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To enhance the opportunities for children, we need to ensure we have vibrant and valued rural communities with a strong social and economic future. Shutterstock

How to solve Australia’s ‘rural school challenge’: focus on research and communities

The recent release of the report of the independent review into rural, regional and remote education provides a much-needed focus on the unique challenges and opportunities rural, regional and remote communities encounter. Ultimately, this is an issue of the place of these communities in contemporary Australian society.

The review was commissioned in March 2017, with the aim of improving education outcomes for rural students and their access to higher education. It sought to identify new and innovative approaches to achieve this.

The “rural school challenge” has existed since the advent of compulsory education. But this is the first major national report since the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Inquiry into rural and remote education 18 years ago. Sadly, progress towards a more equitable educational experience, outcomes from schooling and access to higher education has been slow in the intervening years.

Read more: Educational disadvantage is a huge problem in Australia – we can't just carry on the same

We cannot waste the opportunity this report provides to refocus our attention on Australia’s rural communities and the students in them.

What does the report say?

The report makes 11 recommendations, and identifies four priorities:

  1. establishing a national focus for regional, rural and remote education, training and research to enhance access, outcomes and opportunities

  2. focusing on research for successful learning and building young people’s futures – school leadership, teaching, curriculum and assessment

  3. addressing the information communication and technology needs in regional, rural and remote locations, and

  4. focusing on the transitions into and out of school.

A national research programme

The focus of research in two of these four priorities is important and timely. Here, the report highlights as much about what we don’t know as what we do know.

Australia has a vibrant and internationally renowned rural education research community. There have been many studies here in Australia, and overseas, that engage with the issues and ideas put forward in the report. But research funding has been declining in a tight budgetary environment. It has has also focused on issues of schooling only, including teacher quality, NAPLAN and national curriculum.

We need to take a drastically different approach to attracting and retaining good teachers in rural communities. Shutterstock

Through this time, much rural, regional and remote education research has been highlighting the problem with the “metro-centric” one-size-fits-all approaches preferred in public policy over the last two decades.

Read more: Standardised tests are culturally biased against rural students

Nonetheless, the resulting projects have identified strategies that work: attracting rural students into teaching, specifically preparing teachers for rural schools, embedding curriculum in local contexts, innovative information and communication technology approaches to enhance curriculum access and new resourcing models, to name a few.

A national research focus will facilitate a unique opportunity to scale up innovations that exist in the sector. It will also ensure our focus is broadened from school-centric research to broadly-based rural education and community research.

We need a ten year focus, with significant and guaranteed funding to develop and implement a longitudinal research agenda. That might seem like a long while, but considering that a child is at school on average 13 years puts it in perspective. When we note the report makes recommendations related to early childhood education through to post-secondary education and training, we’re looking at approximately 22 years of a persons life.

A sustained, rigorous and funded national research program will confirm Australia’s leading international position in rural education research. The challenges we face are not unique to us, they are shared, for instance, by Canada, the US and China.

To activate this, we need to build a small group of five to ten specially trained researchers across the country dedicated to rural, regional and remote research. This leading group of researchers would be at the forefront of identifying success and “scaling this up” - using these insights in more communities and with a greater coverage. They can then provide a rolling review of the success of the implementation of the recommendations in the report.

A return to equity

The report places equity back in the centre of the educational agenda, rather than equality and resource redistribution. Through the sustained focus on rural, regional and remote, the report highlights these communities have unique needs that go beyond the funding they receive – though that remains important – and the school gate.

In doing so, it highlights the limitations of the “one size fits all” approach to public policy that has dominated until now. While such approaches might work on a national scale when the vast majority of the population live in major cities, the population outside that space get hidden among the averages.

For instance, the report highlights the need to ensure the relevance of the Australian Curriculum and its implementation for rural, regional and remote students. It reminds us there is another dimension beyond the Gonski 2.0 pre-occupation with the distribution of resources. There is also what schools do with those resources, and how they tailor their work to meet the unique needs of their communities. This is where we need sustained and detailed research.

The staffing challenge

Meeting the unique needs of the community is only possible if there are appropriate teachers in the schools to do so. It’s not surprising, then, that the challenges of staffing are a major theme. Many approaches have been tried throughout Australia to train, attract and retain appropriate teachers for rural, regional and remote communities. If we’re going to ensure the equitable distribution of skilled teachers in these schools, we need to try something radically different.

Read more: We need a radical rethink of how to attract more teachers to rural schools

Beyond the school gate

Challenges to rural education are largely influenced by factors outside the classroom. Shutterstock

While critically important, the challenges of rural education go beyond getting the right teachers into the right school. They are largely influenced by factors outside the school gate, such as the local economy, employment opportunities and community well-being.

This is an area of urgent further research. The report recognises educational achievement exists within the community and the local social and economic issues. But an understanding of how these interrelate in rural, regional and remote contexts remains undeveloped.

To enhance the opportunities for children, we need to ensure we have vibrant and valued rural communities with a strong social and economic future. Such communities are also attractive places for professions to relocate to, have a career and raise a family.

Rural innovations need to be ‘rural’

The report makes plain that the needs of rural, regional and remote communities are unique. This is a rural research agenda, not education research with a rural twist. As such, it’s crucial the government’s response, and researchers, heed the theme of the report – each community is distinct, and needs to be considered for what it offers. Then, by recognising this uniqueness, we can explore what innovations are scalable across different communities, and how they need to be tweaked to be successful in each new context.

There is already success in rural, regional and remote schooling. We need the courage to identify this success, understand it, and facilitate collective networking to grow this success.

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