Enhancing Education Quality – Overcoming Challenges in Rural South Australian Schools

School leaders from rural communities have commenced a unique program at Flinders University that helps them overcome their challenges and harness outside-the-box opportunities to benefit students. This is part of a larger effort to improve education quality in remote and rural communities across Australia.

Schools in tightknit rural communities can be a great place for teachers to develop as professionals and foster strong student relationships. However, these close ties can also pose a variety of challenges.

Access to High-Quality Teaching Materials and Resources

Educators in rural communities face several challenges, including a lack of access to high-quality teaching materials and resources. Many rural schools cannot afford to purchase all the required materials and equipment, and they struggle to keep up with technology changes. Furthermore, teachers must travel long distances to get supplies and resources for their students, and it is expensive for them and their families. This creates a need for educational materials to be made available online, and for teachers to have easy access to these materials when teaching.

Additionally, many rural teachers struggle to find adequate support for their students with special needs. This is especially true for teachers working with students with behavioral challenges, which can be difficult to manage in a rural setting. There is also a shortage of specialists, such as speech pathologists, who can support these students. This issue can impact educational outcomes, as the students can miss out on crucial learning opportunities because they are not receiving the necessary services.

In addition, attracting and retaining high-quality teachers is challenging in rural communities. Teacher shortages in rural areas can lead to classes being taught by unqualified or unsuitable teachers, which can lower student achievement levels. In rural areas, teachers can also have less access to professional development and other training. The quality of the professional development available to teachers can vary wildly, and some educators complain that the courses offered are not relevant to their context.

Finally, government policies governing education in Australia are contributing to the disparity between rural and urban school performance. Since the early 1990s, governments have embraced “quasi-marketization” of government schools, encouraging private schools to compete with government ones in management and governance. This has resulted in the flight of students to non-government schools in Australia, with some of these schools located in remote and rural settings. These schools have the lowest socioeconomic profiles and academic performance, and they experience the most shortages of teaching staff and resources. This has exacerbated the inequality in educational achievement between rural and urban Australia. The results of the PISA study suggest that these differences are related to inequitable distributions of resources, teachers, and learning environments between rural and urban school communities.

Emphasize the Importance of Education

Teachers in rural schools face a different set of challenges to their peers in city communities. For instance, there are more recurrent problems with behaviour management and there may be less support from colleagues or parents. Teachers in rural communities also face greater logistical barriers, such as a longer commute to and from school, and are at risk of being disproportionately affected by changes in government funding. The result is that their students are often left behind when it comes to educational achievement.

In addition to teaching resources, teachers in rural communities need access to other services that help to improve their students’ wellbeing and life opportunities. This includes access to social and healthcare workers, particularly psychiatrists, psychologists, speech pathologists, paediatricians, and GPs. Schools need to ensure they have time to meet with these professionals to discuss student wellbeing and provide relevant referrals.

Stakeholders also identified the need for more professional development and training in specific areas such as trauma-informed practice, restorative practice, and disability support. Providing all staff with this training would enable them to provide consistent wraparound support across the school, and could reduce staff turnover, which was also a common concern in our interviews.

Educators in rural communities also need to have better opportunities for career progression and promotion, including the opportunity to become head teacher. They also need to have access to a more diverse range of learning opportunities and have the flexibility to choose their own professional development courses.

Finally, teachers in rural communities need incentives such as higher pay and greater leave entitlements, and to have more flexibility with working conditions and hours. They also need to have access to quality professional development courses that are tailored to the unique challenges of rural schools.

Research has shown that education is key to breaking cycles of poverty, and improving a person’s life chances. However, current government policies do not fully consider the importance of education in rural South Australia, and there are significant gaps in how much students in rural schools achieve compared to their metropolitan counterparts. To close these gaps, policymakers need to develop a whole-of-system approach that focuses on developing the skills of rural students and their families and increasing access to educational opportunities in rural communities.

Encourage Parental Involvement and Engagement

Getting students to engage with their education is essential for successful learning. The key to this engagement is fostering two-way communication between school and home. Parents can be encouraged to attend parent-teacher meetings and to participate in school policy councils, for example. They can also be encouraged to use online forums and other media to communicate with their children’s teachers.

However, teachers in rural schools often struggle to get parents to engage with their children’s education. This is because teachers believe that parents’ non-involvement in their children’s education negatively influences the children’s behaviour. Teachers also feel that parents don’t understand the value of education, so they fail to provide their children with adequate support at home.

Parents in rural communities are generally less wealthy than those in urban areas, so they cannot afford to send their children to private schools or pay for tutoring. In addition, many families have a variety of social and health issues that affect their ability to engage with their children’s education, including drug and alcohol problems, housing difficulties, and mental health issues. The lack of financial and social support in these communities can make it difficult for children to learn and can lead to a variety of behavioural problems, such as poor attendance and disengagement.

Teachers interviewed in this study argued that poverty and parental ignorance were the main causes of low levels of student engagement. They were particularly concerned that parents didn’t see the value of education and didn’t consider it a priority for their children. The teachers felt that if these factors were addressed, student achievement would improve.

In order to address these concerns, teachers in rural schools need access to professional development and to resources that are tailored to their context. This could include workshops that help them adapt the curriculum to the needs of their students, and it could be delivered in a way that is appropriate for their community’s culture and traditions. In addition, the economic conditions and access to social and health services in rural communities need to be improved, as this is a necessary precondition for increasing educational attainment.

Revisit the Curriculum

The curriculum has a significant influence on students’ educational aspirations and achievement. As such, its revision is an important strategy for addressing the challenges facing rural schools. The curriculum in Australia is described as a series of overarching emphases and agendas which are informed by national policy decisions. However, there are also specific local contexts that have an impact on the curriculum (Ellis & Lock, 2012).

The educational disadvantage experienced by students in rural areas is partially explained by differences in student performance between urban and rural communities. This has been largely the result of the ‘quasi-marketization’ of Australian education, where private schools compete with government schools in terms of management, governance and assessment regimes (Bonnor et al, 2021).

One of the reasons for this disadvantage is the limited number of curriculum offerings available to students in rural schools. A key feature of this is the low number of non-vocational subjects offered by schools in outer regional and remote/very remote areas compared to those in inner regional areas or major cities. This is partly due to the fact that students from socioeconomically advantaged families are more likely to choose high levels of mathematics and science in their senior schooling (Dean et al, 2021; Roberts et al, 2019).

Although these challenges are important to consider when revising the curriculum, it is equally important to remember that the teachers of the schools studied have been willing to embrace changes which required them to teach beyond their area of expertise. In smaller schools, teaching across more than one subject was seen as a positive and the teachers were well-positioned to adopt developments which challenged their identity as subject specialists.

In addition, the schools have a strong focus on building relationships with local businesses and are working together to provide wider learning experiences for their students. This reflects the belief that students should be exposed to a broad range of career paths and experiences, and is consistent with curriculum aspirations which emphasise the importance of developing skills for lifelong learning (Barley & Beesley, 2007; Kitchen & Marsden, 2011).

The willingness to take risks in reforming the curriculum has been facilitated by the fact that the teachers interviewed were involved in schools that had already started to pilot new approaches. These schools had a Pioneer Lead teacher who was responsible for leading the innovation and who could offer advice and support.