Back in the days when Australia wasn’t as easy to access as it recently has been, children in 1970s Britain had their view of this continent shaped by Australia’s greatest ever export: Skippy the Bush Kangaroo. She was a sort of Australian Lassie or Flipper – an animal who was a lot smarter than the humans around her. In the years before Neighbours and Crocodile Dundee the stories of a courageous kangaroo and her young companion gave us in the Northern hemisphere a clear view of life in wild and rugged Australia. Sight of park rangers and the Royal Flying Doctor Service made this picture of life in the bush all the more intriguing. Similarly alien to the young British viewer was the concept of the School of the Airwaves that sometimes received a fleeting mention before our bold kangaroo went and rescued someone who had fallen into a hole in the ground and couldn’t get out.
Australia’s School of the Air started in 1951 and was made possible by the pedal radio. The premise was simple. Each state provided children based on remote farmsteads and cattle stations with a programme of study, supplied materials and made regular broadcast via shortwave to those in the outback. Pupils had contact for an hour or so per day and then worked through the tasks that had been set. Work to be assessed was sent back via the aerial medics. Academic studies suggest that those who were supported effectively by a parent or interested adult could achieve at the same academic level as those in schools. The service modified in 2005 as internet technology improved and broadcasting continues. Australia was not alone in offering such a service, the US, Canada and just about anywhere that has wilderness within its borders does much the same.
Distance learning is nothing new. Correspondence courses were popular in the 19th Century, the Open University in the UK has enjoyed enormous success since 1969 and France’s CNED all provide remote learning. Students who learn remotely are often described as being independent and self-motivated, characteristics that are viewed as being useful. But it is undeniable that those who study alone do not experience everything else that schools offer – opportunities for interaction, social growth and collaborative working. Classrooms offer the chance to balance the logical mind and imagination, accept and develop as a consequence of criticism, encourage reflective thinking and enable us to ask for help, also desirable traits. Winston Churchill once said that “the only time my education was interrupted was when I was in school.” He may well have been right if his education was focused only on the passing of exams rather than developing the whole person.
The current predicament posed by isolation is not, in educational terms, a disaster. What would be a real shame is if we as a society or community forget all too soon the spirit of co-operation, collective responsibility and support that we feel today. Our young people have the chance to see the best of what humanity can do. What the generation of young people touched by this crisis will do with the knowledge that they have shown independence and self-motivation as well as having had the benefits of a communal educational experience? An opportunity exists for the next generation to effect significant and positive change. I hope to have the opportunity to remind them, in person, of what we can achieve when we are together in isolation.