Public Education in NSW: Why our rural students are falling behind

By RUBY GALLOP:

Public education in New South Wales is a key contributor to the social and economic success of the population, but the gap that exists between students in rural and urban areas is one that demands to be addressed.

In comparison to students undertaking public education in metropolitan areas, those in rural areas underperform in all educational aspects. Location is the significant difference between the two, but it is the quality of the teaching curriculum that sets urban students apart from their rural counterpart.  Research shows that public schools in country NSW have fallen behind the eight ball due to their lesser access to a quality teaching curriculum and the lacking ability of inexperienced teachers when it comes to utilising resources.

A Rural and Remote Education blueprint for action, issued by Minister for Education, Adrian Piccoli, has addressed the need for educators to ‘step in and close the divide between students’.  The document discusses the aim of helping students in rural areas to meet the educational standard of those in urban areas, and helping them attain higher level qualifications in the long term.  “This is not just an issue of equity. Skills are a vital part of the economic future of our regions.” says the NSW Minister for Education.

The gap between students in rural and metropolitan areas is the largest in NSW and greater in Australia than the average of other nations. Currently in NSW, Year 7 students from remote areas have lower National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) results than metropolitan students in grade 5.

Schools in the state’s rural areas face the challenge of reversing the production of underperforming students; by improving the teaching curriculum, meeting the unique needs of students and employing and sustaining quality teachers.

A 2008 Paper from the NSW Parliamentary Research Library Centre, discussing Education in Country and City, has revealed that difference in location has an impact on a child’s ability to perform in reading, writing and numeracy. The paper found that in 1993, 66% of public school students living in city areas graduated year 12, with rural students behind at 60%.

Research performed by The Australian Council for Educational Research in 2002 saw numeracy levels of rural students aged 9-14 at 2.5% lower than students in metropolitan areas, and at a 2.3% difference in literacy results.  The NSW Minister for Education said “Our national tests show us that in Year 3 reading, one in 20 city students are below the minimum standard – compared to one in seven remote students, and almost every second very remote student”

A Deputy Principal from a school in North West NSW, who did not want to be named, explained that her experiences teaching in both rural and city areas have pinpointed the quality of teachers as a key influence on the disparity of student results. “The quality of teachers is not as frequent in country areas due to the lack of opportunities offered to them. These opportunities include professional learning opportunities, modelling of best practice by skilled leading teachers and reduced access to skilled mentors.”

Schools in regional NSW often have a large proportion of inexperienced teachers who do not always have the skills necessary to deliver all aspects of the curriculum. The Deputy Principal said: “The cost of living in rural areas also considerably impacts upon teachers and resources. This sees younger, predominantly new graduates launch their careers in rural areas and then move back to city and coastal areas once established.”

The Rural and Remote Education blueprint for action highlights the considerable difference between the quality of teachers and what is being taught in rural schools. The Deputy Principal explained that smaller country towns struggle to draw enough experienced model teachers with the skills required to meet the needs of students at the same rate as city schools. “Beginner teachers cut their teeth in remote areas and more experienced teachers use remote schools as a means to further their careers and move on as opportunities arrive.”

Due to the geographic isolation of Public school teachers in rural NSW, their opportunities to collaborate with other teachers and advance their skills in a particular field of knowledge may be limited. In comparison to the abundance of teachers from all educative fields in the city, those in rural areas may have responsibilities to teach an area where they have little or no expertise.

An Assistant Principal of an inner Western Sydney Public School, has expressed his views as to why the divide between public schools in urban and country NSW exists.  As an educator in the city location of Western Sydney, he believes that the resources available to teachers and students are not what will see a boost in results, but the way in which they are effectively utilised.  “Public schooling in both urban and country areas receives an equal amount of funding for resources, but the opportunity afforded to students regarding extra-curricular learning is limited in rural schools, including their access to technology.” He said.

“Typically in city schools, greater funds to support programs can also be sourced due to the high number of businesses and professionals”. He explained that there is a noticeable comparison between the amount of resources and funding put in to schools in each location.  He states that his school “is funded quite well; and alike other schools in NSW, is especially rich in technological resources. I believe that our ability to achieve results above students in country areas is due to a better quality of teachers who are equipped with the skills required to use resources effectively.”

“We are resource rich schools, however if the personnel (beginning teachers) are not competent or well-rehearsed in using multi modal technologies to support quality teaching and learning then the resources are wasted.”

 

NSW Minister for Education Adrian Piccoli has explained in the Rural and Remote Education blueprint for action, that resource considerations need to be made to human resources, and a greater focus has to be placed on matching educational resources with staff who are equipped with the skills to utilize them to their full potential.

According to the Deputy Principal: “Throwing money at schools by way of physical resources does not affect the quality of lessons. It only gives the facade of rich learning environments as opposed to actual human rich learning environments.”

A 2011 article from the NSW Government ‘Closing the rural and urban education gap’; revealed that addressing the performance of students in rural NSW was high on the agenda.  Mr Piccoli said “The agreement between the states, territories and Commonwealth will ensure the needs of rural and regional Australia are considered as a strategic priority in the national education agenda.”

The Deputy Principal said a number of changes must be made in order to see an equal performance of students living in both locations.  She explains that a change must be made to Human resources in order to secure and keep quality teachers.   “Basically, teachers in rural schools have enough trouble keeping their heads above water and rarely come up to breathe until they depart the areas for new opportunities. Professional learning time, money and energy are often lost when teachers move on, leading to an impact upon sustainability of both teaching and learning programs.” she said.

Public schools in rural NSW require access to quality casuals to support teachers accessing quality professional learning- allowing them to feel confident that their school system will not fall apart when they are away and ensuring that leaders encourage professional development.

Research shows that literacy and Numeracy results are generally poorer in those public schools in country NSW.  The socioeconomic background of students in these areas is often lower than those living and working in urban areas. The deputy principal said: “Teachers typically address behaviour issues on a daily basis and rarely make impact upon results due to behaviour disruptions.”  Student language upon entering school is also typically below levels of city schools. “The reasons for this are unknown but this impacts upon student engagement with literacy programs for the first two years of life – slowing a student’s readiness for NAPLAN assessments.” She explains.

Meanwhile, an assistant principal from a Western Sydney school, who also wished to remain anonymous,  said that the more privileged background of students in urban areas sees students entering education with more advanced language skills and a more solid approach to learning.

There are several initiatives put in place to combat the issue of underperformance of students in country NSW. The rural and remote blueprint recognizes these programs, but argues that while these initiatives will help to improve the quality of education for students in rural and remote schools, evidence shows that more needs to be done. The Literacy and Numeracy Action Plan is just one of many initiatives put in place by the NSW Government to improve learning outcomes of all students. It focuses on addressing the individual needs of students in low achieving schools and using effective instructional leadership to combat their problems.

The Connected Communities strategy is another which targets 15 schools within 11 communities in rural NSW in an aim of partnering schools, government agencies and members of the community so that they can work as a cohesive unit to achieve better educational outcomes. The Connected Communities strategy is attempting to effect change by implementing initiatives to support improvements in rural and remote education.

The divide between Public education in rural and urban NSW is clearly evident, and is a factor affecting the overall success of the nation. Despite the equal provision of government funding and resources, the quality of teachers and their knowledge and implementation of high quality educational experiences is what is necessary to boost  the results of students within rural areas.

Research shows that location has a heavy effect on the results of students in the public school system and an effect on the presence of quality teachers in addressing the issue. The abundance of government initiatives put in place to address the gap are working hard to put all NSW students at an even keel, but the change of a state’s entire educative mindset will require time, improved human resources and commitment.

Thumbnail image: Courtesy of flinders.edu.au

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