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
"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
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,
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
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
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
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 -
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:
email@example.com; or by post: PO Box 2363, Alice Springs,
Northern Territory 0871.