Children in this Australian town don't have the internet, so their school has turned to radio

For some families in Wilcannia, many of them the Barkindji people, remote learning due to coronavirus measures has proved a challenge, forcing the local school and its teachers to get creative.


Wilcannia, in remote NSW, is home to about 750 people. Source: Sophie Cousins

As students across New South Wales begin term two with a continuation of distance learning, some remote schools in the far west of the state have had to think differently in order to provide disadvantaged children with the best chance of an education.  

The remote town of Wilcannia, located on the Darling River two hours from Broken Hill, is home to about 750 people, the majority of whom are the Barkindji people. 

For many families here, online learning is impossible. 

Not only do few families have access to broadband, those who do rely on a patchy 3G service on their mobiles which is often inaccessible from inside their homes.  

In response, the Wilcannia Central School, which educates 90 students from pre-school to Year 12, has turned to an old fashioned medium to deliver lessons: radio. 

Wilcannia River Radio
Wilcannia River Radio station has been helping the local school to broadcast to students. Source: Sophie Cousins

This week, the Wilcannia River Radio station opened up a 30-minute morning slot to teachers from the school to read a story and inform students of their daily tasks, including literacy and numeracy activities which were being hand-delivered to students. 

Teacher Tarren Walsh says the initiative is an important way to overcome the digital divide that exists in the community. 

“With the internet service not being great, we’re not able to read stories via learning apps that other teachers elsewhere can use,” she told SBS News. 

“By putting it on radio, we can reach a large number of families. 

“When I visited some students today, I could hear the radio on in the background. When I told them about the 10am storytime, one little girl’s face lit up. She thought it was really cool.” 

Compounding the internet problem in Wilcannia is overcrowding, which can make remote learning difficult. 

The school is a lifeline for many children because it provides meals and an opportunity to escape challenging family situations.   

The Whymans live in a three-bedroom house and have six children, but at any given point throughout the year, particularly during sorry business, they can have up to 35 people living under one roof.

During winter, the family all sleep in the living room to keep themselves warm.  

Wilcannia Central School
School deputy principal Sarah Donnelley and some of the children appear in a video posted online. Source: Facebook/Wilcannia Central School

Owen Whyman says not all parents are capable of helping their kids with their schoolwork.

“We’re one of the lucky families because not everyone [in the community] can read or write. Not everyone here has the basics,” he said with the radio blasting in the background. 

Twelve-year-old Amelia Whyman said she had been struggling to complete her studies since remote learning began in March. 

“I haven’t really been doing much schoolwork,” she said as her sisters nodded their heads in agreement. 

“I’m distracted. I can’t wait to go back to school.”  

Darling River
Wilcannia is located on the Darling River. Source: Sophie Cousins

Students , and initially for only one day a week. 

Wilcannia River Radio station manager Brendon Adams says the new service is critical for the children of Wilcannia to continue their education.

“We will support the school to deliver quality education no matter the circumstances,” he said. 

“I don’t want the radio station to been seen just as something that delivers music; I’m using it as a platform for kids to achieve their own goals.”  

Concerns about the shift to remote learning and the impact it could have on Australian children was recently highlighted in a series of reports commissioned by the Department of Education.  

Professor Natalie Brown, director of the Peter Underwood Centre at the University of Tasmania, was the lead author on a paper that found 46 per cent of all children are at risk of adverse effects on their educational outcomes, nutrition, physical movement and emotional wellbeing by being physically disconnected from school.

“We believe that Aboriginal students, especially those in remote locations, are a highly vulnerable group,” Professor Brown said. 

“What is particularly concerning is that we know from past research that students from lower-income families, or those who are already educationally disadvantaged, will have more difficulty in making up any learning loss from breaks in schooling.” 

“For students who are already disengaged, they may be completely lost to the education system.” 

Greg Hill is the general manager at the Central Darling Shire Council. He says he is frustrated at the lack of action taken to improve the internet situation in Wilcannia.  

“Since I’ve been here I’ve been lobbying to improve mobile and internet coverage,” he said. 

“With schools trying to continue education, it’s really not good. It shouldn’t be like this.”  

Nevertheless, as Wilcannia Central School plots a gradual return to face-to-face learning in the coming weeks, the radio will remain a critical part in engaging students and the community alike. 

Deputy principal of the school Sarah Donnelley recently appeared on the school’s Facebook page, performing a version of the song ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’. The video features some of the local children and is introduced by the Wilcannia River Radio station. 

“Radio is such a great tool to engage and excite students,” Ms Donnelley, said. 

“It’s really something that kids can feel proud of.”  

Sophie Cousins is a freelance journalist usually based in South Asia. Her travel to Wilcannia was funded by the National Geographic Society. 

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6 min read
Published 2 May 2020 at 7:18am
By Sophie Cousins