This assembly for primary school children introduces them to ideas about schools and education in other countries and cultures

Katrina Barber, aged 12, lives in an area of Australia’s Northern Territory that is unimaginably remote to most children in the UK. Katrina contributed a blog to The British Monarchy website and received an email in reply from Her Majesty. This assembly by Gerald Haigh tells children about Katrina’s life, and the ‘School of the Air’ that enables her to continue her education.

You will need:

  • A map of Australia showing the town of Alice Springs. Go to google maps, type in Alice Springs and then zoom out until you can see most of Australia with Alice Springs marked in the middle. 
  • Katrina’s blog on The British Monarchy website. Read it to the children in advance or during the assembly or make it available electronically in class.

Notes for teachers
Katrina writes in her blog, ‘I have a break for smoko at about 10.30am.’ Make sure children know that it doesn’t mean what they think! ‘Smoko’ is Australian bush slang for an ordinary mid-morning break, usually with a light snack. Exactly like mid-morning break at school in fact.

When talking about the size of Alice Springs, you might want to compare it to a similar sized town if there is one near to you, for example Frome, Jarrow, St Neots, Boston, Warwick, Rhyl, Dover all have populations of around 27,000.

Have you looked at the Queen’s website? One of the most interesting bits is where you can read blogs written by people all around the Commonwealth. Do you know what the Commonwealth is? It’s the group of countries around the world that have a special link with Britain and with our Queen. The Queen’s very interested in the Commonwealth and she and her family visit Commonwealth countries when they can.

One of the blogs on the Queen’s website is written by Katrina Barber. She’s twelve and lives in Australia. You may have been to Australia. You may even have relatives or friends who live there. Usually though, people live in, or near, one of the big cities. That makes us sometimes forget that Australia is actually a huge country and lots of it is empty. For example, from the city of Darwin on the north coast, to Adelaide on the south coast, there is a road that runs through three thousand kilometres of mostly empty desert and grassland. And half way along the road is a small town called Alice Springs.

For hundreds of kilometres around Alice Springs, out in the bush – which is what Australians call the countryside – there is land for grazing cattle and sheep, with the occasional small group of houses, or a farm. And of course on some of these farms live children. These children live very isolated lives. They can’t pop round to see friends, because the next place where there are children might be a hundred kilometres away. But they keep busy, helping with the animals, and becoming very adventurous and independent.

What, though, do those children do about school? They are too far away from each other to gather together in a class every day. And yet they need to learn if they are going to make their way in life later on.

So how do you think they learn? That’s right, they use their computers and the internet, to link to their teachers. It’s called a ‘School of the Air’ because for many years before computers it was all done by radio, and people use the expression ‘over the air’ when they talk about radio transmissions.

Katrina, the girl who wrote the blog on the Queen’s website, is a pupil at the Alice Springs School of the Air. The school has a hundred and twenty pupils spread over many thousands of square kilometres. They know each other, and have special friends just like you, but they hardly ever meet except once a year when they gather in Alice Springs. The rest of the time they are in contact on the internet, or occasionally a few might visit one another, even though they have to travel a long way to do that.

Katrina’s story
Katrina lives on a cattle station – that’s a very big farm – called Mount Skinner. It’s a huge farm, so big that her dad rounds up the cattle from the air, with a gyrocopter. She lives two hundred kilometres from the nearest town, which is Alice Springs – and that’s not a very big place, with about 27,000 people.

Most of the time Katrina studies at home, having an hour or so of lessons using the computer and a webcam linked to a teacher, and then working on her assignments afterwards. Once a year, though, usually in March, she makes the two hundred kilometre trip to Alice Springs, for an ‘In-School Week’ with other students from around the area, to stay in town for a few days and have lessons together. Katrina likes that, and she says:

‘Here you get to spend time with your classmates and do it as a group, whereas in Mount Skinner, I’m the only one that’s doing my year level.’

This year she had her twelfth birthday during ‘In School Week’. She said, “It was quite special to be with all the other children.’

Katrina really enjoys her life at Mount Skinner – you can read all about everything she does there on her blog.

She was pleased to get an email from the Queen, but her mum, Rhonda, says she doesn’t think Katrina realises how special it is. She said:

“Maybe Katrina doesn’t realise that not many people are lucky enough to get that sort of thing. I’m pretty proud to think that she’s received a letter from the Queen…as I said to the Principal of School of the Air, Ann Flemming, ‘She’ll probably just delete it and think, oh well!’ But Ann Flemming has kept a copy of the letter just in case she does delete it.”

It’s really difficult to imagine Katrina’s life. Do you think she’s lonely? I don’t think so. She’s too busy, and too happy. She says in her blog that she never wants to leave the bush. She wants to follow in her dad’s footsteps and keep cattle and make her own life there. Can you think why she might be so happy? Well, she loves her family – she says so. She can learn at her own pace. She has miles and miles of open space – she can even drive the family truck around there, and I guess soon she’ll be flying the gyrocopter. Above all, though, she’s got something that she’s very good at that other people can’t do, and that’s look after cattle and other animals. That gives her a real focus and a sense of pride. The School of the Air website says:

‘In many ways the bush children clearly have an advantage over those living in a town or city. They are active, healthy, well-fed, and free of many of the restrictions of time and space which inhibit other youngsters.

‘Most learn to ride horses at an early age, and they are taught the techniques for survival in a potentially hostile environment. Many will be well acquainted with horse-breaking, cattle work, droving and drought. Others will be familiar with Aboriginal lore and tradition, regional flora and fauna, or large-scale road construction.’

But if Katrina has to go and live in a city will she be OK? I think so. I think she’s the kind of girl who will get on wherever she is. And the School of the Air points out that its pupils learn to be very independent. But she would find it hard to adjust and she would miss a lot of things about her life at Mount Skinner.

What do we learn from Katrina? That there are many ways of living a happy and contented life. That education is valuable, and worth making an effort for. That it’s good to be close to nature and animals. That it’s good to be able to study on our own and be independent learners.

A prayer
Lord, we thank you for the happiness and health that some children have, and we pray for those who are ill or unhappy. We pray for Katrina and her fellow pupils. Keep them safe and help them to make the most of their studies.

A thoughtWhere there are pupils and a teacher, there’s a school, even if there’s no building.

Further information

This e-bulletin issue was first published in May 2009

About the author: Gerald Haigh