A Visit to Alice Springs School of the Air

Scenic tours are different from any other type of travel experience. We pride ourselves on creating unique adventures for our guests, leading them beyond the expected and introducing cultural highlights and exclusive special events that simply aren’t available to the ordinary traveller.

With a vast collection of all-inclusive excursions available on each of our escorted tour itineraries, it’s easy to tailor your holiday to your taste. Our Journey Designers have worked to ensure there’s a daily excursion to suit everyone — whether you’re a keen hiker or simply want to while the afternoon away exploring a great museum.

In order to showcase the diversity of our Scenic Freechoice daily excursions, we’re taking a look at the Alice Springs School of the Air — one of the most fascinating cultural highlights available on our Australian touring holidays. To find out more about this unique visitor centre, we spoke to Jen Standish-White, Manager of the Alice Springs School of the Air (ASSOA), about the history of the school and its impact on the local community in this remote region of the renowned Australian Outback.

alice school

When was the Alice Springs School of the Air opened and why?

The Alice Springs School of the Air is a uniquely Australian school that, since 1951, has provided an educational resource for isolated school children living in remote Central Australia.

In 1944, Miss Adelaide Miethke, a member of the Council of the Flying Doctor Service (FDS) of South Australia, made the inspired suggestion to use two-way radios to give educational talks to children in the Outback. Over a number of years, she had discussions with Mr R G Pitts (Director of the FDS service in Alice Springs) and Mr L Dodd (Assistant Supervisor of Education in the Northern Territory and Headmaster of Alice Springs Higher Primary School) and pursued the early development of the School of the Air.

In 1950, after a long wait for special communications equipment, a trial programme began with local teachers volunteering to conduct the radio lessons. A landline was laid from the Flying Doctor base in Alice Springs to the Hartley Street School. The teachers took turns to present the specially-prepared scripts to the children living in remote Central Australia with the help of radio staff at the flying doctor base.

Then on 8 June 1951, the School of the Air was officially opened at the Flying Doctor Base.  Mr Kissell of the Alice Springs Primary Higher School is the leader of the broadcasting team.  At first, lessons are a one-way affair, but soon a question and answer time was added to the end of each broadcast. Sometimes a microphone was taken into one of the classrooms at the school and the Outback children could listen in to specially-prepared lessons or dramatisations. Three half-hour sessions were broadcast each week.

What is your favourite part of working here and why?

My favourite part of working at the School of the Air is promoting the visitor centre by telling visitors from all over the world about how we teach students and communicate with families living in some of the most remote parts of Australia. As the visitor centre is the main fundraiser to support the school, I enjoy sharing the changes made over time including the transition from radio to satellite dish. There is a lot of interest from interstate and international guests in our unique system of education, as it is the first of its kind in the world.

alice school

How do you think the school is beneficial?

The school is beneficial to students as it provides quality distance education for students through primary and middle school (kindergarten to Year 9) living in some of the most isolated parts of Australia, where students can be located hundreds of miles from the nearest brick-and-mortar school.

The school responds to the needs of these students by providing quality teaching, education materials and personal communication with parents and home tutors. The visitor centre provides a space for guests to experience the system first hand by watching students participate in lessons broadcast live from the studios in Alice Springs. This exposure helps create funds to support the school (e.g. admission, purchases, and library donations) and educates others about communication in the Outback. 

What difficulties do you encounter when teaching ‘via air’?

The school may encounter difficulties when teaching due to the extreme weather conditions in Central Australia which may affect communication via satellite dish. Students may also have problems with sound or visuals from home. Fortunately, School of the Air has a technician available to students and teachers responding to any problems that arise. The technician will communicate with families on the phone and visit when necessary.

Is there anything you would like to improve, if so, what and why?

School of the Air has created a lot of interest interstate and abroad since starting in 1951 and would now benefit from an extension to the existing Visitor’s Centre, as we often have large groups visiting and require more space. 

How is the school funded?

School of the Air is a Northern Territory government school so there are no school fees charged to the families. In addition to this, the NT government provides the IT equipment required to participate in the school’s online lessons.

Upon enrolment and for each ensuing year of enrolment, parents if they wish, may pay a voluntary contribution of AUS$110.00 per primary-aged student and AUS$200 per middle-year student. These voluntary contributions assist the school in maintaining the distribution of high-quality materials for the whole learning programme.

Where IT services are supplied to a site, the School Council actively encourages a contribution of AUS$300.00 per computer per year. These funds are for ongoing maintenance and or refresh costs when the machines and peripherals require replacement or are at the end of their working life.

As distance education is approximately three times as expensive as a town-based government school, funds generated by the Visitor’s Centre (e.g. admission fees, donations) contribute greatly to cover extra costs throughout the year.

How does tourism affect the school?

All profits raised in the ASSOA Visitor Centre including entry fees, donations and the sale of ASSOA merchandise in its retail outlet are directed to the school. This money is used for enrichment programmes for our students, and to continue to offer the highest standard of education possible. The money is also used to purchase new books for our school library, to assist with the cost of sending the books out to our students, and for general repair and maintenance of our library books. The school relies on the generosity of our visitors and the donations raised through entry fees and shop sales.

What can guests expect when visiting the Alice Springs School of the Air?

The ASSOA Visitor Centre is a multi-award-winning interpretive centre that introduces local, national and international guests to the distinctive history and world-class innovations of our unique distant education school that since 1951 has provided an educational resource for isolated schoolchildren within one million square miles, living in some of the most remote parts of Central Australia. 

alice school

Located next to the school, the visitor centre provides a virtual journey in ‘The World's Largest Classroom’. The ASSOA Visitor Centre has taken initiative to enhance the visitor experience to the region by offering a unique insight into the world of students living in the Outback during a 40-minute presentation which includes a film about the students, teachers, tutors, living circumstances and changes made over the years to improve educational experiences for our remote students. 

Our guided presentation showcases displays of old radios used to communicate over the years, student art projects including welding, quilts, and bird paintings on canvas, and Anzac Day Remembrance photographs. It introduces visitors to the modern-day technology developed by the school, unique to Central Australia.

Teachers can be seen in the studios during live lessons with a television display simultaneously showing the students in their home classroom environment. Visitors are provided with an interactive and informative experience as they sit on one side of a glass window and watch the lesson unfold in the studios; observing our students in locations in Outback Northern Territory.

iPads in the visitor centre offer footage of historical events such as Princess Diana and Prince Charles visiting and speaking with students over the radio. Our tour guides utilise a map of the NT and updated class photos to show visitors our student demographic and the geographical locations where they live.

A visit to the Alice Springs School of the Air is just one of the many enriching excursions available during our luxury escorted tours in Australia. If you want to find out more about our all-inclusive touring holidays, click here to visit our dedicated escorted tours page or call 0808 231 9738 for further information. 

Laura Barlow-Edwards
Laura Barlow-Edwards
Laura is Scenic's Digital Marketing Exec. She loves travel; her first river cruise was on the Danube, and she fell in love with Budapest at first sight. In her free time, Laura is usually reading, travel blogging, or planning her next adventure.