Is Australia on the right track? Education and equity for rural schools post Gonski

Now that the ‘Gonski’ funding debates are finally settled we can get back to the real issue of equity in education.

Yes, in 2017 equity is still a big issue in Australian education. If you had any doubts, you just have to look at the latest international testing results. They show that the top socioeconomic group of students have effectively received as much as two and a half years of additional schooling.

The Gonski review was explicitly a funding review. Its approach to improving equity was limited by its terms of reference, which seemed to be influenced by the view that all that matters is school resourcing.  Gonski 2.0 works on this same logic, and while resources are undoubtedly very important, there is more if you look beyond fiscal concerns.

The narrow terms of reference of Gonski and the ensuing debates focused solely on funding, are a far cry from the complex view of educational equity that existed a few decades ago. Through the Commonwealth Schools Commission we had programs like the Disadvantaged Schools Program and the Country Areas Program. These programs recognised that the very nature of schooling was an important part of the problem.

The issue of curriculum and disadvantage wasn’t on the table in Gonski. In fact the word “curriculum” only appears 35 times in the 319 page main report. Only twice does the report refer to curriculum as an issue of disadvantage. The main outcome of Gonski is a resource standard for all schools: in this vein the curriculum has been regarded as a ‘knowledge standard’ – it is what everyone should know regardless of where they live.

Education is more than the three r’s and measuring NAPLAN scores and ATAR results. Focusing upon ‘resourcing’ as the most important issue assumes a single and universal curriculum that fits all. It regards teaching quality and education outcomes as having a direct relationship to teaching that universal curriculum dependent solely on the provision of resources to do so. However, previous generations of equity thinking, and decades of educational sociology, show us that in fact this view of curriculum is a big part of the equity problem.

Take for instance being from a rural community. Wouldn’t it make sense to assume rural kids are different to city kids, at the very least in terms of their lived experience? But in these debates rural kids are never considered as being any different or having particular needs. This is strange to me. For example, how do you make sense of the ‘classics of literature’ set in cities when you rarely, if ever, visit one, or write a literacy response about a ‘day at the beach’ when you have never been, or answer a numeracy question based on a train timetable when you have never caught a train?

I am talking here about difference. How can we recognise and value difference in schooling and develop a curriculum that acknowledges, accommodates and possibly celebrates this diversity?

Curriculum as it stands is a consensus about what those who shape policy believe are the most important things that students need know at this point in time In the end it is only ever a representation of our world – time doesn’t allow us to pass on everything. Predictably, once the arguements over funding and resourcing are done, we end up with debates about what is in and what is out.

The problem is that the formal curriculum has been shown to be biased towards the interests of the most advantaged groups in society. In this way curriculum can be seen to serve their interests and not the interests of the less well off. Put another way, it reflects a world that is familiar to some students (often from well off families with well educated parents) and totally foreign to others (including many working class families and Aboriginal students).

The Australian Curriculum to date has tried hard to balance the needs of both groups – the jury is still out on whether it has achieved this and how well.

Sitting in the shade of Gonski 2.0 is the ‘independent review into regional, rural and remote education’. This review is aimed at improving the education outcomes of rural students and their access to higher education by identifying new and innovative approaches. Problematically though its findings feed into the Gonski 2.0 discussions – thus it is again about resources for schools, as we currently know them.

This will be the first major national review since the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Inquiry of 2000 into rural and remote education. I believe a review is needed, but the etrms of reference need serious work. The real challenge will be to find a new direction to improving rural education, rather than simply rehashing old ideas.

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. Such a long, and persistent issue, seemingly suggests that the problem is the system itself.

Rural students often say that year 12, or university, are not relevant to their lives and future work, and they would have to leave town to complete them anyway. Yet the ‘one size fits all’ education system continues to push attainment in these areas as the marker of ‘complete education’ and those who do shape our current curriculum seem happy to oblige. Rural and regional communities however have expressed concern because students that leave to pursue higher education goals often don’t come back, widening the divides between city and country. And yet we don’t give rural students other avenues for success.

So it leads us to ask ‘who is the more advantaged?’ It depends on what we value. At the moment we only have one vision of what achievement and success looks like in modern Australian society and it looks remarkably like life in the finance sectors of Sydney & Melbourne.

Nowhere in the Australian Curriculum do rural children learn about their rural lives and rural environments. For that matter city children gain no insight into this important aspect of Australian life either. Nowadays the curriculum is itself based on developing skills for the 21st century global economy, which is fine, except 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. I could argue that disenfranchisement starts in our rural and regional schools, but it’s a city-centric mindset that puts it there.

Rather than constantly tweaking the dials on schooling as we know it, isn’t it time to discuss the very nature of schooling? While we’re at it perhaps even the nature of modern society, and the place of rural Australia in it.