Systemic change is vital to overcome rural divide

Federation has stepped up the campaign to address the growing divide between the learning outcomes and opportunities of rural and remote students and their metropolitan counterparts, calling on the Department to adopt structural solutions to overcome intersecting educational disadvantage.

The original NSW Gonski agreement established an increase in recurrent funding for NSW public schools based on student need. It recognised intersecting disadvantage on learning, with funding to reflect student need across key areas of equity: Aboriginal background, socio-economic status, disability, English language proficiency, school size and location.

“This is an obligation we remain committed to — there is a very clear line that separates rural and remote from metropolitan areas,” said Acting Deputy President Henry Rajendra.

The achievement gap between students in metropolitan and rural public schools remains.

Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that from 2011 to 2016, year 12 attainment levels of 20–24 year olds in remote and very remote areas dropped by 13.3 per cent to 44.6 per cent. In the same timeframe, attainment levels for the same cohort who reside in major cities increased by more than 5 per cent to 85.7 per cent.

“This is unacceptable. We need a concerted campaign to address this growing disadvantage; this will not be a one off. We need to be able to convince people who have the power that this gap between advantage and disadvantage must close. We need to shine light on the ambitions of our communities and continue to put pressure on governments to deliver both the funding and the systems improvements we need,” Mr Rajendra said.

To further highlight this inequality, Federation’s September Council were taken through stark examples of the difference in subjects taught for stage 6 students in a central school in comparison to a typical metropolitan school.

“This further demonstrates the failings of Local Schools, Local Decisions. It denies central schools, small schools, all rural and remote schools what they deserve,” Mr Rajendra said.

“Our campaigning helped bring billions of dollars of needs-based funding into our public school system, but this is where Local Schools, Local Decisions has failed as it has denied the necessary structural system-wide changes needed in our rural and remote schools that could provide additional permanent staffing and a curriculum guarantee for all students.”

Mr Rajendra believes that the effective use of needs-based funding for students in rural and remote settings is inhibited by the inherent lack of systemic support put in place by Local Schools, Local Decisions, undermining the capacity of rural public schools to meet the needs of Aboriginal students, students with disabilities and those from a refugee background.

“It has resulted in poorly designed and duplicated program delivery and policy implementation and has failed to expand subject choices in rural and remote areas,” Mr Rajendra said.

“Where is the employment of additional permanent, specialist, qualified and accredited teachers in these areas? This policy has failed our children.”

Federation executive member Michael Sciffer, a teacher from regional NSW, told Federation’s September Council that the government had abandoned rural and remote schools. “It’s a shameful act,” he said. “Local Schools, Local Decisions is a failed free market policy imposed on communities where there is no market.” In seconding the recommendation for Council he recalled his own professional experiences of working in regional NSW. “Early in my career you could ring the curriculum support adviser in a district office; you could have a teacher with expertise in that office come to the school and give you that support.”

Cuts to regional departmental consultancies and support services by the then O’Farrell government have left many regional communities without the professional structures needed to properly support student need or teacher professional development. Exacerbating this disadvantage is the lack of access and non-existence of mental health and allied health services in some rural and remote locations.

“The learning and support teacher and the school counsellor are expected to be the specialist teachers for every need in these schools, thanks to our campaigns, these schools now attract needs-based funding — but they can’t even attract a casual teacher to cover [a teacher’s professional learning].”

The deep and enduring connection of members to their rural communities empowers the Federation to collectively campaign for structural, sustainable solutions to the ongoing challenge of providing high quality public education in remote and rural settings.

Federation’s September Council further moved to host a rural schools conference in 2020.