A two-way learning program founded through collaboration between an Indigenous community in the Kimberley and an exclusive Melbourne private school could one day become a model for other education projects across Australia.

By Leah McLennan.

Yiramalay/Wesley Studio School

Yiramalay students at Wesley College’s Glen Waverley campus in Melbourne.
Yiramalay students at Wesley College’s Glen Waverley campus in Melbourne.

Walking around the classroom at the Yiramalay/Wesley Studio School in the far north of Western Australia, Ned McCord can’t help but smile. “God only knows where these Aboriginal students are going from here … The sky is the limit,” says McCord, a cattleman turned executive director of the residential school in the Kimberley.

Located on Bunuba-owned Leopold Downs Station and home to about 60 Aboriginal students in years 10, 11 and 12, the Studio School is a joint venture between Wesley College, Melbourne – one of Australia’s top co-educational independent private schools – and the Aboriginal communities of the Fitzroy Valley. With 100 students on the waitlist, McCord finds it challenging to keep enrolment numbers at 60. “When you’re out bush you always take a couple of spare tyres, so we do push numbers to 66,” says McCord, former manager of Leopold Downs.

Each dry season student numbers swell when 120 year 10 Wesley College students arrive in successive groups of about 20 for a three-week induction based on life in the outback. Here – 4500 kilometres from their homes in the leafy suburbs of Melbourne – the students are immersed in Aboriginal culture and station life. Lessons range from mustering cattle and operating farm equipment to studying Aboriginal art, exploring the story of Jandamarra – a hero of the Bunuba people – and learning how to catch, collect and cook their own food.

The visiting teenagers also spend time exploring Aboriginal language. “Fourteen Aboriginal languages are spoken onsite at Yiramalay,” says Dr Helen Drennen, the founding principal of the Studio School. “We are currently developing a comprehensive language policy for the Studio School, which we will be launching mid-year at a conference at Yiramalay to help mark this year’s International Year of Indigenous Languages.”

The Studio School is based on a two-way learning model in which Aboriginal and visiting Melbourne-based students learn with and from each other, Drennen says. The two-way learning continues when the Aboriginal students pack up and relocate to Melbourne to experience mainstream education in terms one and four – when the rains arrive in the Kimberley and the heat is searing across northern Australia. Yiramalay draws on the concept of the School of Architecture at Taliesin, a facility conceived by the late architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Taliesin operates at the Wisconsin campus over the summer, while autumn and winter terms take place at the Arizona campus.

The Aboriginal students – who stay in the boarding facilities at Wesley’s Glen Waverley campus – look forward to returning to the Kimberley when the weather cools, says Yiramalay student Simara Munda from the Pilbara. “I spend half my time at Wesley College and half at Yiramalay,” she says. “When I’m in Melbourne I receive advice about future careers. When I leave school I would like to try journalism in a big city, but for now I like going to Yiramalay because I get to swim in beautiful waterholes.”

Former Wesley student and gold medallist in the 2018 Commonwealth Games in the 20-kilometre race walk Jemima Montag says the time spent at Yiramalay in year 10 was enlightening. “As time went on, I began to realise that we’d been living in such a bubble back home, our thoughts occupied by worrying about the future or remaining fixed in the past,” Montag says. “I saw how the local Yiramalay students could have so much fun just grabbing a soccer ball and running around in the red dust. I felt their strong connection to family, their love of storytelling and the way they went about their day with energy and underlying calmness. I soon realised that I’d become detached from the simple pleasures of life: jumping into fresh waterholes with a friend, preparing a meal as a team.”

With her long-term career goal set on a medical degree, Montag believes the Yiramalay experience has changed her path in life. “My passion and interest in Indigenous culture has only grown in recent years,” she says, “and it’s now my dream to go down a public health path with my medical degree. One day I may work in Indigenous communities.”

Drennen – whose interest in Indigenous culture was piqued as a year 10 Melbourne student when she participated in an excursion to Alice Springs – says the conception of the Studio School can be traced to 2004, when she received a call from the Kimberley Language Resource Centre about a digitising language project.

“As the relatively new principal of Wesley, I was interested in a program that was going to be of deep education significance,” she says. In 2004, Drennen travelled to the Kimberley where she met with Bunuba woman June Oscar, now the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island social justice commissioner, and Joe Ross, a Bunuba elder and businessman in the Fitzroy Valley.

“I had come back from a role overseas where I had seen scholarship programs that didn’t necessarily have long-term positive outcomes,” Drennen says. “I wanted to be engaged in something that was going to be mutually educationally beneficial to the Wesley community and the Aboriginal people of the Fitzroy Valley community. I was looking for a development that was going to change Wesley as much as it was going to contribute to an Aboriginal community.”

Both parties signed a memorandum of understanding in 2005 that encapsulated their commitment to learning together. “That led to lots of smaller projects. We introduced two Aboriginal languages into Wesley College that are still taught today. Some years later, I thought it was time to look at developing an educational enterprise for Wesley students to go up there and learn alongside Aboriginal students.”

Yiramalay started through an interest in Indigenous language reclamation and preservation, Drennen says. “Language – that’s the place where you actually change minds and develop understanding. Children who can speak language are going to be the champions of the change for Aboriginal people for the future.”

Replicating the model by opening more Studio Schools around Australia is the next step. “Studio Schools of Australia has been established and discussions are under way with Aboriginal people and government,” she says.

Kaylene Marr, a Bunuba traditional owner and senior mentor, says when she teaches students at Yiramalay she encourages them to “look, listen and feel” and to accept others for who they are and where they come from. “Yiramalay – it’s a healing place. When the young teenagers come here, I say, ‘Turn the page over and start something fresh.’ ”

Yiramalay students study the Senior Years Learning Framework, a program that integrates personal development and academic skills with an extended practical work component.

With support from staff each student sets their own personal learning plan when they enter Yiramalay, says McCord. “One student’s goal might be to learn the alphabet. Many students when they start have missed several years of school so their reading level might be at primary school level. However, another student’s PLP might be to complete the Victorian Certificate of Education.”

McCord says about 85 per cent of Yiramalay graduates are employed or are continuing their education. That number would rise, he says, if the graduates who are having families and will later return to the workforce were included.

“It’s great to look back and see where our first group of Aboriginal graduates are now. One is head stockman at an Australian Agricultural Company property, others are in education, the navy and we’ve got three at university. We’ve also got two who work at Yiramalay as mentors. This place feels like home to them, some find it hard to leave.”

Reflecting on the day in 2004 that he met Drennen, McCord say he never imagined one day he’d be walking around a school on Leopold Downs Station. “It was as hot as hell, a typical October day. I was out mustering cattle and Helen turned up with Joe Ross. We sat in the shade and talked about an education partnership providing opportunity for students from here to travel to Melbourne and vice versa. I thought it sounded really good. I said, ‘You, June Oscar and Joe will have to take the lead; I’ll help when I can as I have to sort the cattle business out.’ Little did I know that one day I’d be executive director of such a thing.”

McCord says if he can achieve one specific goal, he will consider himself successful. “If I walk out of here one day and there is an Aboriginal person in my position, then I’ve succeeded. There are people coming on that will one day fill those shoes. Traditional owners are working that way, they’re taking on more responsibility all the time.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 27, 2019 as "Reach of trust".

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