Rural disadvantage in access to powerful knowledge: Evidence from Victorian secondary schools

Year: 2016

Author: Perry, Laura, Burgess, Madeline, Lubienski, Christopher

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Academic curricular subjects have been called “powerful knowledge” because of the multiple benefits they provide to both individuals and the larger society. Increasing the number of students that study advanced academic curricula in Years 11 and 12, especially STEM subjects, is a goal of state and federal governments and is seen as an essential strategy in Australia’s innovation agenda. While increasing student interest and motivation to study these subjects is important, it is also crucial to examine systemic barriers that may be preventing students from enrolling in ATAR subjects. It is unrealistic to expect large numbers of students to study physics and calculus, for example, if these subjects are not widely offered in schools. Previous research from Perth by Perry and Southwell (2014) found large between-school inequalities in access to ATAR courses of study. We extend this line of research by examining access to ATAR courses in all secondary schools in Victoria (n=521). Our sample included 344 metropolitan schools and 171 provincial and 6 remote schools (due to the small number of remote schools and for ease of reporting, we collapsed remote schools into the provincial category). We used publicly available data from the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the MySchool websites.Our study is comprised of two parts. First, we examine inequalities in access to five key ATAR courses between metropolitan and provincial schools. These five ATAR courses are Chemistry, Physics, Specialist Maths, English Literature, and History. The largest inequalities were found for Literature and Specialist Mathematics: English Literature was offered in 60% of provincial schools and 77% of metropolitan schools, and Specialist Mathematics was offered in 41% of provincial schools and 70% of metropolitan schools. Second, we use geospatial analysis to examine geographic distance to the five curricular subjects for provincial communities where they are not offered at the local public school. For example, if a provincial public school does not offer Specialist Mathematics, is there another school in the same community that does provide it? If it is a private school, how much does it cost? And if no schools in the community offer the subject, how far away is the nearest school that does? The analysis for this stage of the study is ongoing. Preliminary findings show that 70% of provincial schools are public, and only 30% of them offer Specialist Maths. Thus, access to this important subject in provincial communities often requires attendance at a private school. We conclude with a discussion about implications for educational policy.