Revisiting the ‘rural problem’ in Australian education.

The Independent review into regional, rural and remote education will be welcomed by many concerned with equity in Australian education. 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 education – and much examined by governments. Recent statistics on student access to higher education and overall education achievement however suggest that not much has changed since the 2000 Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Enquiry. The challenge for this review will be to somehow find a new direction forward, rather than reprising century old themes.

This is perhaps easier said than done, as the traditional trope regarding the rural and education is one of ‘dis-advantage’ and the resultant need to ‘improve’ the rural. This positioning of the rural as a problem is identified by the NSW parliament in 1904 as requiring education that will reduce the ‘rural-mindedness’ of children. Consequently, education has been about making rural kids more like their urban counterparts.

Consequently rural ‘dis-advantage’ is often constructed in relation to metropolitan norms and measured in terms defined by the metropolitan. The vehicle through which learning occurs, the curriculum, is generally overlooked as an equity consideration. Instead the Australian Curriculum is positioned as the solution to in-equity by being positioned as a curriculum for all, regardless of location, background and so forth. This however assumes one view of the nation and its future – one that positions the rural ambiguously. Especially when the curriculum is itself based upon the knowledge and values of the cosmopolitan-metropolitan world.

The challenge for the review is to get outside its very framing, or risk reinforcing the problems it is constituted in order to overcome. Here the review seems delimited by the usual trope. It is constituted to enhance rural students ‘participation in the 21st century economy’ and to support rural ‘students to succeed in school and transition to further study’. Both are delimited by metropolitan mindset of what achievement looks like and what matters in education –the problem that has beset this space for over a hundred years.

Is the cosmopolitan-metropolitan world-view, and the 21st century economy it envisages, the only possible future we have? And does this worldview hold a positive place for the rural? Recent national, and international, political shifts have squarely put this question on the agenda. The rise of rural ‘anti-urban’ sentiments both overseas and here in Australia, have been well documented. These movements explicitly question the assumptions this review is framed within and seek to reassert a role for the rural in the national story.

To date there has been virtually no attempt to imagine a new settlement between the country and the city that reframes what is important in the terms of the rural. We are not going to wind the clock back to the time we all ‘rode on the sheep’s back’, even though the rural is still crucial to the national economy. But as Don Watson notes, the ‘bush’ holds a contradictory place in the national story: as a central place in the national mythology, but also somewhere few people really visit or engage with much.

What is the role of education in reimaging futures? It would seem that those in positions of influence would say very little – given the national goals of schooling and the Australian Curriculum are framed in assumptions of a single future. Even the Regional Australia Institute, established in response to the hung Federal Parliament in 2010 and the balance of power being held by the rural independents to develop a new vision for rural Australia is constrained by the traditional trope. Education is largely absent from its work and research base, other than traditional references to improving outcomes.

It is not impossible though, but it does take effort to get out of metro-normative mindsets. For instance, when we talked with rural communities about sustainability and rural communities we found strong commitment to thinking about alternative futures. However, we also found that educators were constrained by the traditional perspectives in the curriculum and discourses of ‘achievement’. Rural youth have been telling us for nearly 20 years about what makes them, and their lives, unique in the annual Heywire competition – maybe its about time we listened

In order to change the traditional, over century old cycles of review, and achieve real outcomes for rural students and communities we urgently need a vision for the nation that includes rural life worlds as valuable, and valued, places. We need a break from the orthodoxies of the past and the values that inherently position the rural as marginal. Lets hope this new review can achieve this despite the limitations of its framing.