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Education: A school liked by Alice

01 February 2013

At an indigenous school in Alice Springs, Australia, an Anglican head teacher is working zealously to raise the standards of bilingual and bicultural education. Margaret Holness pays him a visit

Language: a member of the translation team with children in the central desert reading the Honey Ant Readers

Language: a member of the translation team with children in the central desert reading the Honey Ant Readers

IT IS about 100°F; the end of a hot afternoon in Alice Springs, in the "red centre" of Australia. Ken Langford-Smith, the principal of Yipirinya School for indigenous children, is driving one of the school buses that take students back to their homes in the dispiriting "town camps" that surround Alice.

Mr Langford-Smith's school day began at 7 a.m., when he picked the children up from their homes. Now, the children are noisy and reluctant to stay in their seats, despite the loud exhortations of the school nurse, who is travelling with them.

Briefly exasperated by the hubbub, Mr Langford-Smith passes a hand over his face. "This wasn't promotion," he remarks, laconically. He is referring to his job, and he is right - by most standards, it wasn't.

AS HIS accent suggests, Mr Langford-Smith was born in East Africa, where his Australian parents were Anglican missionaries (his father, the Rt Revd Neville Langford-Smith, became the first Bishop of Nakuru, in Kenya).

Until the age of 60, his career centred on the highly regarded Anglican private schools in Australia. For ten years, he was headmaster of the prestigious Armidale School; then he became founding principal of the Cathedral School (now Clarence Valley Anglican School) in Grafton, New South Wales.

But, ten years ago, everything changed. On a private visit to Alice, he heard that the council that runs Yipirinya was looking for a new principal, and he successfully applied for the job.

THE Yipirinya School is independent. It was started in 1978 by indigenous leaders who wanted to preserve their own languages and culture alongside the Northern Territory's official school curriculum.

"Yipirinya" means "caterpillar" in Arrernte, and the school takes its name and ethos from the Caterpillar Jukurrpa [Dreaming] - or "Dreamtime Story" - of the Arrernte people of Mparntwe [Alice Springs]. But, 20 years after it began, the school was in a mess: the government had frozen its funding, and threatened to close it down.

The school needed experienced leadership. Mr Langford-Smith took up the challenge.

Administration, and the constant need for funds, takes up much of his time. But what drives him is a zeal to give the children - whom he describes as among the poorest in Australia - the best education the school can provide, and a deep personal commitment to Yipirinya's ideal of "two-way education": bilingual and bicultural, as the prospectus describes it.

In a recent issue of the school magazine, Mr Langford-Smith criticised as "iniquitous" the Northern Territory government's recently rescinded policy, which restricted indigenous-language teaching to the last hour of the school day.

He wrote: "Linguists predict that at least half today's oral languages will have disappeared by the end of the century. . . It is tragic that a NT government should have tried to eradicate indigenous languages under the ignorant hypothesis that they impede progress in English. . . Our children have a right to multilingual education, a right that is being denied by colonial policies such as these, and by a total lack of, and interest in, or funding for, indigenous languages."

In contrast, Yipirinya teaches four indigenous languages - more than any other school in Australia, Mr Langford-Smith believes.

THERE are usually two adults in every classroom: a "white" teacher, and an indigenous teaching assistant, many of whom are working for a full teaching qualification with the Alice branch of the Batchelor Institute, which specialises in advanced education for indigenous people.

Although the government meets the Institute's charges, the Yipirinya School Council allows the indigenous teaching assistants seven weeks' study-time on full pay each year. It also pays sundry other fees, and provides a dedicated teacher-mentor to help with studies.


Yipirinya's strong indigenous identity can be seen throughout the school. A Dreamtime painting in the reception area sets the tone. The series of books Honey Ant Readers, now used at schools with indigenous children throughout Australia, were developed at Yipirinya. Moreover, lacking the advantage of published learning materials, the language teachers make their own beautifully produced workbooks.

But there is much about Yipirinya that is like any other good school. Mr Langford-Smith knows his pupils by name, and treats them with a gentle courtesy. "Nice to see you back," he says to a passing, and formerly absent, child.

THE school has its own swimming pool; the children learn sports such as touch rugby, which involve them with the wider community. There is progress, but Mr Langford-Smith does not gloss over the problems that impede it: the official roll is 200, but attendance is 60 per cent on a good day; medical problems are rife because of the overcrowding and poor conditions in which the children live; many are affected by hearing loss, as a result of untreated ear infections; children experience violence, much of it alcohol-fuelled; and most of them are chronically undernourished.

The school does what it can to compensate. Breakfast and lunch are provided free every day for all pupils. The dining room is decorated with bright, traditional pictures that explain, in the children's home languages, what are "good" foods. These include indigenous favourites such as witchetty grubs, which the children might have eaten in traditional communities.

"There's nothing wrong with bush tucker, but that's not what the kids get in the camps," Mr Langford-Smith says. Government subsidies for meals were withdrawn two years ago; so the cost, now, has to come out of the classroom budget. Parents are asked to contribute, and some do. "But, whether they do or they don't, the children get fed," he says.

Without unofficial support from individuals, churches, and the staff themselves, the nutrition project would not be possible. Neither would the school bus service.

The NT government, which provides transport to take children to and from government schools, will not fund the $300,000 a year that it costs to run Yipirinya's buses; so Mr Langford-Smith has to find that, too, from his budget, or from donations, most of which come from Anglican churches.

His dream at the moment is a costly one. He wants to build on-site boarding accommodation: perhaps four cottages, each with a houseparent, which could provide care for pupils in particular need.

If it happened, it would be a tangible legacy. Ever since he was appointed - at a salary well below the going rate - Mr Langford-Smith, like the rest of the staff - has worked on one- or two-year contracts. At 73, he reckons he could give Yipirinya another two years.

NEARLY two hours after it started, the home run is over, and Mr Langford-Smith returns to school with a sleeping child on the front seat. There was no one to receive her at home; so he has brought her back to school.

"This is nothing unusual. It happens at least once a week," he says. Later, the mother is found in another town camp, and Mr Langford-Smith has to make another journey to reunite them. But there is a school event to attend before he can make that drive, and finally go home, at the end of a 13-hour day.

If he is not a missionary, he is a man with a mission. But he is tired, and it shows. "If I didn't have faith," he says, "I couldn't do this job."

YIPIRINYA School has no official connection with the Anglican Church, but a number of the staff belong to Anglican - and other - churches.

Some Anglican churches in Australia raise funds for the school and parish, and for several summers young professionals from a church in Victoria ran a holiday project for the students.

Yipirinya welcomes contact with other schools, and funds are always needed. Contact the Principal by email: yipirinya@yipirinya.com.au; or by post: PO Box 2363, Alice Springs, Northern Territory 0871. 

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