DOWN the back roads of the Culgoa floodplains in Western NSW, corrugations reverberate beneath the tyres and dust billows behind, dissolving into the blue skies above. The outback communities of this region are wild, unique and isolated, and for too long, services such as early schooling have been ignored.
In 2007, the federal government promised a universal right for all four-year-old children to have access to early childhood education by mid-2013. This meant 15 hours a week (600 hours a year) of face-to-face learning by trained teachers, costing roughly $450 million a year. It worked in the cities and towns but in isolated areas, especially Louth, Wanaaring, Clare, Palinyewah, Tibooburra and White Cliffs, it didn’t change a thing and they remain in desperate need.
But there is a glimmer of good news. The remote Indigenous community of Weilmoringle, population 75, 180km north of Bourke, now has five lucky youngsters in its first-ever community preschool, which opened in October 2018.
Gidgee Preschool has two staff, including Kathy Fisher who travels from Brewarrina, 100km away, three days a week, bringing two of the children with her. She hopes the pilot program will succeed and other communities will follow. “It seems likely attendance will continue to grow,” Kathy says. “We’re hoping a couple more children will join, there is one station kid expected to join next year and we’ll make contact with other parents we have in mind.”
Weilmoringle Public School, home of Gidgee Preschool.
Collaboration needed for preschool education policies
The pilot program has been created with the support of the Isolated Children’s Parents’ Association (ICPA), NSW Minister for Early Childhood Education Sarah Mitchell, the Department of Education, Weilmoringle community leaders, team members from Community Connections Solutions Australia and MacKillop Rural Community Services (MRCS), which is managing and delivering the program.
MRCS general manager Corrie Taylor says: “When the Elders heard about it, they wanted MacKillop to run it. We had never run a preschool before but we have a long history [working in regional communities], we know a lot of the residents and worked with one of the Elders, Josie, before so we went ahead with it.”
Weilmoringle community Elder Aunty Josie is a member of the working group and has a grandson attending the preschool.
“It’s important for my grandson to socialise and communicate with kids his own age and get him settled and ready so he knows what to expect when he goes to school.”
Weilmoringle Elder Aunty Josie brings her grandson Jamarh to the preschool.
Staffing is a huge problem out west, and Corrie says they were lucky to get staff to come from Brewarrina. “They [educational institutions and government] should come out and view what happens – to see how remote it really is, to see the faces of the children and see how they’re progressing, it will truly make a difference,” she says.
Gidgee Preschool is run in the Weilmoringle Public School hall three days a week. School principal Lisa Wright has embraced the project and is happy to share the hall, which required substantial renovations to meet national guidelines for preschools, including adding a toilet, a fence around the building, screens, sinks and new floor coverings to create a “wet area” for activities like painting.
The children sing ‘Old MacDonald Had A Farm’ with animal face masks.
Lisa says locals have been asking for the preschool for a long time. “People have been doing it tough out here and have been affected by drought for about 10 years,” she says.
“With our children from Brewarrina, that’s an hour each way, which is not feasible for many people for three days a week for preschool. Not everyone has licences or access to a vehicle. A 200km trip each day and fuel each day – it’s just not financially viable apart from anything else. “It’s almost impossible to get a part-time teacher where we are – on a road in the middle of nowhere.”
Weilmoringle Public School has 10 students and two teachers. Lisa says she was able to use school allocated funds to make one of the teaching roles, which was part-time, into a full-time role in order to offer more one-on-one support. High school students have to take the daily bus from Weilmoringle to Brewarrina Central School.
Gidgee Preschool is run in the Weilmoringle Public School hall three days a week, with staff and children coming from as far as 100km away to attend.
“When it comes to fairness – it’s not about everyone getting the same thing, it’s about everyone getting what they need,” Lisa says.
“There is a limited bucket for funding and unfortunately the government has to decide. Kids in rural and remote areas are automatically disadvantaged.”
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Rural communities go without fair access to preschool education
Since the government’s universal access promise, there have been handsome budget allocations, subsidy schemes and mobile outreach programs – but all had little understanding of the remote landscape.
Deborah Nielsen (pictured here) has been a teacher in Western NSW for more than 30 years and is a long-standing member of the ICPA. The grazier educated three of her children at their family property Ballycastle, 110km south-west of Bourke. She has seen the struggles of isolation, the bandaid solutions and knows the families whose children have gone without.
“We need children to be educated to have vibrant communities in the bush – all the people benefit in the community,” she says. “It’s not just the children who have the access, it’s everyone around. It’s all for nothing if they don’t get the first part right – it’s the building block.”
“The point of preschool is you have children school ready, in things like imagination. You’ve got to have their brain ready to take direction, to have those fine motor skills to hold a pencil and to make a mark. All the physical things like learning sounds, learning the alphabet and reading – they are all critical.” Without this Deborah says, they immediately fall behind.
However, she acknowledges that understanding the problem and fixing it are very different. “I can’t really complain about the government, but without ICPA’s support, who have helped direct many beneficial policies in remote areas, we would be without a lot of things and have more incorrect or inappropriate policies. Often the funding is tied and it’s tied in a way that it’s not flexible for a small group of people, which we are.”
Rural and remote areas with limited access to preschool education. Source: ICPA.
An example is the NSW government’s Start Strong program. It was introduced in 2016 with $115 million in funding, with a further $200 million announced in June 2018, and was designed to save NSW families up to $850 per year with subsidised fees for children who attend preschool for 15 hours a week. However, many families in remote and regional areas aren’t able to meet the requirements, due to isolation, costs and lack of transport.
“Each community is different and has its own set of challenges,” Deborah says. “It’s hard to sustain long-term teaching staff, the distance will always be there and the numbers of children are slim. ICPA says there is no one-size-fits-all approach to this. One recommendation is urgency. There has been far too much time lost – it’s actually children’s educational experience and their life potential [being lost].”
Preschool staff member Kathy Fisher supervises pizza-making.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Starting Strong 2017 report found Australia is lagging significantly behind other OECD countries in the number of three-year-olds in high-quality preschool programs. This could affect students’ academic performance up to at least Year 10.
After extensive campaigning and reviews, in 2018 NSW became the first state to expand universal access to include three-year-olds as well as four-year-olds, which Deborah says will benefit children in remote regions, especially those who have limited early intervention services and specialists. “We believe all kids need two years of preschool to be school-ready at five, having three-year-olds included is something ICPA has been strongly advocating for.”
Making sense of education in outback communities
The introduction of community preschools like Weilmoringle’s will help widen opportunities and lift the burden from parents, but it hasn’t come easily. National guidelines for establishing a preschool involve a lot of red tape and don’t allow preschool children to be integrated into primary schools.
They must be completely separated, otherwise schools aren’t legally covered. Meeting the guidelines means physically remodelling existing school facilities, such as lowering toilets, setting up separate play areas and ensuring supervision at eating times.
Deborah says the frustrating part is often the requirements are irrelevant in the regional context. “The national framework guidelines are really stringent and applicable to 20-30 four-year-olds,” she says. “But when you’ve got just three-four children, you hardly need a fence. There was a clause that we were able to pass – if there are less than six children this does not apply.”
Early childhood teacher Lizzie Mann with the children, from left, Kaydence, Tylor, Asahel and Jamarh.
Other issues include restricting preschoolers’ interaction with primary school children due to a fear of bullying. But as Deborah says, in tiny outback schools where older siblings are often in higher years, this just doesn’t make sense.
School commute restricts regional families
THE inevitable long and dusty bus trip to school is a big hurdle in Western NSW. Even where bus services are available, preschoolers are not covered by government transport subsidies.
David Cameron, a past president of the Isolated Children’s Parents’ Association
(ICPA) and Namoi branch member, says this can mean parents end up following the school bus to take younger children to preschool.
“They either stay there for the day or drive in and out to pick them up,” he says. “That’s not good enough. Every child deserves the right to access preschool education. There needs to be better support and infrastructure for travel and the rules and regulations that support remote families.”
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ICPA Wentworth branch chair Nerida Healy and husband Laurie run sheep and grow table grapes at Court Nareen station near Pooncarie in Western NSW. She has been dealing with these problems for years with her children, Alex, nine, Hayden, six, Mark, four and Zoe, two.
“The distances are particularly onerous,” says Nerida. “The government has commenced trials on community school buses and privately-owned buses in rural towns, however the buses do not leave the actual town, so they are not transporting children whose parents have long distances to travel and who would benefit most.”
The Healy family, from left, Mark, Nerida, Hayden, Alex and Laurie, holding Zoe. Photography by Tegan Oliver.
With dwindling numbers, the Pooncarie Public School was forced into recess in 2012 and will reopen next year, thanks to the parents and community arguing their case. They hope one day soon, a preschool may be offered as well.
For now, the most viable option for Nerida is a combination of School of the Air Broken Hill and completing the 70km round trip to Pooncarie, where the Pooncarie Outreach Children’s Service together with the Outback Mobile Resources Unit provide face-to-face preschool education once a fortnight.
The children chasing goats on their Pooncarie property.
“Preschool funding is based on achieving 600 hours of face-to-face early childhood education in the year prior to compulsory schooling,” says Nerida. “It is extremely difficult to achieve this where parents are required to travel large distances several times a week. It will take some creative thinking and flexible options to achieve this, but we have a great starting point with mobile services.”
“ICPA NSW believes that while 600 hours is ideal, funding is still required to help our remote children attend face-to-face early childhood education once a week or once a fortnight, as any education is better than none at all.”
David Cameron believes better incentives for teachers in remote areas would help communities grow and remain sustainable.
“Schools need to be given the right resources, like the number of teachers per student, particularly Indigenous communities,” he says.
“Otherwise schools are shut down due to lack of support and it creates a trickle-down effect.”