
About 14,000 Queensland families are already receiving free kindergarten, with that number expected to jump by 50,000 from next year when the new budget measure is introduced.
More than 60 motions were debated throughout the two-day conference including one to better support state education teachers working in rural, with a particular focus on students and teachers in multi-age classes.
The vulnerabilities, repair delays and infrastructure issues surrounding communications during and after weather events were the focus of another motion which cited the distress of boarding students unable to contact their parents, and school of the air students who were put at a disadvantage to peers in a classroom because of no access to the internet or landlines after the recent flooding in North West Queensland.
A motion was also carried as part of an ongoing push to lobby State Government departments for the introduction of a ‘Distance Education Teaching Allowance’, paid to families enrolled in a School of Distance Education and where Distance Education is the only option due to geographical isolation.”
It’s one Wood said she was particularly passionate about as a mother of three who doubles as their primary school teacher, in between helping run the families cattle property some seven hours west of Townsville outside Julia Creek.
“I’ve given up a paid job to take on this job of teaching my children and some families have to somehow find the money to pay someone to fill that role for them because they need to be more present in their business,” she said.
“We need support and remuneration and recognition for that position.
“It is a very difficult one for city people to wrap their heads around and I think they got a little taste of it during COVID when schools were shut down but that’s our regular schooling model with a teacher online for about six hours a week and us as their home tutor for the rest.”