Education systems must stop measuring rural students against city students

The 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 through identifying new and innovate approaches. This review is needed, but the real challenge will be to somehow find a new direction to improving rural education, rather than simply resurfacing old ideas. It will be the first major national review since the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Inquiry of 2000 into rural and remote education.

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.

When asked why rural students often say that year 12, or university, are not relevant to their lives and future work, and they have to leave town to complete them as well. Communities express concern as well because students that leave often don’t come back. How does this help rural communities?

Perceptions of rural education

The traditional perception of rural education is one of disadvantage – that needs improving. This is because school achievement, completion and access to further study is always measured in relation to the city, with the aim of having no major difference in the results of city kids and country kids. They sit the same NAPLAN tests and the same senior school curriculum exams. This may sound sensible, common sense even, but it raises the question of the appropriateness of these measures and the values they embody.

Historically we have come to recognize that some of the things mainstream education assumes as normal are not shared by all – for instance Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, working class children, and children from non English speaking backgrounds. It was recognized that the culture these children came from was different from that assumed in the curriculum. How do you make sense of the ‘classics of literature’ set in cities when you rarely visit one, write a literacy response about a ‘day at the beach’ when you haven’t seen one or answer a numeracy question based on a train timetable when you have never caught a train.

We are talking here about difference. How do we recognise and value difference in schooling? Rural children come to school with different ‘funds of knowledge’, the knowledge they have from home that school does not value. For example, rural kids know about the environment, the life cycles of animals, and the importance of working with communities, whereas many city kids don’t know where milk comes from! Who is the more advantaged? It depends on what we value.

Perceptions are often entrenched

The problem is, looking at the rural as disadvantaged is the very problem the review needs to overcome. That won’t be easy though, as this way of thinking has 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 kids more like their urban peers. Nowhere in the Australian Curriculum do rural children learn about their lives and environments. Nowadays the curriculum is itself based on developing skills for the 21st century global economy, which is fine, except that 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.

Reframing the debate

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 real issues to be investigating.

This is part 2: Part 1 Revisiting the ‘rural problem’ in Australian education.