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In Praise of Country Schools

I don’t know what the data says but I’m pretty sure that the number of small rural schools in Victoria (and probably elsewhere in Australia) has declined in the last decade. And many of those that are left will be doing it tough. Rural population decline will have forced many school closures and forced communities to consider mergers and alternative models of governance and education provision. The days of stand alone schools, particularly secondary schools, delivering everything themselves that the community needs and demands are close to over and they’re not coming back.

Country schools are great places for kids. They are known and valued by the staff of the school and learn in a very supportive environment. In some cases they may not have access to the same  opportunities for excursions and co-curricular activity (or at least not without the considerable cost of transport) but in my view this is outweighed by the benefits of country life and small school education. I find it disturbing that some regional and Melbourne based independent schools scour country schools for sporting and academic talent and entice students away with offers of part scholarships. If they know the impact of this on country education communities they don’t seem to care.

Country schools are central to communities they serve. Families considering a move to the country will think again if there’s no school or students have to travel long distances to get to school. If the primary school goes it’s both a reflection of decline and a catalyst for more of the same. Where they do exist, the schools provide a hub for a range of activities and the teachers are central to the life of the town. And it’s even better if the teachers live in the town.

Apart from the value they provide for their communities and students, rural schools are also a great place for educators. The community is usually welcoming and supportive and young teachers find themselves with great opportunities to learn their craft and take on positions of responsibility early in their careers. Many move on to bigger centres but some stay and settle. It’s not unusual for teachers to spend their entire teaching careers in the one country town. For a first time principal, as I was with my first appointment, it’s also a great place to learn. You have to do a bit of everything and know something about every aspect of the school’s operations, from teaching and learning to facilities, OHS, finance, HR, staff management and leadership and so on. If you find yourself, as I did, in a much larger setting it’s the best preparation you could get, provided you don’t allow yourself to become professionally isolated.

I find it a little disappointing that some teaching graduates, and aspiring principals, don’t look seriously at ‘going bush’ for at least part of their careers. The work is the same as in larger schools but it’s a much less hectic environment in which to work. I despair when I read the profiles of graduates from some university teacher training courses, all of whom want – and expect – to work in Melbourne’s south eastern suburbs or on the coast. This accounts to a large extent for why rural schools often find difficulty in attracting staff, and also why young teachers often leave after 2-3 years. The lure of the lifestyle in Melbourne or a bigger regional centre is strong.

I’m old enough to have undertaken my teacher training under a studentship which means the government helped fund my course and I was then ‘bonded’ for a few years and could be sent anywhere to teach. Despite all our fears about being sent to isolated country towns it was a neat way for the government to ensure it could fill positions in schools. I think there’s merit in revisiting that scheme, albeit in a modified fashion. The government is not going to engage in wholesale funding of teacher training but perhaps it could consider support or incentives for small schools. What appeals to me is a scheme whereby schools could retain connection with former students doing teacher training (these are the ones most likely to return to the country) by having them return for teaching rounds and being able to make direct offers of employment to them as they near the end of their teaching course. And some form of financial support for those students wouldn’t go astray either. There is currently a scholarship scheme which provides a one-off bonus to graduates who take jobs in the country but we need to be more proactive.

Country schools can also help themselves, and they do to some extent. Groups like the Country Education Project provide great networking and practical support for schools and I can assure you rural principals and their communities are every bit as innovative as their big city colleagues. They just don’t have the scale to do perhaps quite as much as they’d like.

In Victoria, schools receive additional funding based on small school size and rurality. I’m not sure how this spent in primary schools but in secondary schools it’s spent to provide curriculum breadth at the top of the school. Some people will be aware I’m an advocate of changing that model, without changing the quantum of funding, to encourage more collaboration between schools. Without collaboration and new thinking some country schools are going to wither and die, or become sink holes for funding. There are already many places in regional Victoria where it would be cheaper for the government to close the local school and send students away to an independent boarding school.

There are enormous opportunities through the use of technology to engage rural students beyond their own immediate surrounds and to have them collaborate regionally and globally. There are also emerging high quality online curriculum offerings which these schools should be lapping up, although this will require a fundamental shift in the mentality of some school leaders and their communities who think that their local school should be able to provide all their students need. Or that the alternatives should be available cost free, or at least for a lot less than the cost of local delivery.

The cost to government of running small country schools in comparison to larger regional and metropolitan centres is significant but I doubt we’ll see a rash of country school closures. It still appears to be a no-go area for both sides of politics after the lingering fallout from those in the early 1990’s. These days schools make those decisions themselves although they might be encouraged by new facilities and services available from amalgamation or shared governance with another centre.

These schools also need a supportive educational bureaucracy. Victoria was previously broken up into nine regions for the purposes of administration and educational leadership. In the last four years the five country regions have been absorbed into four new super regions with their bases in Melbourne and support outposts in the regions. This strategy might provide savings and support consistency of government ‘message’ across regions but there is a risk for small and remote schools that need hands on support. It may be too early to evaluate the new model but I have a feeling that eventually the wheel will turn.

So hats off to my colleagues and friends in regional and rural Victoria and their counterparts around Australia. You do a great job and provide your students with wonderful support and opportunities, often under difficult circumstances. If population decline continues you’ll face some interesting choices in the years ahead and you’ll need to think and act collaboratively to survive and thrive.

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2 replies »

  1. Thank you for your post on the challenges and advantages of country schools, Dale. I agree that rural schools ‘punch above their weight’ when they offer a range of VCE choices, small class sizes and teachers know and support their students.
    There is great potential to reduce the disadvantages of small size, isolation and rurality using technology such as web conferencing and video sharing. I hope that the present government will see the importance of high speed broadband for rural areas to level the playing field between city and country schools. City-centric decision makers need to understand that healthy rural communities are vital for primary production and country schools provide a variety of pathways for our future leaders.

    • Thanks Britt. My two earlier posts on virtual schools cover some of the issues you mention. I hope you’ll see some action in that area in the next year or so. DEECD has a working group together to develop a digital learning strategy and a virtual learning strategy. Apart from the grants we’ve received I think my school has out around $700k into the development of online VCE courses in the last five years so we want some action. There has been a vacuum in terms of leadership and the government really needs to act and invest; my fear is that they’ll continue to dawdle although there does appear to be some movement at the station. We need a further injection of R&D funding to expand the range of courses we offer. For the first time this year we have someone delivering from another location, with a teacher working at home in Jan Juc delivering our Yr 12 Legal Studies course to student across the state. Next year we would like to expand further and we have a possible Media course in the wings from a good operator in Melbourne. The key to our courses is that they’re primarily asynchronous (with the support of an online teacher) so we invest a lot upfront to ensure quality. Our experience and our research from overseas says that you can’t scale video and web conferencing solutions and I believe the government now understands this as well so that’s where future investment is possibly going to be. Thanks again for your interest. If you ever want to make a trip here to meet our team and compare notes you’d be most welcome, I’m sure we could learn from what you’re doing as well.