One tenth of the Australian population live in a township of less than 10,000 people (ABS, 2018). These townships are categorised as ‘small towns’. Small towns are the lynchpins of Australia’s heartland and regional Australia is responsible for 67% of our export earnings (Regional Universities Network, 2020).
Living in a rural areas comes with many benefits. Smaller towns usually bring a greater sense of belonging and there is more opportunity to be an active part of the community. No matter who you are, you are always greeted with ‘G’day Mate’ and a firm handshake. In small towns, consumerism and materialism isn’t woven into an individual’s identity and without a high-rise in sight – the rat race is virtually non-existent.
Figure 1: Australian Town Grouping (Source: ABS 2018)
However, living in a geographically distant environment also poses its challenges. Poor healthcare facilities, lack of resources and educational disadvantages are just some of the problems regional Australian’s face. While rural education does not necessarily equate to a second-rate education in terms of quality; lack of resources, teacher retention and a federal education policy that favours urban schools means that a rural-urban education divide has developed, and this rift continues to grow. Throughout this article, we will investigate the specifics of the rural-urban education divide and then identify what we can do to help close the gap.
According to the Australian Council for Educational Research (2002), generally, irrespective of geographic location, a similar percentage of children are ‘school ready’ prior to starting their first year at school. School readiness is measured by physical and mental health, wellbeing, social competence, emotional maturity, language and cognitive skills and communication and general knowledge. This data identifies that most children start on an equal playing field and therefore it is the course of their learning once they get to school that influence their outcomes.
Figure 2: Percentage of children who are ‘school ready’ prior to starting their first year of schooling. (Source: ACER, 2002)
Despite school readiness, there are consistent links between where Australians live and their educational outcomes at all stages of formal education. Currently, the NAPLAN National Minimum Standard (NMS) is a band 3, which many argue is too low and; therefore, doesn’t accurately identify stragglers (for example, a Year 9 student still meets the NMS for reading, even if they are reading below a typical year 5 student). In a study conducted by the Mitchell Institute (2015b), if you raise the benchmark by half a band (to band 3.5) and categorise students based on their geographic location, the statistics are alarming. NAPLAN data gathered from the Year 7 cohort over a number of years revealed that 74.1% of metropolitan students meet the new benchmark, while only 54.3% of remote and 24.4% of very remote students meet the new benchmark (Mitchell Institute, 2015b). NAPLAN data has also revealed that many regional and rural students make up to two years less progress than students in inner city ears between Year 3 and 9 (Goss, Chisholm & Nelson, 2016).
Figure 3: Students meeting benchmark based on geographic location. (Source: The Mitchell Institute, 2015b)
A defining aspect of the rural-urban education divide is this: the needs and interests of remote students differ from metropolitan students (Mitchell Institute, 2015a). School subject offerings in rural schools need to meet the interests of students, but also consider the available vocational outcomes and job prospects of the specific area. Rural and remote students are less likely to go to university, which is why Vocational Education and Training (VET) pathways are imperative. Slightly less than ¾ of young Australians are engaged in full time education, training or work at the age of 24. These statistics do not widely vary for regional (66-67%) or remote (71%) people, which speaks to the value in investing in VET training in regional and remote areas (Mitchell Institute, 2015c).
Figure 4: Australians engaged in full time education, training or work at the age of 24. (Source: Mitchell Institute, 2015c)
The ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach that is preferred in public policy over the last two decades, does not fit the rural environment (Piccoli, Roberts and Hattie, 2018). This is why educators (in both urban and regional schools) need to do what we can to close the gap. The first and most impactful way to spark change is quite simple: have conversations about the rural-urban education divide. The more we talk about it, the more we are aware of the discrepancies in learning, teaching, professional development and resources, the more we can collectively promote positive change.
Secondly, we need to foster a love for lifelong learning in small town schools. When compared to parents in major cities, parents in geographically distant regions have relatively low expectations for their children’s future education levels (Regional Universities Network, 2002). This connotation of small schools = disadvantaged needs to be debunked.
“Children and young people need access to inspiring and quality preschool, school and post-school education that equips them to live in, and contribute to, our complex and globalised society. This is true for all children and young people regardless of where they live.” (NSW Government, 2013).
Students need to be more than just attending school, they need to be actively engaged in their learning (Ladwig & Luke, 2014; Hoffman, Perillo & Calizo, 2005). Farrington, et.al. (2012) has identified four dispositions that will equip students positively to be lifelong learners. Feeling a sense of belonging at school, self-efficacy as a learner, being conscientiousness and demonstrating persistence are all identified as desirable traits for students to acquire. While possessing these qualities does not mean they will succeed at school, they will be better equipped for life, learning and employment post-school.
Additionally, there needs to be a heightened focus on retaining teachers in rural areas for the long term. While state governments offer incentives for teachers to work in rural areas, retaining these teachers is difficult. Rural schools have high teacher turnover, a large proportion of young inexperienced teachers, lack of specialist teachers and a restriction in curriculum options (Stokes, Stafford & Holdsworth, 1999). Due to geographic isolation it can be difficult to provide quality Professional Development (PD) and the opportunity to work collaboratively with other educators across schools. Supporting students in rural and remote schools means supporting teachers and school leaders by providing a framework that integrates both ICT and face-to-face PD will be beneficial to the whole school community (NSW Government, 2013).
Arguably the largest influence in assisting to close the rural-urban education divide is providing a better, multi-faceted support program for rural areas. Rural communities must be adequately resourced and supported to enable them to create school communities where education is valued. Targeted teaching and support programs that allow students to make good learning progress, regardless of whether they have fallen behind or not and focusing on proficiency will see a collective improvement in student achievement (Goss, Chisholm & Nelson, 2016). Employment opportunities, local economy and community wellbeing are all factors that interweave with education objectives to cultivate success. Attracting rural students into teaching; preparing pre-service teachers for rural schools; embedding curriculum in local contexts; informative ICT approaches to enhance curriculum access and; new resourcing models that favour targeted teaching are just a few strategies that have been identified that will positively boost support systems (Piccoli, Roberts & Hattie, 2018).
Every child deserves access to a quality education, irrespective of their geographic location. Debunking the myth that being geographically distanced means a disadvantaged education is going to take effort, it is going to take reformation and it is going to require a widespread overhaul of stereotypes and preconceived conceptions. Bridging the rural-urban education divide is not going to be easy; but, for the sake of every child living in rural Australia – it is going to be worth it.
ABS. (2018). Small Towns. Retrieved from: https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/by%20Subject/2071.0~2016~Main%20Features~Small%20Towns~113
Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER). (2002). Rural and Urban Differences in Australian Education. Retrieved from http://research.acer.edu.au/lsay_briefs/4
Farrington, CA, Roderick, M, Allensworth, E, Nagaoka, J, Keyes, TS, Johnson, DW & Beechum, NO (2012), Teaching adolescents to become learners. the role of noncognitive factors in shaping school performance: a critical literature review. Chicago: University of Chicago.
Goss, P. Sonnemann, J., Chisholm, C. & Nelson, L. (2016). Widening Gaps: What NAPLAN tells us about student progress, Grattan Institute. Retrieved from https://grattan.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/937-Widening-gaps.pdf.
Hoffman, D, Perillo, P & Calizo, LSH (2005). Engagement versus participation: a difference that matters, About Campus, 10(5), 10–17.
Ladwig, JG & Luke, A (2014), Does improving school level attendance lead to improved school level achievement? An empirical study of Indigenous educational policy in Australia, Australian Educational Researcher, 2, 171.
Mitchell Institute. (2015a). Young People in Rural and Remote Communities Frequently Missing Out. Retrieved from http://www.mitchellinstitute.org.au/fact-sheets/young-people-in-rural-and-remote-communities-frequently-missing-out/.
Mitchell Institute. (2015b). Middle Years: Achievement Gaps Widen At Year 7. Retrieved from http://www.mitchellinstitute.org.au/fact-sheets/middle-years-achievement-gaps-widen-at-year-7/
Mitchell Institute. (2015c). Post-School Years: Many 24-year-olds marginalised but second chances help. Retrieved from http://www.mitchellinstitute.org.au/fact-sheets/post-school-years-many-24-year-olds-marginalised-but-second-chances-help/
NSW Government. (2013). Rural and Remoted Education – A blueprint for action. Retrieved from https://education.nsw.gov.au/teaching-and-learning/curriculum/rural-and-distance-education/media/documents/Rural-and-Remote-Education-Blueprint-accessible.pdf
Piccoli, A., Roberts, P. & Hattie, J. (2018). How to solve Australia’s ‘Rural School Challenge’: Focus on Research and Communities. Retrieved from: https://newsroom.unsw.edu.au/news/social-affairs/how-solve-australias-rural-school-challenge-focus-research-and-communities.
Regional Universities Network. (2020). Facts and Figures on Regional Australia. Retrieved from: http://www.run.edu.au/resources/Regional%20Students.pdf
Stokes, H., Stafford, J. & Holdsworth, R. (1999). Rural and Remote School Education: A Survey for the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. Melbourne: Youth Research Center University of Melbourne.