In 2009, a new educational initiative was launched in Torres Strait, the most northerly point in Australia. A Montessori programme operating in the Remote Indigenous Community on Thursday Island opened its doors to a group of 3 and 4 year old children. The first operating Montessori programme for this region commenced in late January 2009. The initiative was the result of a joint venture involving Montessori Children’s Foundation (MCF) and Tagai State College (Tagai). The year finished off successfully and Tagai agreed to merge the 3-6 ages for the 2010 Academic Year. This mode has continued since with great success. Community interest has remained positive and the programme continues to operate smoothly, ran by an AMI 3-6 trained Torres Islander and with strong community support within Tagai State College.
In 2010 a tripartite agreement between MCF, Tagai and Yumi Education resulted in the establishment and rapid growth of the Strait Start Programme. This programme also used a Montessori approach to early years (0-4) education in communities across the Torres Strait. Key aspects of the programme were a deep understanding of the ways children develop and recognition of the fundamental role that families and communities play as the first teachers of young children. Locally employed and trained coordinators worked directly with parents, other family members and the community. Together they work to build confidence, skills and capacity in creating the best conditions for nurturing children’s development from birth. Numbers grew over the period to a total of 11 operating programmes. Following review in late 2019 the Strait Start Programme was suspended to enable reassessment and planned re-commencement in the middle part of 2020.
Since the restart, there has been a significant need for the training and mentoring of new local staff. Visits by a Montessori trainer have been used to introduce staff to Montessori theory and practice. Additionally, much use has been made of technology to maintain regular contact with staff and to promote collegiate cooperation among the local staff on various islands throughout the Archipelago. There are weekly Zoom meetings, and a ‘WhatsApp’ group has been established which is working successfully, allowing and encouraging the sharing of knowledge and creative ideas between the coordinators and the programmes.
The remoteness of individual sites presents a major challenge. Travel and accommodation – particularly to and from the outer islands – is expensive and often difficult to schedule efficiently. The cost factor has prompted a strong focus on using technology to encourage more regular, more targeted contact. This has contributed significantly to the morale of the local staff. Within the new format, Tagai and Yumi are seeking a higher degree of support from Heads of Campus in those school premises that accommodate Strait Start Programmes. Tagai has invested in Strait Start by the weekly involvement of their Early Years Head of Department, who visits the sites and joins the Montessori Trainer online each week with the coordinators.
The Lockhart River Community and the Puuya Foundation
The Lockhart River Community is another Remote Indigenous Community that has adopted a Montessori-based program to serve its Early Childhood Education and Care objectives. Lockhart River is a relatively small community of around 730 people, located on the eastern coast of Cape York in Far North Queensland, Australia. The Puuya Foundation was established with a view to empowering the local community of Lockhart River to “…set goals and visions for their community’s future and to develop and nurture the skills, knowledge and confidence to realise their vision.” One of their early resolutions sought to provide high quality, culturally sensitive, early Childhood Education and Care as a primary and urgent objective. It took time for them to identify the specific ECEC model that would suit their needs. Via their contact with Torres Strait friends and relatives they became aware of, and impressed with, the ‘Strait Start’ Programme. Contact was established between Puuya leaders and Montessori Children's Foundation (MCF) which resulted in the establishment of a Pilot Program of training, support and mentoring in 2015.
It is a continuous challenge for Puuya to meet the ongoing needs of its projects within its tight budgetary constraints and the tragic death of the inaugural programme director in a motor-vehicle accident impacted the promising early progress of the Programme. Despite the challenges, the programme has operated and continues to operate and to serve the community, as the training, support and mentoring needs have been, and continue to be substantial.
Regular visits by the Montessori trainer of 1 to 2 weeks have happened from the beginning and it is hoped that - with a new staff member coming forward to learn how to support the families - training will begin mid year. A recent highlight was a Women's festival. Women came together to share and create stories and meet. One of the activities included collecting items from nature which they used to create mobiles. They have begun a Girls Club (10 to 18) on Monday and Wednesday to provide a space for the girls to talk and connect with each other while they paint, cook and create. This was initially adult led but has now developed into a popular program for which the girls have taken responsibility.
There is widespread agreement on the unique potential for high quality, early childhood education programmes to make positive contributions toward ‘closing the gap’- achieving equality in health and life expectancy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders peoples. The time frames of the envisaged impact are long term. If we are talking about noticeable changes in a community, we are talking in terms of generational change. At the level of a functioning, individual programme, the evidence is typically observable over two to three years. As would be expected, success begets success. The ultimate endorsement for a programme is strong word-of-mouth recommendation from parents/carers who have children in the programme. Building and maintaining a sustainable programme enrolment over time is the critical metric in the longer-term existence of the programme as well as the outcomes for the children.