Talking Futures: the politics of education and rural social space in South Gippsland, Victoria

Year: 2017

Author: Glowrey, Cheryl

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Rural schools in places labelled as disadvantaged confront complex, intractable problems; 'wicked problems' that require an approach extending beyond the classroom (Reid, 2017). Recognition that centrally derived policies and curriculum design overlook the knowledges of rural students and their schools is one aspect of this problem. The concept of rural social space, focused on the particularities of each place, including geography and historical context allows for distinctions between rural communities and educational experiences for children (Reid, Green, Cooper, Hastings, Lock & White, 2010). This rural standpoint challenges the views of policy-makers and outsiders who remain persuaded that communities per se have a generative capacity to solve their own problems (Corbett, 2014, Roberts & Cuervo, 2015).
Rural disadvantage is not always visible. Environmental beauty along the Gippsland coast, attractive to tourists and life-stylers, masks the circumstances of families with young children dealing with long-term social and economic re-structuring, in this case, with the on-going globalisation of the dairy industry. Social disadvantage, mobility, family trauma and isolation contribute to the complexity where a range of hills and very limited public transport form a physical and psychological barrier to accessing 'outside' services.
Two small rural schools, ten kilometres apart, share a so-called 'wicked problem' in the pattern of significantly poor oral language proficiency of students beginning school, requiring responses that extend into the community to address social equity outcomes. A cluster partnership, with researchers from the School of Education, Federation University, two Principals, a kindergarten educator and a supported playgroup leader initiated a co-designed action research project with three strategies for 2017: to attract two fourth-year pre-service teachers on an embedded placement, to engage cluster educators in a shared professional learning program and to introduce a Children's Council to develop thinking and oral language skills for the upper primary aged students.
This paper examines the impact of the pre-service teachers and the professional learning program on the oral language of students as a model for transforming future learning success for students. It also challenges external assumptions about the cohesion of rural communities as contrasting experiences for both schools emerge. Proximity and shared issues aside, the internal challenges for one of the schools reflects the problematic nature of standardised policy-driven processes and the need to consider the concept of rural social space to create nuanced responses to complex problems of sustained disadvantage in rural communities.