SCHOOL of the Air Port Augusta has played a major role in the lives of many people, but perhaps none moreso than Colleen Manning.
While her involvement does not stretch the entirety of the school’s history – SOTA is celebrating its 60th year in 2018 – it has been a constant throughout her life.
Mrs Manning, Mahanewo Station, was initially involved in SOTA as a student, then as a supervising parent, before taking on an official classroom teacher role, only finishing up with the school last year.
She describes her time with SOTA as “a really special way to learn”.
In her time, Mrs Manning has seen many big changes.
She was there for the last of the lessons conducted by HF radio, and then again for the start of the online classes, and has seen the improvements in that technology since.
She says the evolving technology was probably the biggest change – “it’s massive compared to what was there”.
“All we had was HF radio and a set workbook,” she said.
“It all depended on the radio reception on the day, because sometimes you couldn’t hear your teacher.”
School numbers has been another big change in her time, with fewer people living in remote areas.
But Mrs Manning said there were more constants than changes in her view of SOTA.
“It’s still people working in remote locations, trying to educate children in bush classrooms, and that really hasn’t changed,” she said.
While in the classroom, she said they tried to make the school day as structured as possible.
“We started school at 9am, and I placed emphasis that we were all fed and ready,” she said.
“We would have our morning tea, or smoko, at set times, and finished at 3pm.
It’s still people working in remote locations, trying to educate children in bush classrooms, and that really hasn’t changed.
“They knew they had to get as much done so they could go out and groom or ride their horses.”
But she said there was also the opportunity for some flexibility.
While growing up, if there was a busy time coming up on the station, they might work ahead and get in front of their workload.
This was something she and husband Paul also did with their own children.
“It meant the kids were free and so were we,” she said.
“School needs to be a priority but there are times when things, such as shearing or crutching, are happening on the property that are also important.”
Mrs Manning said the experience of distance education was not always easy, particularly when trying to teach her daughters something that did not interest them.
She describes it as the “most satisfying” but also the “hardest” 15 years of her life.
But she considers it worthwhile.
“I feel very lucky that I got to grow up here at Mahanewo Station,” she said.
“I think its great to have had that opportunity and I’m so pleased that my children did as well.”
After her three daughters finished school, Mrs Manning, a trained teacher, started to work part-time for SOTA.
“I felt like I could make a difference,” she said.
She was based at Port Augusta, about 200 kilometres from home, including a 90km stretch of dirt road.
She would leave home by 5am on Monday and return on Wednesday or Thursday night.
While in this role, she had the chance to go out and on home visits.
“It’s a privilege to be part of the family and made so welcome,” she said.
Community key part of outback education
IN HER time with School of the Air, Colleen Manning has had plenty of brushes with fame.
“We’ve had lots of interesting people talk to the students through the years,” she said. “People are happy to try and give bush kids a different experience.”
Among some were Australian of the Year Lee Kernaghan and there was even a link-up with Adelaide-born NASA astronaut Andy Thomas.
One day, during the HF radio days, student James McEvoy had his then-mostly unknown jockey cousin Kerrin McEvoy join in the class.
Mrs Manning said there was much excitement later that year when Kerrin went on to win the Melbourne Cup, riding Brew.
But Mrs Manning says it was the people involved in the everyday SOTA community that made it special.
“Humans form communities, people need people and SOTA provides that,” she said. “It’s being able to reach out to see if someone has a similar problem.”
She says this school community can help remove feelings of isolation when there may not be people living in easy driving distance.
“A child can have built up some really good friendships with someone who lives on the Birdsville Track,” she said. “These friendships continue on for years, not just while at school and it’s vital to have that resource you can call on.”