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

The federal government announced an independent review into regional, rural and remote education in March this year. AAP Image/Lukas Coch

Recently, a teacher at Coonamble High School in New South Wales lost his job after teaching the wrong Higher School Certificate mathematics syllabus for seven months. This incident shines a light on the persisting problem of staffing rural schools.

The casual maths teacher was in a temporary position, meaning he was at the school on a short-term contract to fill a vacancy. While “sacking” the teacher is understandable, it seems to ignore that the head of department, the school principal, and the executive principal had not picked up on it until a student identified the problem. This is a case of addressing the symptom, not the cause.

Staffing rural schools has been a problem for 113 years

As Coonamble High’s Parents and Citizens president asserted, rural, regional and remote schools can be hard to staff. Teachers often experience isolation from friends and family, find the physical environment unfamiliar, perceive the lack of access to services and shops as a limitation and the sheer distance to the city as a challenge. As a result, ongoing staffing vacancies are common.

The problems this case brings up are ongoing, which impact on the education of countless students in rural, regional and remote communities. It seems we have trouble coming up with new ideas to improve the staffing of these schools.

In fact, the problem of staffing rural, regional and remote schools was first mentioned as a key challenge by the NSW parliament in 1904. It was also a key theme of the 2000 Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Enquiry into rural, regional and remote education.

Not much has changed since

A recent literature review of 122 peer-reviewed publications since 2004 related to the staffing of rural, regional and remote schools in Australia has demonstrated that thinking of new approaches is not something we are good at. The reference point was 2004, because that was when the last major review on this topic was published.

The literature review identified that despite much attention to preparing teachers for working in rural schools, they remain difficult to staff, and teachers working in these schools still report many challenges.

Many of the approaches to overcome the staffing challenges of rural schools have focused on attracting and retaining teachers, professional development and pre-service preparation in understanding how rural schools are different from metropolitan schools, mentoring programs, and accessing professional development. There has been a move away from incentives, however, because while they get teachers into these schools, they also encourage them to leave.

Overall, the literature review identifies that the issues explored in the research literature between 2004 and 2016 are similar to those examined prior to 2004. Little has changed in relation to the problem, the solutions explored and the initiatives trialled. It is hard to understand why this is still such a problem if we have a well-developed knowledge of issues related to rural school staffing.

We need a fresh approach

The federal government announced an independent review into regional, rural and remote education in March this year. The review aims to identify innovative and fresh approaches to support improved access and achievement of students. However, new initiatives will only be successful if there are appropriate teachers in the schools to implement them.

There is doubt that the federal review will be able to come up with “innovative and fresh” approaches. The government’s review findings feed into discussions about Gonski 2.0 – thus it is again about resources for schools. That is, it wants to know what we can do to improve rural student outcomes within the existing system.

Gonski 2.0’s focus is necessarily on resources, but teachers cannot be seen as merely a resource in the same way as school funding. Instead, they are the people who use the resources and are employed under state based staffing systems. It may be that rural, regional and remote schools need extra staff to cover the breadth of curriculum – but increasing this “resource” only confirms that we can’t get the teachers there in the first place.

Reframing rural education

Many of the key elements of fixing these issues exist in the public policy environment, and the place of rural Australia in contemporary society. Rural communities are still not very attractive places for many teachers. When they do relocate, it’s often only a stopover on their way to what is regarded as a professionally desirable spot in a big city.

The independent review into regional, rural and remote education provides an opportunity for us to rethink how we do schooling in rural communities, and how we get the staff we need into these schools.

Perhaps rural teaching could be reconstructed as a specific and valuable form of professional work, like rural health, with its specialised approach to rural practice as as distinct and different form of health “work”. If we were able to do something similar in education, and have teachers specifically prepared for, remunerated, and rewarded working with rural children and rural communities as a distinct form of valued professional work, maybe then we could avoid incidents like the one in Coonamble.