Quality education against the tyranny of distance

John Sutton, who won a Flinders University sponsored Brand South Australia Education Award for his work at Coober Pedy Area School.
John Sutton, who won a Flinders University sponsored Brand South Australia Education Award for his work at Coober Pedy Area School.

There’s something particularly satisfying about seeing one of society’s unsung heroes finally receiving public recognition for decades of service.

So it was when Coober Pedy Area School Principal John Sutton was honoured with a Flinders University sponsored Brand South Australia Regional Education Award.

Through a mixture of hard work, long term planning and leading by example every day in Coober Pedy’s small but tightly-knit community, Mr Sutton has transformed its school.

“When I first came here as a part-time role it was quite obvious, through no fault of anyone, that it was a bit piece meal,” Mr Sutton said.

“I could see that the kids were missing out because they were getting different messages every term.

“One of the first messages I gave to the staff in 2011 was that we were going to build the school up through long term as well as short term goals.

“We looked at our data, worked out what we wanted it to look like in five years and created a five year plan to be implemented whether I was still Principal or not.”

A “country boy” through-and-through, Mr Sutton is a man with a passion for rural communities and a life-long mission to provide the best education for their children – often overcoming a wide range of issues not faced by his urban colleagues.

“I’m all about the community. I’m a relationships person, and I believe you make special relationships in country schools. Here I mix with everyone I see, and you see them often.

“One of the biggest challenges is getting the recognition by central office that remote schools face a greater difficulty to deliver education.

“These kids can’t just hop on the train to the museum and have a look at things, but they deserve to have the same opportunities as Adelaide kids.

“Likewise, if I want to send someone to training, it can be three days out of the school for a half day’s training, which makes it very hard for the school and the other staff.

“Because of the distance, you can’t just jump on a bus to a careers expo, because it can mean five days away from school for the students.

“Then there is the heat, which is another problem. We’ve already had weeks of 45C temperatures, and we have two to three terms of extreme weather.”

In spite of these challenges, Mr Sutton’s hard work and planning has been reaping rewards for his school and community.

“I’ve just had a look at our latest data and right up until Year 7 the improvement has been huge,” he said.

“We are still concerned about our Year 8, 9 and 10s, but next year we are looking at a middle school concept which has already been passed by school council.

“A number of Aboriginal people have also been employed as attendance officers. That’s in its infancy, but has already improved attendance.

“This year, for the first time, we’ve got a high number of kids completing their South Australian Certificate of Education (SACE), and one of them is looking at getting five 20s and wants to go into medicine.

“Last year he even went to Tanzania to help in a charity program. He’s letting other kids see what can happen.”

Although Mr Sutton is retiring this month, he says he is confident he will leave the school in a strong position – and optimistic that the next principal will even continue to improve it.

“I know when I go that I will leave the school in a better place, as I’ve left the last two schools I’ve worked at,” he said.

“You don’t hang around too long anyway because there is always someone different with different ideas, and they can continue to grow the school.”

And while he has never sought recognition, he does admit that receiving his Flinders University sponsored Education Award shortly before retirement, and being recognised in his local community by Brand South Australia, does make it a little bit special.

“When I got this award I thought it was for the school and not for me,” he said. “I’ve never been looking for awards.

“Aside from getting my Advanced Skills Teachers award, this is the first one I’ve received, and the fact that it’s supported by a University makes it extra special, particularly as a lot of our teachers have come up here from Flinders.

“I haven’t gone out to seek recognition, but it does feel like a bit of a culmination, and I think it will help me to bring an end to my teaching career.

“Before these awards I didn’t know much about Brand South Australia but I think having these ceremonies in each region recognises their uniqueness.

“We are not the same, we are unique in ourselves, and to be able to be a part of it and see all of the different people and groups from the area and hear their stories was inspiring.

“For us, it shows that Coober Pedy is more than a dusty mining town, and is actually a vibrant, exciting, supportive community.

“Our parents don’t suffer fools gladly, but they provide great support and you know they are there for you when you need them.”

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