In the remote Kimberley region, the school day is underway. But class subjects – and the students taking them – are not what you might expect.
On boab-dotted Leopold Downs Station, local Aboriginal students and pupils from Melbourne enjoy a different kind of schooling. They spend part of their day learning how to muster cattle, repair fences and forage for bush tucker. Established in 2010, the Yiramalay/Wesley Studio School is a unique partnership between Wesley College – one of the top independent private schools in Melbourne – and the Indigenous people of the Fitzroy Valley communities in the Kimberley.
“When Melbourne students come up here, a lot of them haven’t been out bush. And many haven’t met Aboriginal people, so it’s quite a culture shock,” says Ned McCord, the Studio School’s executive director and a former cattleman.
“They move in and share accommodation with the Aboriginal students, and a lot of great friendships are made.”
Cultures collide in the remote Kimberly region
Yiramalay/Wesley Studio School is situated on a working cattle station, 85 kilometres from the small town of Fitzroy Crossing. The school enrolls around 60 Aboriginal students, who experience ‘cultural, spiritual and academic learning’ to prepare them for future employment. As part of the two-way learning venture, the school hosts up to 120 Year 10 students from Melbourne each year. In groups of 20 to 25, the Wesley College teenagers undertake a three-week induction based on life in the Kimberley.
“Our local Yiramalay students immerse the Wesley pupils in Indigenous culture through activities such as traditional smoking ceremonies, mustering cattle, exploring Indigenous art, music and dance, making bush tucker – even learning how to catch and cook goannas.”
The students also learn the story of the Bunuba people’s revered ancestor Jandamarra. He was a freedom fighter who tried to hold back the tide of European expansion in the Kimberley.
“You’ve got the Aboriginal students learning, and also telling the story as they’ve heard it from their elders. While students from the city shine in certain classroom subjects, local pupils lead the way when it comes to bush skills,” chuckles McCord.
“They were doing some fencing on the station and they had to get lunch,” he recalls. “The Aboriginal students started chasing a goanna. Later when they were preparing it to cook, the local students talked to the Wesley students about how to cut it properly, clean it and get the fire ready. There’s so much learning that is done outside the classroom.”
Teenagers off to the big smoke
The two-way learning continues when Aboriginal students pack up and relocate to Melbourne to experience mainstream education and metropolitan culture. Simara Munda, a Pilbara-born 16-year-old, is one of the 60 Aboriginal students in residence at Yiramalay. She spends half of each year at Wesley College.
“My experience has included meeting new people and learning about them and how different the local Bunuba culture and my culture, Yinjibarndi, are,” says the Year 11 student.
At Wesley College, the Yiramalay students can take up opportunities such as a science camp at the University of Melbourne; studying media and broadcasting at RMIT University’s radio station; and visiting ABB’s Melbourne base to operate an industrial robot.
“I received advice about future careers and we went to Monash University and visited the law faculty,” recalls Simara. “When I leave school, I would like to try journalism in a big city like Melbourne, but for now I like being here [in the Kimberley] because there are different people to meet and I get to swim in the beautiful waterholes.”
Many ways to measure success
The overall retention rate of Yiramalay students is significantly higher than the national average for Aboriginal students. 70 per cent of Studio School students participate in Year 12, while the national average is 19 per cent. Last year five students graduated Year 12.
However, the number of students who complete Year 12 is not the only measure of success. “Nearly 75 per cent of all Yiramalay students enrolled at the school since 2010 are now either employed or continuing their education,” says McCord.
“They are in fields such as education, conservation, agriculture, mining and construction. This really speaks for the impact Yiramalay has, and the merit in focusing on the holistic development of students.”
Currently three staff members are former students who completed Year 12. “It’s home for them – and I’ve got more alumni wanting to come back to work or volunteer,” says McCord.
The positive impact of the Yiramalay/Wesley school is evident in the health of its students, including mental wellbeing, better sleep and physical fitness, he adds.
Experiencing Kimberley life also changes the career aspirations of the Melbourne students. “A couple of Wesley students have become vets, and several are now working on properties in the NT and in WA. The program brings some young people back into the bush. I love that aspect of it as well.”
New digs in the outback
In May 2018, the Yiramalay/Wesley Studio School held a celebration to mark the official opening of new accommodation.
“Students in Years 10, 11 and 12 were on bunk beds, and now they are two to a room. We bought all the beds locally in Broome and they’ve got lovely doonas. In the first term, with the air conditioners, they loved that as well,” says McCord.
The $1.4 million project was funded in part by contributions from the Commonwealth Government, while half came from fundraising efforts.
You can read more about the Yiramalay/Wesley College Studio School on their website.