Ten teachers and eight teachers' aides returned to Perth on Thursday night after six months on the remote Indian Ocean territory, set up as a detention centre for refugee boat arrivals. Christmas Island is 2,600km north-west of Perth.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison announced an agreement with the Catholic Education group from Western Australia in mid-June to set up a learning centre inside the Phosphate Hill camp for families and unaccompanied minors, to provide full-time education services for about 150 asylum seeker children.
176 teachers had applied for the 18 jobs and the centre was set up within weeks.
It was supposed to be a one-year contract, but that ended abruptly this month when the Senate passed changes to immigration laws, re-introducing temporary protection visas.
As part of a deal with crossbenchers to support the laws,Morrison reluctantly agreed to remove all children from detention on Christmas Island.( not Manaus Island)
The Catholic Education Office director Mr McDonald said the experience of running the learning centre had affirmed his view that detention centres were no place for children, whether on Christmas Island or elsewhere.
"The restricted and limited freedom afforded to them as in space and movement, participating in communities, the living conditions, the regimented routine of lining up for food, having to seek and ask for clothes, all those freedoms we might take for granted and for these young people, a sense of no hope of a future," he said.
However, he had also seen the changes in the children and their parents after the centre opened.
As much as possible, it was run like any other school with a fence around it within the family compound, a set starting time, and parent drop-offs.
Parents could also stay in the classroom for a short time.
"It was no different from a classroom you would have here in Perth," Mr McDonald said.
At an open day for the mix of Afghan, Iraqi, Iranian and Rohingya children, aged between four and 18, they were given a hat, shirt, pencil case and backpack.
They were split into four groups according to English language proficiency and told to be at school by 8:20am.
Mr McDonald said there had been a change of mood among the camp's parents.
"It gave them hope something was being done and they could transfer the skills after," he said.
It also gave parents more time: a women's-only fitness class grew from just a few people to more than 40.
However, some of the children did not want to leave at the end of the day.
"That's the sad part, because the teachers knew they went back into that environment," Mr McDonald said.
The Catholic Education Office has offered to provide immigration authorities with the children's educational reports and other records for any new school they go to.
"We always went in with the idea that whatever we do will be foundational and will enable, hopefully down the track, a better transition into a mainstream school," Mr McDonald said.
The experience had further impressed on him the fundamental right to and basic need for a quality education for every child, regardless of circumstance.( Teachers get this but sadly some of our politicians don't!)
"We've seen that in the faces of the children and what they have told us about the opportunity to access quality education," he said.
"It is not only a basic right, but what a great gift for these young people."
It would be good if the conservative Queensland government could set up something similar for Manaus Island children but I won't hold my breathe.
Disappointing Backflip (A story from today's Age)