Is something going wrong with rural and remote education in Australia? (Or is it all about perception?)

By Philip Roberts

The Australian government has launched a new independent review into regional, rural and remote education, with the aim of improving the education outcomes of rural students and their access to higher education. It aims to identify new and innovative approaches.

This will be the first major national review since the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Inquiry of 2000 into rural and remote education.

I believe a review is needed. But the real challenge will be to find a new direction to improving rural education, rather than simply resurfacing old ideas.

What issues need addressing?

The challenges of rural schooling in Australia, and the apparent under-achievement of rural students, have been a perennial issue since the advent of mass primary education in the late 1800’s. Figures show that overall education achievement has not changed much since the Human Rights Inquiry. Rural students are up to one and a half years behind their metropolitan peers in the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) and Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests. They are also less likely to complete year 12 and half as likely access university.

Rural students often say that year 12, or university, are not relevant to their lives and future work, and they would have to leave town to complete them anyway. Communities also express concern because students that leave often don’t come back.

So I have to ask, how will increasing the rate of participation in higher education help our students and their rural communities?

Perceptions of rural education

 The traditional perception of rural education is one of disadvantage. It is seen as something that needs improving. This is because school achievement, completion and access to further study are always measured in relation to the city. The aim seems to be to have no major differences in the results of city children and country children. Rural children sit the same NAPLAN tests and the same senior school curriculum exams.

This may seem like common sense but it raises the question of the appropriateness of these measures, and the values they embody, for rural students.

Historically we have come to recognize that some of the things mainstream education assumes as normal are not shared by all. For instance we now understand more about what works for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, working class children, and children from non-English speaking backgrounds. It is recognized these children came from are different cultures and can have specific educational needs.

For some reason however, being from a rural community has not been considered as being different and having particular needs. This is a bit strange to me. For example, how do you make sense of the ‘classics of literature’ set in cities when you rarely, if ever, visit one, or write a literacy response about a ‘day at the beach’ when you have never been to one, or answer a numeracy question based on a train timetable when you have never caught a train?

I am talking here about difference. How can we recognise and value difference in schooling for rural children? They come to school with different ‘funds of knowledge’, that is the knowledge they have from home that might not be valued at school. For example, rural children know about the environment, the life cycles of animals, and the importance of working with communities, whereas some city children don’t even know where milk comes from!

Who is the more advantaged? It depends on what we value.

Perceptions are often entrenched

As I see it, the problem is we have labeled rural communities as disadvantaged. It won’t be easy to change such perceptions as they have been entrenched for a long time. For example the NSW parliament in 1904 positioned rural areas as a problem, and suggested that education would reduce the “rural-mindedness” of children. As a result, education has been about making rural children more like their urban peers.

Nowhere in the Australian Curriculum do rural children learn about their rural lives and rural environments. Nowadays the curriculum is itself based on developing skills for the 21st century global economy, which is fine, except this economy has often left rural areas behind. It is the very thing rural voters around the world, and in a number of rural electorates here, have been venting against.

We need to move beyond “Rural disadvantage” being constructed in relation to metropolitan norms and measured in terms defined by the cities. When school retention rates, literacy and numeracy, senior secondary results and university entry rates are generally lower than the city it is easy, perhaps natural, to aim to find ways to equalize them. It is harder to ask why has this been the case for as long as we have records (both here and overseas!). To do so might suggest the answer is the system itself.

For over 30 years we had the country areas program (CAP). In many respects the CAP may have been limited as its focus on making curriculum enactment relevant to rural kids while not actually changing the curriculum itself. However even more revealing is its replacement in 2009 with a national focus on (universalised) literacy.

Reframing the debate

I believe the challenge for the review is to get outside its framing in the traditional notion of disadvantage. Maybe national testing, standardized curriculum, traditional school subjects and the idea that university is the pinnacle of education, to name a few, are the issues that need to be investigated.

Perhaps city children should be asked to learn from the perspective of rural children. Lets include some numeracy examples drawing on (stereotypically) fencing a paddock, the science of farming, and literature from the ‘bush’. Lets demand policy and assessment officials’ start engaging with more complex forms of assessment and evaluation.

If we are going to persist with universal NAPLAN examinations, then surely we can develop questions that draw on students’ different contexts and life worlds. Surely we can do better than curriculum based on content? Can we come up with a curriculum based on more universal concepts and allow teachers the professionalism to choose the examples they use to illustrate those concepts.

Finally, perhaps all teachers should do time out of the city to help them understand the nation is bigger than the 85% of the population who live in major cities. None of these would be popular suggestions, but that’s my point; what’s popular usually serves the needs of the majority at the expense of others.

Philip Roberts is an Assistant Professor in Curriculum Studies at the University of Canberra, where he convenes units across the fields of Educational Sociology and Curriculum Inquiry. His major ongoing research focuses on place, the sustainability of rural communities, and the interests of the least powerful in our society. Philip’s work is situated within rural sociology, the sociology of knowledge, educational sociology and social justice and is informed by the spatial turn in social theory and sustainability. 

Philip is a Chief Editor for the Australian and International Journal of Rural Education and national convener of the Rural Education Special Interest Group for the Australian Association for Research in Education.

This post is the first in a series about Rural and Remote Education in Australia. Stay tuned for more.

8 thoughts on “Is something going wrong with rural and remote education in Australia? (Or is it all about perception?)

  1. Carlaleeb says:

    Great read and wonderful to see a Commonwealth program like CAP acknowledged . I’d argue that it did change curriculum though , in a way LSLD in NSW has not enabled . Community needs were met and identified by parents , students , teachers and leaders . Much that is touted at new CAP had done for 20 years . PLCs , HOTs , personalised learning , differentiation , student and teacher reflection , cross KLA literacy and subject integration , Tech for rigorous learning , authentic audience , project based learning , teacher driven PD , success criteria , Student folios , learning walks , collaboration , evidence based practice , deep conversations between educators sharing practice and targeted strategic funding . Such a loss of support that enabled teacher and community vision and most importantly , student ownership of learning .

  2. Brian Cambourne says:

    Thank you for challenging the appropriateness of standardised measures like NAPLAN, “and the values they embody,” not only for rural students, but all students.
    I look forward to following future attempts to reframe the issues you’ve identified.

  3. Philip Roberts says:

    Thanks Brian – the encouragement certainly helps.

  4. Jennifer Honor says:

    Could not agree with your observations more!

  5. Mary says:

    Thankyou for raising this issue – it’s a topic dear to my heart!! One point I’d like to make is how to attract good teachers to isolated and remote schools. I work with pre-service teachers and there is a negative view of going to the country to get a job. For many, if not most, the preference is to remain unemployed or under employed in Melbourne than accept a job in the country. I would love to see this change.

  6. Philip Roberts says:

    Thanks Mary, Totally agree! I started in that area 10 years ago now and its seems not much has changed. It is absolutely something we need to do more work on, urgently. I know QLD is doing some really interesting things and consulting on a new plan, including new staring approaches at the moment – something to keep an eye on.

  7. Philip Roberts says:

    Thanks for your sharing your thoughts Carlaleeb. IT is sad that CAP has gone as there is nothing left acknowledging rural difference. I appreciate your point of disagreement. I’m coming at it from a curriculum angle where I’m thinking the official/written curriculum remains unchanged. I read your points, that I agree with, as curriculum enactment. that is, they help students understand the official curriculum they will be measured against but don’t substantially change that curriculum. Theoretically students could do all the things you suggest still – but the culture out there of standardisation discourages it. That is what we have to work on… thanks again for your pointing this out.

  8. Karryn says:

    Does anyone ever consider that regional schools will necessarily need to educate and train students for a broad range of jobs and professions because very few city students will move to regional areas and many regional students cannot afford to move to cities. Even if 100% of regional students finished Year 12 with an ATAR of 99.95, many would not be able to afford to move to the city for university and even if they could, and wanted to, regional cities would be left without tradespeople, farmers and all the other workers a community requires. How long would the nation survive without farmers? So, for all these reasons, it is unreasonable to expect regional schools to have a high percentage of students accessing universities.

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