Ballarat Clarendon College Principal David Shepherd was granted a rare opportunity to visit some of Australia’s most isolated classrooms as part of a recent delegation to the Torres Strait Islands in far north Queensland.
Organised by Bond University, the annual ‘Yarning Up’ outreach program sees small groups of education leaders and high level corporates visiting remote Indigenous communities to gain first-hand experience of the lifestyle, culture and challenges of isolation.
Mr Shepherd joined this year’s delegation in late July, spending five days in the Torres Strait visiting Mer (Murray) Island and Thursday Island.
“While it’s certainly a long way from Ballarat – almost 4000kms to Mer Island – this trip presented me with an opportunity to engage in the issues of Indigenous education on a deeper and more meaningful level,” said Mr Shepherd.
“I don’t think we know enough to help people effectively and Bond University’s Yarning Up experience allowed me to talk one-on-one with the families, elders and leaders of these communities about the everyday challenges they face.”
The group’s five-day itinerary included spending time with children in their classrooms at Tagai State College’s Mer Island campus, visiting a local home to prepare food for a community feast, and meeting business operators, health workers and educators on Thursday Island.
“The Torres Strait Islanders welcomed us with open arms – literally!” said Mr Shepherd.
“To be taken into a Mer Island family and being accepted as part of their family – even if it’s only for a few short days – was completely overwhelming.
“But what really stood out for me was that – regardless of the isolation and the differences in culture, language and lifestyle – these parents have the same aspirations for their children as the parents I meet every day at Ballarat Clarendon College.
“They want their children to have a fulfilling, successful, happy life; to grow up to be whatever they want to be; to realise their dreams – even if they don’t yet know what those dreams might be.
“The challenge is that these children don’t have access to the same services and opportunities that our children take for granted – even here in a rural area.
“The primary school on Mer Island is a wonderful facility but there’s no high school so, at age 11 or 12, they have to leave their home and family to board on Thursday Island or at a mainland secondary college.
“And it can be difficult to find student accommodation. One Mer Island mother told us that there are Year 7-aged children still waiting for places eight months after the school year started.
“Her dream is to create a pathway from prep to school to training and employment with none of these gaps where children and young adults can so easily lose momentum and fall through the cracks.”
Easing that transition from primary to secondary to tertiary education is a key focus of Bond University’s Yarning Up initiative which won the 2016 Queensland Premier’s Reconciliation Award.
“Over the past four years of organising these annual visits alternating between the Torres Strait Islands and Lockhart River, we have seen some exceptional outcomes,” said Yarning Up organiser and Bond University’s Pro Vice-Chancellor, Pathways and Partnerships, Catherine O’Sullivan.
“Bringing together a group of leading educators like David Shepherd and a wide range of corporate representatives gives us a dynamic range of perspectives, expertise and ideas, with every participant taking something different from the experience and identifying different opportunities for continued engagement – whether that be with the communities we’ve visited or with their own local Indigenous community.
“But the one learning I think everyone has taken from this year’s Yarning Up is that we can only help by listening to the mothers, fathers and grandparents of the Torres Strait Island communities. They know the issues; they know the solutions. They are simply asking us to help them make it happen.”
Written by Karen Ransome