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Drought-stricken western Queensland families say education top priority

By Lucy Sweeney, Sunday March 23, 2014 - 13:08 EDT

For rural families struggling with the financial stresses brought on by drought, many sacrifices have to be made.

But when it comes to educating their children, farmers say they will do whatever it takes.

Cathy and Peter White run Athelstane cattle station near Winton in western Queensland.

They have four school-aged children, with the three eldest attending a boarding school in Townsville.

Their youngest is in year two and currently learning via distance education from home, with Mrs White at the helm.

Winton has been drought-declared since June last year, and Mrs White says one of their blocks has not had rain in two years.

"It's had a massive impact on the business in terms of our stock numbers. They're dying," she said.

"You destock as much as you can but you can't destock everything because then you have nothing to start up with again.

"It'll take us at least three years to recover, to build our numbers up, because your cows don't cycle when there's no feed. And that is only if you get another season."

The business is eligible for federal drought assistance, and Mrs White says without the extra money, they would struggle to run the property.

"We had to cart water because we ran out of water at watering points and there was mulga in those paddocks," she said.

"We had to buy more tanks and troughs, to put infrastructure in to take the water to those paddocks."

The federal drought relief assistance scheme provides up to $20,000 per property per financial year to subsidise freight costs in transporting fodder and water, as well as returning animals from agistment.

"Well $20,000 runs out very quickly, but we're not whinging because it's a help," Mrs White said.

"It's helping us be able to keep going."

ICPA calls for increase to education assistance

The Isolated Children's and Parents Association (ICPA) says some drought-affected .

Queensland ICPA president Andrew Pegler says it is a last resort for a small number of families.

"I don't think people bring their kids home because they need the help on the property," he said.

"I think parents do everything they possibly can to give their kids an education.

"But when they simply cannot afford to pay the fees, some of these children are going into apprenticeships as a cheaper option rather than completing grade 11 and 12."



Mrs White says despite the financial stresses brought on by drought, their children's education remains the top priority.

"People out here - they'll do anything for their kids, like most parents will," she said.

"People go to extraordinary lengths to educate their children and there are some very dedicated home tutors.

"I think if parents have pulled their kids out of boarding school it would have to have been the last straw."

The federal and state governments provide assistance for children living in isolated areas.

Currently, the maximum amount available under the Federal Government's is $9,133 per year with $7,667 being basic and $1,466 being means tested.

The Queensland Government also offers a of maximum $4,444 per child per annum for students in years eight to 12.

Mr Pegler says the amount of assistance available has not kept pace with education cost increases.



"The cost increases in the last decade are probably at about 5 per cent per annum more than the rate of assistance increases each year," he said.

"The Consumer Price Index (CPI) has an education sub-index and it has been running at a 6-7 per cent increase per annum for quite some years.

"Our assistance tends to come up at 1-2 per cent per year, so each year we get a bigger and bigger gap between the assistance and the costs."

According to documents obtained from the Department of Education, increases to the AIC allowances have varied over the past 12 years, with some significant increases in 2005 and 2008, but in 2013 and 2014 the increases were about 1-2 per cent.

Mrs White says education assistance should be reassessed.

"I'm grateful for the money that we receive from the Government to help our children because, believe me, we wouldn't be able to afford it," she said.

"There's just no way in the world that we could afford for them to go to even any school away from here because the costs are quite dear at any boarding school.

"The money needs reviewing and the situation needs reviewing. We don't really want a hand-out we want a hand-up."

Boarding school 'not just about education'

Mrs White says sending their children away to boarding school is not just an educational experience.

"It's about the social aspect - the whole package of boarding school," she said.

"For years, because of where we live, they don't get to go into a regular sporting team all the time and to be in a regular school.

"My boys are now going to learn to row on the rowing team.

"And all they've done all their life is chase cows on a motorbike - which they love - but now they're learning a new skill.

"It's their first time they've ever been in a team their whole life and they've just turned 13 and they're rapt."

Katrina Paine and her husband also run a cattle property near Winton, with three children at boarding school and one homeschooled via distance education.

Their four children have all been homeschooled at their family property near Winton before going on to boarding school for high school.



Mrs Paine says the experience is essential.

"If we are able to let our kids have a look at something different to their own backyard, they can always come back to their own backyard," she said.

"But they're much better rounded people and they know how the world works a bit more. So that's why education is crucial and it would be the last thing that you would let go.

"It opens their eyes to the world and how the other half live.

"If we had people living in Brisbane that had spent five years living at Winton and had a good idea of how things function out here, I think a lot of our issues would not be so big."

Mrs Paine says although there are other options, boarding school is the most practical for her family.

"If we were to drive in and out of Winton to drop kids off at school, we'd be looking at 1,100 kilometres every week in driving," she said.

"If you could get a job in town and you drove in and worked the day and then drove home, that might be not so financially or time consuming.

"But there are limited opportunities for those 9:00am-to-3:00pm working hours.

"Financially, on paper, it probably is a cheaper alternative to do that or to home-school [through high school], but just the social aspect of boarding school and the opportunities it brings outweigh that."

Limited options for rural kids without higher education

Mrs Paine says more needs to be done to ensure rural children have equal opportunities to reach higher education.

"The studies have been done to show what a small percentage of our rural kids actually go on to tertiary [education], and the hugest barrier to that is the financial one," she said.

"We need educated, intelligent people in agriculture.

"And that's not to say that you're not intelligent if you didn't get that opportunity, but if you didn't get the opportunity to further that then it really impacts on your industry."

For the White family, education is paramount.

"The way that the primary industry is today, if something doesn't change pretty shortly, I don't know how much of a future the next generation have," Mrs White said.

"We've got four children and I can tell you now those four kids won't be able to come home here to be on this place even if we've got 200,000 acres - there's just not the income here to do it.

"So we have to say to our children, 'you must go away to boarding school, you must work hard to get a good education so you can either go to university or get yourself an apprenticeship so you can have options in your life other than chasing cows'.

"All we're trying to do is make it so that our children have the best start in life."


- ABC

© ABC 2014

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