NSW education policy boss promises country students will get better access to opportunities

A new era of cooperation between the New South Wales Department of Education and rural parents is set to begin, according to the head of the newly-formed Regional, Rural and Remote Education Policy Unit.

The unit’s executive director, Ben Ballard, told the Isolated Children’s Parents’ Association (ICPA) in Bourke this week that his mission was to give children in country areas better access to education.

“I’ve lived and worked all my life in rural schools,” Mr Ballard said. 

A man stands at a lectern in front of a banner for the event
Ben Ballard says he wants to create opportunities for students.(Supplied: Jesse Donoghoe/Sweet Spot Photography)

After consultations with the policy unit, the ICPA shared its confidence that several long-standing concerns may soon be addressed.

ICPA member in charge of the rural schools portfolio Annabel Strachan said the inexperience of new school staff presented persistent onboarding challenges.

“Often when a principal comes in, they’ve had no administration experience, they’ve come straight from a classroom,” Ms Strachan said.

“They arrive and there’s so much admin work … we’re thinking by having an [induction] program that would let the students start their schooling straight away.”

Private boarding has its challenges

Children in isolated communities are often several hours from the nearest state school and with only three public schools offering boarding facilities, private boarding schools often become the sole option.

Going some distance to address this issue, the federal 2022-23 budget earmarked $10.9 million for a Commonwealth Regional Scholarship Program to assist low-income regional families with boarding school fees. 

But distance does not seem to be the only problem affecting students’ decisions to go into the private system.

Bourke High School vice-captain Robyn Gillon said while she enjoyed her local school, she chose to move to a private boarding school for a time to seek out more opportunities.

A young woman smiles to the camera at an outdoor barbeque
Robyn Gillon returned to Bourke to finish her education after spending some time at a private boarding school.(Supplied: Jesse Donoghoe/Sweet Spot Photography)

It wasn’t until she got there, however, that she realised how much she was at a disadvantage.

“I was very far behind, [my classmates] had learned at a much faster pace,” she said.

“[There was a] wide variety of sport that was a major factor for me, but being so far from everyone means you disconnect from your family and your culture, so you kind of lose a bit of yourself.”

She returned to Bourke to be closer to her family.

Education is important ‘like healthcare’

Barkandji woman Patricia Canty said attending a boarding school never seemed possible when she was growing up.

“I’m a Bourke girl, I love Bourke, love Bourke High School, but back then boarding was never seen as an option for my parents,” she said.

Now an ICPA member, Ms Canty said she felt fortunate her children could attend boarding school through scholarships from the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation.

“But educating your children shouldn’t be so expensive, it’s like healthcare … it’s too important.”

A man sits at a conference table among other attendees
More than 100 ICPA members attended its 50th state conference in Bourke.(Supplied: Jesse Donoghoe/Sweet Spot Photography)

Mr Ballard agreed.

“My agenda is probably how we can work across government to bring all those pieces together,” he said.

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