Distance education allows families as far as Kazakhstan to stay enrolled in Queensland


The family plans to return to Australia later this year.

"A program that kept step with the national curriculum was really important to me," Ms Magerl said.

"We don't know how long we're going to be here — whether of our own choice or [due to] visa problems — so it was important that they be able to slot back into a school back at home."

Ms Magerl said internet speeds and reliability could be a problem at times, especially when the children were required to submit videos.

"It can be a little bit frustrating — although I don't know it's necessarily all that different from rural Australia, to be honest," she said.

How does it work?

First set up in 1922 to cater to geographically isolated families, distance education has changed dramatically with developments in technology.

There are now seven schools of distance education throughout Queensland, offering a mix of online and correspondence teaching.

The schools are increasingly popular in urban areas, despite access to traditional schooling nearby.

Data analysis of distance education enrolments by postcode from 2017 shows clusters of students around Brisbane and the Gold and Sunshine coasts.

Brisbane School of Distance Education (SDE) principal Judith Menary said most of the approximately 3,500 students enrolled in her school in 2019 were from the south-east corner.

Ms Menary said enrolments had increased by 10 per cent since last year, with families citing reasons such as religion, work commitments, travel, and health issues.

"This is the future of schooling in that they can be flexible, overseas, in Australia, out of Australia, unwell, in their homes, on holidays, and they can still access their education," Ms Menary said.

Families pay about $1,500 per student each year, although that fee can be waived in some circumstances.

Families also need to provide computers, a reliable internet connection, and a home supervisor.

Tennis player Nick Kyrgios and environmentalist Robert Irwin completed their schooling via distance education, while busy with other activities.

Some students might only do one subject by distance education, if it was not offered at the school they attended.

Putting teaching and technology together

Parts of the Brisbane SDE campus at Coorparoo on Brisbane's east looks more like a call centre than a traditional classroom, with rows of teachers sitting side-by-side in cubicles, wearing headsets and using computers to run their classes.

Ms Menary said her staff needed to combine traditional teaching approaches with the latest technology.

"That's in fact the art of the teaching here," she said.

"You can be a great classroom teacher. You can understand technology. But putting the two pieces together is the work."

Ms Menary said attendance and participation were monitored to make sure students were not slacking off, and teachers disciplined students when necessary.

"There are students who do need correcting while they're online, so there still are behaviour incidents, but they're very few and far between," she said.

'Gained two hours every day'

The Steptoe family quit a private school to learn at home and have not looked back

In Logan, south of Brisbane, parents John and Amanda Steptoe wished they had discovered distance education sooner.

Unhappy with the private school their four youngest children were attending, they made the switch to the Brisbane SDE at the start of 2018.

Ms Steptoe said she did not miss the rush to get out the door in the morning or the daily pick-ups and drop-offs.

"I've gained two hours every day and so have they," Ms Steptoe said.

"They've got more time to kick a ball around the backyard and they have more time to practice their musical instruments and just to be children — they're happier."

Ms Steptoe supervises their home classroom, while running her own business from the next desk.

Mr Steptoe said the four children, Sophie, 16, Harry, 14, Jack, 12, and Ryan, 10, no longer had to put up with bad behaviour from other students and could concentrate on their work.

"The quality of their education is we believe now second to none," he said.

Mr Steptoe said their initial concerns about opportunities to socialise with other children were quickly put to rest.

"They have sports days, swimming carnivals, athletics carnival, cross country carnival — it just has not been a problem in the slightest," Mr Steptoe said.

"Our kids are into music and sport, so they still have their teammates, they still have their friends."

'Learning's not rushed'

Year 12 student Sophie Steptoe said she had regular contact with her classmates at the school's Coorparoo campus, which she attended for exams.

"I'm going in quite often, seeing everyone," she said.

"I'm going on two camps this year — my regular school camp and a snow tour — so there are really quite a lot of opportunities for us to meet up and we'll sometimes go hang out at the shops together as well."

Year 7 student Jack Steptoe said he had missed the face-to-face contact with his classmates at times, but overall he preferred his new school.

"There's no mucking about or anything so you can fit in a lot more learning, but the learning's not rushed," he said.

Home schooling is also growing in popularity in Queensland, but Ms Steptoe said distance education was a different model, with less of an onus on parents.

"There's no way I could educate my children like a teacher does — especially four of them at once," Ms Steptoe said.

Mr Steptoe said the siblings had developed a stronger bond since starting distance education and regularly helped each other with their school work.

"It's not always the older ones helping the younger ones either, sometimes it can go the other way around," he said.

By Melinda Howells