Response to the report of the Independent Review into Regional, Rural and Remote Education (IRRRRE)
We welcome the attention given to rural and remote education by the recently released Independent Review into Regional, Rural and Remote Education. As educators with special interest in rural education, we see any government and media attention to this much-neglected area of education in Australia as a positive step. We also know the opportunities of rural kids and communities have been limited when compared to those in cities, and that the city remains as the central organising principle of policy, practice and service provision. We also know this hasn’t changed in 100 years or more. This report has the potential to challenge us as a nation notto keep on ‘doing what we’ve always done’ so that rural kids keep on getting what they’ve always got.
And this knowledge causes us to have major concerns with the report and what the Australian Government might do with its recommendations. As we see it, in fact, the report has forestalled any real action to a yet-to-be-created taskforce under a yet–to-be-appointed Commissioner. This is of utmost concern to us, for two reasons: firstly it is a deferment, yet again, of setting any targets; and secondly we see no convincing commitment to have the task force truly represent the richness and diversity of rural society in Australia.
There is great potential in a rural education taskforce. We would support such a taskforce completely if it is set up carefully, is truly representative, commits to targets, and has some power to make real changes for children in regional, rural, and remote communities.
As educational researchers, we also have deep concerns about the lack of recognition in the report for the body of world-leading research that has already been conducted, and is currently happening, in regional, rural, and remote Australian education. There are many successful initiatives across Australia already in place, based on Australian (rural) educational research. There are also a range of evidence-based suggestions from researchers working with rural and remote schools and communities as to how to approach key issues in education, such as staffing challenges and teacher preparation – something indeed highlighted in the report. However, this rich research and these initiatives and suggestions appear to have been ignored.
Communities arecomplex: their histories, geographies and economies produce different realities and concerns for those who live, work and learn in them, and there is now a significant research basis that highlights the necessity of dealing with the temporal and spatial realties of social life in regional, rural, and remote locations that can no longer be ignored. We are concerned that the report has simply not paid enough attention to existing research findings or used them to underpin a plan for the future.
As educational researchers, we must take up the responsibility to air our concerns.
The report does have many strengths, certainly, and we want to acknowledge and support these strengths. But does it go far enough?
What the report was meant to do
The Review was meant to explore the challenges to positive student outcomes facing rural communities and to identify the productive approaches already in place. From its findings, the report identified four priorities, and we support the recommendations to:
- establish a national focus for regional, rural, and remote education, training and research to enhance access, outcomes and opportunities;
- focus on resources for successful learning and building young peoples’ futures- leadership, teaching, curriculum and assessment;
- quickly address availability, accessibility and affordability of ICT for all regional, rural, and remote people; and
- focus on the transitions into and out of school.
We are very pleased to see the focus on regional, rural, and remote education enter the national discussion and welcome the call for a research focus. Too often the rural is ignored in national policies, and in State policies all too often there is either next to nothing or a largely deficit discourse.
The report recognises the key challenges facing rural communities and schooling. These are not new challenges, however, and have featured in reports such as the 1973 Schools in Australia: Report of the Interim Committee of the Australian Schools Commission, the 1987 Commonwealth Schools Commission Report, and the 2000 Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. As such, these issues have been well-researchedand can serve as a strong base from which to build further action.
There was also clear recognition that a one-size-fits-all solution will not work, and that many of the standardised policies in place have been developed from a metro-centric perspective. While this is not surprising, given Australia’s highly urbanised population, the effects of these metro-centric, standardised polices do a disservice to regional, rural, and remote communities. Decades of such policies have resulted in a system that is clearly not meeting the needs of our rural communities. Important reports, including this one, such as the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians(2008) and Emerging Themes, National Inquiry into Rural and Remote Education(2000), call for every child to have access to just and equitable education opportunities. We need policies and actions that do not view and measure the rural as being in deficit to the urban. This report challenges this framing and, acknowledging the challenge of differencerather than deficit, encourages locally-sourced approaches to improving educational outcomes.
Moving forward, there needs to be a genuine valuing of situated rural perspectives and voices. As we see it, this requires building on the range of existing educational research that has already been conducted – not in repeating studies that have clearly demonstrated the intransigence of ‘the rural problem’ for education systems, schools and communities over time, but by re-evaluating and connecting knowledge, practices and policies that promote localised success, and recognising that a search for universal answers and generic solutions is inappropriate.
This review has clearly indicated that the challenges facing regional, rural, and remote education are complex and overlapping – not to be addressed by simply deepening or extending successful initiatives in one policy area, but rather, by rethinking the relationships between and among policies and practices to suit particular locations: putting place first.
We would most certainly like to see the development of a blueprint to shape the rural research agenda but, again, we caution that future research needs to be from a rural standpoint. In the past, some research into rural ‘disadvantage’ has not truly understood that disadvantage and, as such, a longstanding harmful deficit framing has continued. Rural voices and the high-quality research that is already available, here in Australia as well as elsewhere, should be consulted when constructing this blueprint. The report reinforced the key areas for improvement – now we need to build on this base of research and action.
We believe this report can be a jumping-off point for further action ifthere is enough commitment from the Australian Government. Especially, we strongly support the need for more high-quality, focussed research on rural education in order to help improve the outcomes for our regional, rural, and remote school students.
As the report says, “It is now time to step up the pace.”
Melyssa Fuqua posted this for The Rural Education Special Interest Group of the Australian Association for Research in Education.
Melyssa Fuqua is currently a PhD candidate at Monash University, exploring what it means to be a careers educator in a rural context. She has been a teacher in a rural Victorian P-12 school for 10 years, where her interests and passion for rural education grew. She has also completed a Diploma of Education (Secondary) at the University of Melbourne and a Master in School Leadership at Monash University. Currently, she is the Rural Education Special Interest Group Convenor for the Australian Association for Research in Education.
The Rural Education Special Interest Group of the AARE consists of a significant number of Australian rural education researchers.
Melyssa Fuqua, SIG Convenor (Monash University)
Associate Professor Erica Southgate, SIG Co-Convenor (University of Newcastle),
Professor Jo-Anne Reid (Charles Sturt University),
Associate Professor Philip Roberts (University of Canberra),
Dr Susan Ledger, Associate Dean, Engagement & School Partnerships (Murdoch University),
Professor Simone White, Assistant Dean,International and Engagement (Queensland University of Technology),
Natalie Downes, Senior Research Assistant (University of Canberra),
Emeritus Professor Bill Green (Charles Sturt University)