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Access to education: a human right for every child: (2000)

Rights and Freedoms

Access to education: a
human right for every child

Chris Sidoti,
Human Rights Commissioner at the 29th Annual Federal ICPA Conference,
Griffith NSW, 3 August 2000


Thank you, Megan
McNichol, conference organisers and the Isolated Children's Parents' Association
for inviting me to speak at your annual federal conference today.

I am honoured to
be here. Federal and State branches of the ICPA were among the first organisations
to make detailed and comprehensive submissions to our inquiry. They have
also been a valuable source of information and assistance during the course
of our National Inquiry into Rural and Remote Education. We are extremely
grateful for this. While we are human rights experts we had no expertise
in rural and remote education when we began this inquiry. We relied on
organisations like yours to provide that expertise. The inquiry could
not have proceeded without you and others like you.

I hope that we have
successsfully reflected the concerns of parents and children associated
with ICPA in our various reports.

Today I would like
to reflect on some of the key messages of the National Inquiry into Rural
and Remote Education and concentrate in particular on one significant
aspect of the right to education - accessibility.

First, however, I
would like to give you some background to the inquiry and the reasons
why the Commission undertook to investigate rural and remote education.

The right to education

Education is fundamental
to the development of human potential and to full participation in a democratic
society. That's why it's recognised as a human right. Everyone has the
right to education, regardless of where you live, what your race is or
whether or not you have a disability.

Education is also
fundamental to the full enjoyment of most other human rights: most clearly
the right to work but also the right to health. And to the exercise of
social responsibilities including respect for human rights.

The Federal Council
of ICPA's submission to our inquiry noted this close relationship between
education and other rights in the context of rural development, as follows.

ICPA Australia
believes that the prospects for rural development, and thus, the prospects
for a better future for Australia's rural and remote places, are dependent
upon access to a broad range of appropriate educational options and

This core significance
of education was the reason the Commission chose rural and remote education
as the subject of its inquiry in response to the Bush Talks consultations
we conducted during 1998. You may recall that we consulted extensively
throughout the country during that year on the human rights concerns of
regional, rural and remote Australians. Their concerns were many. We were
told of fading towns, dwindling populations, withdrawal of services, wholesale
departures of young people, lost jobs and lives lost due to accidents
and emergencies which could not be reached in time and to suicides.

The Commission decided
to investigate school education in rural and remote Australia because
it is so central to rural well being generally. It provides a way of understanding
what is happening in all sectors of rural and remote community life and
is a focus for recommendations which, if implemented, may help country
people to meet the many challenges they face with creative solutions for
local conditions addressing local needs. We saw good education as essential
if small towns and remote communities are to have a future.

The inquiry looked
into the availability and accessibility of primary and secondary schooling,
its quality and the extent to which it included, in an acceptable way,
Indigenous children, children with disabilities and children from minority
language, religious and cultural backgrounds.

The Commission's
role and perspective

The Commission is
Australia's human rights monitoring body. As well as dealing with discrimination
and human rights complaints, we are charged with promoting public awareness
of human rights and advising the Commonwealth on actions it should take
to protect and advance human rights. We report to the federal Parliament.

Our approach to education
is a human rights one. The human right to education is recognised in at
least three international treaties, the UNESCO Convention against Discrimination
in Education
of 1962, the International Covenant on Economic, Social
and Cultural Rights
of 1966 and the Convention on the Rights of
the Child
of 1989. Australia has promised to honour these commitments.

International committees
established under human rights treaties assess whether each country fully
respects the right of its children to education by reference to five criteria.

  • Education must
    be available for all without discrimination.
  • It must be accessible,
    either within safe physical distance or by correspondence or some other
    form of distance education.
  • It must be affordable;
    in fact primary education must be free and once a country has succeeded
    in providing a free secondary education, fees can only be reimposed
    for very compelling reasons.
  • Education must
    be acceptable, culturally and in other ways, to both students and their
  • And it must be
    adaptable so that it meets the different circumstances and changing
    needs of each individual student.

The inquiry evaluated
the evidence it received against these five criteria. We found that some
Australian children are failed on one or more of these criteria. And there
is strong evidence that rural and remote children are generally disadvantaged
in comparison with their urban counterparts. For example, rural and remote
students are less likely to stay on at school after the compulsory years
or to finish secondary school. The average Year 12 retention rates for
boys is 63% in the capital cities but only 54% in rural and remote areas.
For girls it is 74% in the capital cities but only 66% in country towns.
Year 12 retention is particularly low in the Northern Territory: only
23% of rural/remote boys and 25% of rural/remote girls stay on to Year

Tertiary participation
is also lower for rural and remote students: they constitute 30% of the
population but only 19% of tertiary students.

There is some evidence,
too, of less consistent attendance and poorer performances.

Inquiry procedures

We called for submissions
in February 1999 and commenced our hearings and meetings in March. We
were delighted to be joined in most States and the Northern Territory
by expert Co-Commissioners.

In Queensland, for
example, we appointed Lady Pearl Logan from Malanda near Cairns who had
been active in the ICPA and the Country Women's Association and was instrumental
in the establishment of James Cook University in Townsville.

In every community
we visited we held informal community meetings, open to the public, and
heard from parents, teachers, education support workers, local government,
child welfare and many other community members. We always convened student
focus groups - one each for secondary students and primary students. We
also conducted formal hearings in every capital city, at which witnesses
gave evidence and answered questions, all of which were transcribed.

The great bulk of
the inquiry's material, including transcripts and many submissions, can
be found on the Commission's website at

Of course, we couldn't
hope to visit every community or even every region, although we visited
every State and the Northern Territory. To offer an opportunity for focused
participation by as many interested people as possible, we commissioned
a survey from the University of Melbourne's Youth Research Centre, to
which 3,128 people responded.

The inquiry received
287 submissions including from every education department and many Catholic
Education Offices. Topics raised in significant numbers of submissions

  • the provision
    of special education and the needs of country students with special
    needs (82)
  • the added costs
    of accessing education in the country (81)
  • the quality and
    the challenges of distance education (73)
  • the need for improved
    IT infrastructure and the opportunities IT offers for improving education
    delivery in the bush (66)
  • Indigenous education
    (62) which was simultaneously being investigated by former Senator Bob
    Collins in the Northern Territory and, nationally, by the Senate Employment,
    Workplace Relations, Small Business and Education References Committee
  • and school-related
    travel (57 submissions).

These main themes
are summarised in our March 2000 publication Emerging Themes. This
publication has been widely distributed, most notably, with the assistance
of State and Territory education departments and many Catholic Education
Offices, to most schools in the country.

In May we produced
a report of Recommendations from the Inquiry, with over 70 recommendations
to federal, state and territory governments and education providers. This
report was tabled in parliament at the end of June.

Last Friday I launched
a third publication of the Inquiry, School Communities, in Broome.
School Communities highlights some of the good examples of school-community
involvement we came across over the course of the Inquiry, including the
involvement of Aboriginal Education Workers and community members in schools
with Indigenous students, independent community schools and programs where
local content is included in school curriculum. Although some of the best
examples are to be found in remote Indigenous communities, the models
are useful for all students and all school communities.

Today I am pleased
to launch the fourth publication from our inquiry - Education Access.

Access to education

There are five criteria
necessary for ensuring the right to education: availability without discrimination,
accessibility, affordability, acceptability and adaptability. Perhaps
the most fundamental of these in terms of this inquiry is accessibility
of education.

Accessibility is
undermined by many factors. That's why we decided to publish a separate
report on the subject. Copies are available at this conference. It can
also be accessed on our website.


What do we mean by
access to education?

Accessibility has
three dimensions. It means that education must be

to all without discrimination, in law and in fact


and economically

However, in reality
accessibility in rural and remote Australia is compromised by a range
of factors - ill-health, poverty, isolation, high mobility and transience,
natural events such as floods. It is denied by remoteness coupled with
the language and cultural inappropriateness of the instruction on offer
for hundreds of children.

Our report, Education
uses a combination of case study examples, evidence to the
inquiry and information about government programs including education-related
subsidies to illustrate the limits on access to education which children
face in rural and remote Australia. We discuss limits faced by children

who have
disabilities and have little or no choice of alternative schools

who are isolated
from public transport routes or are denied access to school buses

who are studying
by distance education but have unreliable or expensive radio or computer

who are living
in remote Indigenous Homeland communities without schools, teachers
or tutors

who are Indigenous
students whose only curriculum is in English - a language they have
never heard or spoken at home

who are participating
in vocational education and training but cannot find work experience
placements at home and cannot afford to travel

who are forced
to board at a school term hostel for secondary education but whose
hostel is at risk of losing subsidies

who are reliant
on computers for a contemporary curriculum but the IT infrastructure
is inadequate for their purpose.

I will elaborate
on three of these areas of inaccessibility highlighted in the report.


The most obvious
determinant of access to education is transport. The form of transport,
the amount of time taken for travel and the cost involved can all have
a significant impact on school education. Many children in rural and remote
parts of Australia travel to and from school in extreme conditions due
to distance, road quality and climate. Along with flooding, heat and dust
are common barriers to travel in rural and remote regions.

In Mungindi in Northwest
NSW, with a population of 1000, isolation and lack of sealed roads mean
that in wet weather some children cannot attend school for weeks. One
family told us

We have been
blessed with a school bus which picks our children up only several kilometres
away. However, due to the appalling conditions of the road, due to neglect,
rainfall of thirty points prevents the bus continuing its journey to
our bus stop. This, for my family means a combined distance travel of
128 kilometres a day usually for 1-2 days but if the rain exceeds this
is could be several more days. Should there be substantial rain greater
than two inches our children are unable to attend school for prolonged
periods and need to be educated at home.

Other families and
students told us of hours spent on buses or in cars, excessive heat and
cold, discomfort and unsafe conditions in school buses. Pre-school children,
TAFE students and, in some areas, non-government school students are not
entitled to use school buses supplied by the government or subsidised
by government. We were also told of school buses which were inaccessible
to students with wheelchairs or inappropriate for children with special

As a result of these
difficulties, students miss out on school days, parents are forced to
spend considerable time and money transporting their children and students
are forced to consider less suitable educational options than their local
school. Hence their access to education is significantly impaired.

In our reports we
make a number of recommendations to ensure the safety, reasonableness
and equity of access to school transport in rural and remote areas.

Remote Indigenous

Another example highlighted
in Education Access is lack of schooling in the Indigenous Homeland

There are many ways
in which access to education is severely compromised for Indigenous students
in rural and remote areas of Australia. In Education Access we
are particularly concerned about the lack of primary education for many
children living on Indigenous Homeland Communities and outstations, of
which we heard evidence in the Kimberley region of WA and in the Northern
Territory. In the 1987 report Return to Country, which investigated
the homelands movement, it was estimated that between 700 and 1,000 children
in north-east Arnhem Land alone had no access whatsoever to school education.
There are still 15 East Arnhem Land communities without education provision.

Perhaps even more
disturbing, because of the very substantial numbers affected, is that
secondary schooling is simply unavailable - that is, it is not provided
- outside the six major urban and regional centres in the NT. Secondary
education is an issue not only for children on Homelands but for all children
in all remote communities. Community Education Centres in remote communities
provide only the most basic primary education, with limited tuition support
for secondary students to study by correspondence. Very few do so.

For the most part
distance education is not a viable option for students in remote Indigenous
communities where no one has completed high school and there is no history
of learning by correspondence. These communities cannot be expected to
provide the support and supervision students need to succeed in distance

This near total lack
of secondary provision in non-urban NT has been strongly criticised by
both Bob Collins and the Senate Committee. One elder suggested a solution
- a solution proposed years ago to the NT Department of Education.

A long time
ago, we were planning and discussing the possibility of having a school
for the outstations, a school that would be situated in the middle
where it is accessible to the Homelands people. The school should
be standing in the middle of the Homelands area so that all the people
from the Homelands can access the school.

We were talking
like this many times previously, but nothing came out of it. But if
the government can see us and our children and recognise our situation,
we would get a central school for the Homelands, a school situated
in the middle of the area.

The failure to act
is inexcusable, particularly in light of the Senate Committee's revelation
that $90 million of Commonwealth funding earmarked for Indigenous education
was 'misallocated' by the NT Education Department to its core funding.

We recommend that
State and Territory education departments ensure that school aged children
living in those Homeland centres have effective access to education while
living in their home areas. They should

  • provide relevant
    and culturally appropriate educational resources and where necessary
    physical infrastructure
  • establish or expand
    school term hostels in larger communities servicing the Homelands
  • train community
    members to qualify as home or community supervisors supported by visiting
  • develop multi-mode
    curriculum delivery models with visiting teacher support and periods
    of in-residence study.

We also recommend
a national audit of secondary provision and a national plan of action
to ensure effective access to secondary education to Year 12 level for
all students in all States and Territories including providing
senior secondary schools.

Transport and provision
of schooling in the Homeland Communities are just two of the examples
of lack of access to education highlighted in this publication.

But they provide
perhaps two of the most pivotal examples of inaccessibility for me because
they highlight two core issues for the inquiry.

Firstly, transport
- actually getting to or not getting to school - across diverse and often
difficult Australian terrain - is the very first hurdle children face
even before they have a chance to try out the quality of education. It
is the impact of isolation and distance on the lives of children that
unites all the submissions and evidence to the inquiry.

Secondly, although
united by the theme of distance, submissions and evidence reveal that
not all country students have the same needs. Indeed, many them have very
particular needs which must be addressed in order for them to access education
in any meaningful way. In the case of Indigenous children in remote areas
such as the Homeland communities of Northern Territory, this may be instruction
in their own language within their own communities rather than boarding
school or distance education. Education needs to respond to the individual
needs of the child as well as guaranteeing the basic right of every child
to access education without discrimination.

Information technology

The third area of
inaccessibility I want to discuss today is information technology.

Education access
is increasingly dependent on access to the Internet and related technologies.

The internet in particular
offers extraordinary opportunities for teaching and learning in remote
and isolated areas, opportunities at last to break down the inequalities
caused by distance.

As Dorrigo High School
said to us

The more isolated
the community, the more important technology becomes as a means of accessing
information and services.

Yet we found that
internet access remains costly and unreliable in many rural and remote
areas and in some areas there is no access at all. Technology infrastructure
also requires people with the skills and expertise to maintain and support
these systems but we were told numerous times of the frustration of having
to wait for weeks, if not months, for maintenance and repair and of the
expense involved. As a result teachers in remote schools are forced to
become technical experts without adequate levels of training and professional
development programs to support them in this role. And home tutors struggle
to ensure their children have what they need to succeed.

In Education Access
we highlight the case of West Wyalong in NSW where poor quality lines
and climatic conditions make internet access sporadic and limited and
the schools face difficulties in getting relevant expertise to install
and maintain computer systems. This leads to frustration in the classroom.

An obvious problem
with computers and the Internet being down is that teachers have activities
and lessons prepared on the assumption that the technology is available.
Staff will often enter a computer lab, give instructions to students
and set them to work, only to find that the Internet is not operating
or some of the machines have 'crashed'. This means that alternate activities
or whole lessons have to be taught at very short notice
Access, page 94)

Distance education
in particular relies heavily on the suitability and quality of telephone,
radio and the Internet. Without reliable access to technology, isolated
students are prevented from accessing education. This access can be limited
by something as basic as electrical power. One mother from Jundah Queensland,
where they do not have grid power, told us

My son could
only use it
[the computer] at night when we had the generator
on but then we were juggling other appliances and he couldn't have it
on for long as we could blow up the computer with fluctuating power
and then it was time for bed. Therefore he didn't become as proficient
at using the computer as the children on grid power
page 38).

We make numerous
recommendations aimed at improving access to a range of information technologies
in schools and isolated communities.


As I reflect back
on the inquiry process, what strikes me is the number and force of evidence
from parents, teachers, departmental officers, community members and students.
They express their passionate belief in the importance of education, not
because we have internationally agreed human rights treaties which tell
us this, but because there is universal understanding of the power and
significance of education.

Children themselves
have an understanding of how important that is.

In Nguiu in the Tiwi
Islands - a small community of 1500 people - one teenage student, 15 year
old Trevor, told us

School is
about education and education is power for me. And there are a lot
of things that I need to know about the whole world. When I leave
school I might go to a university in Darwin, I want to be a scientist.
In future I hope to be President of the Land Council.

These words give
me hope that young people themselves will grasp any opportunity provided
to them to exercise their right to education.

I am saddened that
so much still needs to be done to give young people these opportunities,
especially in remote Indigenous communities. I am aware that for children
and young people a year or two means much more than it does to adult teachers,
policy makers and politicians. Since we launched this inquiry in March
1999 more than 12 months have passed and the year 10 students we spoke
to studying in small schools, by distance education or in boarding schools
have already made their decisions about whether to continue their studies
or drop out altogether. For young people like Trevor, the time is now.

The release of Education
today completes the publications program of the Human Rights
Commission's National Inquiry into Rural and Remote Education. We set
out to affirm the right of every child to the best possible education
and to describe what is necessary to ensure that right for children in
rural and remote areas. I think we have achieved those objectives. The
next job is to make sure that the inquiry's recommendations are accepted
and implemented in full.

I hope that our reports
give strength and ammunition and clear proposals to you in the community
who have always carried the torch for rural education and will continue
to do so. And that it will convince governments that education is not
a privilege for rural children - it is a human right and an essential
ingredient in the emotional, intellectual and social development of every

updated 1 December 2001