Remote families take to Canberra over cost of education

Stephanie Gardiner |

The Isolated Children’s Parents’ Association lobbied ministers and regional politicians in Canberra.
The Isolated Children’s Parents’ Association lobbied ministers and regional politicians in Canberra.

The small Birdsville State School has been teaching kids on the edge of the Simpson Desert in outback Queensland for more than a century.

But once local children finish year six, their closest high school is about 1000km away.

Distance is a dilemma faced by thousands of families across remote Australia, who have little choice but to send their children away to expensive boarding schools.

The Isolated Children’s Parents’ Association, which represents 5000 students, is lobbying for more government support to help remote residents pay skyrocketing boarding fees. 

President Louise Martin said increased financial pressure was forcing some families to consider leaving farming communities.

“When they leave, those three or four children will impact the school numbers where there might be only half a dozen kids anyway,” Ms Martin told AAP.

“It might mean the difference between a school staying open or closing.”

The association is calling for an increase of at least $4000 to the annual basic boarding allowance, which the federal government pays to eligible remote families.

Association members this week spent two days lobbying ministers and regional politicians at Parliament House in Canberra.

“We need to ensure everyone is thinking about our most remote communities, our families and our towns,” Ms Martin said.

“Livestock prices have plummeted shockingly … that’s hurting everyone.”  

The basic allowance is $9396 per student or the cost of boarding, whichever is lower.

A recent survey of association members found 75 per cent reported $20,000 out-of-pocket expenses per year for each student, including essential travel and living costs.

A $4000 increase would cover 55 per cent of the average boarding fee, Ms Martin said.

“It’s a decent amount of money that may give people options to stay in their community.

“If the family stay and get their children educated away somewhere they often come back home, bringing their skills with them and maintaining that community vibrancy.”

At the association’s national conference in July, branches from remote Western Australia, Queensland, the Northern Territory and NSW led the push for an increase.

Though families don’t expect the government to cover all expenses, greater subsidies would reduce the gap between the allowance and real costs, a motion from the Broken Hill branch said.

Ms Martin said all Australians had an interest in ensuring rural children could access quality education.

“People who are living in remote areas are putting the food on the table for the nation,” she said.

“We are feeding and clothing the nation … and if we want to keep pace, we’ve got to continue to have our local community upskilled and educated.”