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Educating Arnhem Land: ‘Without MAF, it’s difficult for kids to get to school’

2nd May 2022

Half of MAF’s flights in Arnhem Land – Australia’s Northern Territory wilderness – support education. In recent years, MAF has expanded its routes outside of Arnhem Land, enabling hundreds more indigenous students to access a ‘culturally appropriate’ education. This would not be possible without MAF pilots Tim Vallance-Webb and Matt Henderson…

Ḏawurr Boarding School in Nhulunbuy, north east Arnhem Land, accommodates 40 indigenous senior school students from very remote areas across Arnhem Land (Yirrkala, Gunyungarra, Dhalinybuy, Garrthalala, Maningrida, Baniyala, Birany Birany, Galiwin’ku, Wurruwi) and beyond (Bulman, Corella Creek, Croker Island and Belyuen).

If it wasn’t for MAF, some of these students simply wouldn’t be able to get to school due to the sheer distance they would need to travel by road. Would you drive six hours to reach your nearest school?  With MAF, the same distance takes 40 minutes.

Australia’s Northern Territory (NT) is more than six times the size of the UK. MAF pilot Tim Vallance-Webb describes the vast remoteness of Arnhem Land, located in NT’s north-easterly corner:

‘Australia might be a first world country, but the north is still remote. There’s a lack of infrastructure in Arnhem Land. The bitumen stops at the airport and then it’s 700km of dirt road. For some people, their nearest supermarket is a four-hour drive away.

‘Arnhem Land is the size of Scotland and Wales put together, but with a very tiny population of 16,000 (same population as Ripon in North Yorkshire). Geographically, people are very spread out. Many students are from remote places. It’s a huge area.’

Tim cheerfully explains his role in getting these young people to school:

‘There’s an unsung hero in the Good Samaritan story and that’s the donkey. Ultimately, Christ is the Good Samaritan helping people and transforming lives. I’m happy to be the donkey….with wings!’

MAF pilot Tim Vallance-Webb

‘A clash of cultures’

In addition to flying remote students to Ḏawurr Boarding School, MAF also supports several other education providers across the region including Laynhapuy Homelands School, which runs nine schools across nine ‘homelands’ in east Arnhem Land.

North east Arnhem Land constitutes 75% of MAF Arnhem Land’s flying and is home to the Yolngu people – Aboriginal Australians.

 

‘Homelands’ are traditional lands where mostly indigenous people live who abide by local laws and follow cultural practices heavily connected to their land.

The concept of living in another part of Australia to access mainstream education would be an incredibly difficult transition for many.

Western, urban life has completely different values and social norms from what the Yolngu are used to, so thanks to MAF and partners, the Yolngu are able to access a ‘culturally appropriate’ bilingual education in their homeland environment. Tim elaborates:

‘It’s a clash of cultures – a culture that’s thousands of years old verses a really modern one. It’s like being transported overnight into another millennium – it would be very difficult to compete or succeed in that environment because they haven’t had the same educational structure that we’ve had for hundreds of years.

‘Aboriginal learning style is not about sitting down, reading and writing – it’s a lot more hands-on. We say you learn when you pass an exam; they say you learn when you have mastered how to do it. We talk about the theory of fishing; they say you’ve learnt to fish when you’ve caught a fish!

‘Forcing an Aboriginal person out of their homeland into a city to learn is like you being forced to learn in Iran – it’s a different language, culture, environment and religion. You wouldn’t be able to thrive – it would be horrendous!

‘The Yolngu are much happier, thriving and at peace if they’re in their homeland going about their traditional methods of learning. At the same time, MAF fly in teachers who give students access to a wider education in the comfort of their own environment where they are settled with their families.

‘Hopefully, this bridges the knowledge gap – they can learn English, Maths, reading and writing etc in their homeland. If they do choose to move to the city when they’re older, at least they will be better prepared to cope and compete for jobs in the western world.’

MAF enables education in the homelands

MAF regularly transports teachers, students, supplies, teaching resources, maintenance and IT staff to and from nine homelands, making Laynhapuy Homelands School one of MAF Arnhem Land’s biggest customers.

Each primary / junior school has between three and twenty students. Most schools are within one hour’s flight from Gove – MAF Arnhem Land’s base – and some are only ten minutes apart by plane but would take hours to reach by car.

MAF also flies students and teachers back and forth to Garrthalala Training Camp – Laynhapuy’s weekly boarding school for secondary school students.

Teacher training is imperative. Teachers flying into the Homelands train indigenous teachers who will educate future students. Together, they are building a culturally appropriate curriculum.

Fellow pilot Matt Henderson says not many people are familiar with this part of the world:

‘One of the things that’s difficult to understand about Arnhem land is that it’s in Australia. It’s hard for people to understand how remote it can be. It’s a little-known part of the world that doesn’t get a whole lot of attention, but the needs are great.

‘The reality is these students live between two worlds. Education is so important so that they can compete in a larger world, otherwise there won’t be a lot of opportunities for them.’

MAF understands complex needs

Abigail White is the Assistant Principal at Laynhapuy Homelands School. According to Abigail, the success of the region’s education system largely depends on MAF’s bespoke service:

‘We have a really strong partnership with MAF – they provide a very personal service.

‘It’s not feasible for us to drive to some of our sights because the drive takes too long. Day to day, week to week driving would just take too much time out of the teacher’s day, so it’s much better for us to fly.

‘Although we have a weekly plan, it pretty much changes every week for various reasons, but MAF understands. We rely on them because they’re so flexible.’

Due to complex, changing schedules, MAF is the only local flight operator to support the educational needs of Arnhem Land’s Yolngu people concludes Tim:

‘No other operator could handle the volume and complexity of the work. Schedules change a lot, but MAF has the willingness and mindset to deal with it.

‘Commercial operators have a different ethos – they target high value clients, but MAF are not there to make money. We have to make it affordable for the Yolngu and our partners. We are the only ‘indigenous friendly’ operator.’

MAF Arnhem Land’s eight small aircraft are also technically more compatible with homeland airstrips:

‘Certain aircraft can’t land on dirt strips. They are too big and need bitumen runways. MAF’s bush aircraft however are perfect for short bush strips – they are built for that purpose.’

MAF has been doing the ‘school run’ in Arnhem Land for nearly 50 years.