The Victorian Auditor General’s Office has released a report highlighting differences in educational outcomes for rural students. Three statements from the report summarise the issue:
- In rural Victoria levels of disadvantage are higher and educational aspirations and outcomes are lower than for metropolitan areas.
- The VAGO audit found that DEECD has not provided access to high-quality education for all students.
- The report says that the government has not developed a comprehensive, targeted strategy to address known barriers to rural students’ access and participation in education.
In mid 2010 the previous state government released a consultation paper on its proposed Rural Education Framework. It was based on support for leadership, workforce reform, new models of curriculum provision and the formation of partnerships to sustain rural schools.
In the four years since the election the present government has continued the previous government’s funding model which allocated additional funding to small schools with a further weighting for rurality, made biddable funding available for small scale school based initiatives focused on sustainability and created a fund accessible for higher education bodies to lift regional participation in university and TAFE studies. In that time it has also removed the five rural regional offices; the new city based regions have become administrative centres with no real school improvement agenda and are limited in their capacity to assist individual schools.
At present the VAGO is saying these initiatives are making no difference and there is no comprehensive plan for improvement. This is not surprising to anyone who is aware of the issues confronting rural schools and communities. Here are some suggestions that might actually make a difference:
- The government has to accept that it must lead. Its agenda of autonomy assumes that schools have the capacity to improve themselves. In rural Victoria this is clearly not the case.
- Rethink the funding model. At present money follows students, as it probably should. But blind adherence to this thinking prevents creative use of new funding. Pool some of the new money coming into education, and perhaps even some of the existing funding, and force schools to collaborate to get access to it.
- Develop new models of governance that require communities to work together in the interests of all. At present every small community wants its own school, its own school council and its own identity. This is sometimes at odds with the need for new ways of thinking and doing things.
- Use new or pooled funding to develop a new online provision model to dramatically increase access of rural students to curriculum choices, particularly at VCE level. The same model should make high quality Math and Science options available to students at lower year levels.
- Engage and fund universities and TAFEs to work directly with schools and families to raise understanding of higher education options from upper primary school through to the top of secondary school. In rural Victoria and in low SES communities higher education never registers as an option for many families and students. They need exposure to university and TAFE sites and students as well as opportunities to engage in meaningful, ongoing activities, not just one-off tours.
- Revisit the question of how to encourage principals and teachers to work in rural Victoria. Salary incentives, priority for future vacancies in more ‘desirable’ locations and flexibility in employment selection processes should be considered. Why not allow rural schools to make direct offers of employment to graduate teachers, especially those from the country? Someone may even want to contemplate the return of teaching scholarships or studentships which help students through university and then bind them to a future placement in a rural school.
- Establish a new set of specialist Maths and Science centres in regional Victoria. The state currently has six such centres. They are located in Ballarat, Geelong, Bacchus Marsh and Melbourne (x3). They are great centres and they have an outreach function but provide only one-off activities and in reality it’s a city-centric strategy. A new model is needed and symbolically, as well as practically and politically, new centres should be established in Wodonga, Bendigo and somewhere in Gippsland.
- Establish a series of smaller specialist centres in rural schools. These would involve a specialist curriculum focus, a partnership with a higher education provider which might include guarantees of university offers, new or refurbished facilities in the area of specialisation, teacher training and a small ongoing coordination fund in each setting. Do a trial to see if it works in five settings.
- The cost of living away from home is a huge barrier to the participation of rural students in university or TAFE. Look again at the level of financial support for these students.
- Support rural communities to retain their best and brightest students. Independent schools routinely pick off students with the best academic and sporting ability through small scholarships. Put some boundaries around funding for schools that engage in this practice.