Friday, 4 April 2014

Access to Education for Rural Students

Victorian Auditor General's Report
April 2014
The Auditor General in his report on rural students access to education found that students in rural areas for a long time have not performed as well as their metropolitan peers.
He said that the Department of Education (DEECD) has not managed to overcome that gap. The gap has not narrowed in fact it is getting wider.
The auditor said that unless DEECD adopts a cohesive and targeted strategy, it is unlikely that outcomes will improve.
The auditor said (somewhat sadly) that he has little confidence that DEECD's proposed Rural and Regional Plan will be the kind of 'game changing' plan that will make a difference for rural students.
The Auditor is 'looking forward' to seeing if DEECD respond to his recommendations and seeing improvement. (Auditor General's comment page )

Unfortunately I am not surprised by the Auditors findings, that is the fact that DEECD is doing nothing about it or by his lack of confidence that they will do anything about it in the immediate future.

The Rural population in Victoria suffer from a disproportionate level of disadvantage. ( At Regional Directors meetings we have watched endless PowerPoints showing this worrying data for years) Students from rural Victoria represent about 30% of the total school student population. A significant number of children and families.
The report contains detailed data showing : the socio-economic disadvantage faced by rural communities, the lack of alternative education models, higher school absence rates, the lower percentage of rural students meeting minimum standards in literacy and numeracy, poor retention rates, lack of educational aspiration, lower NAPLAN data etc. This data is well known. students from rural schools generally achieve poorer outcomes than metropolitan students. academic performance is poorer and students are less engaged in education resulting in lower retention rates.
There have been some haphazard attempts made to provide funding to rural schools to address the gap between rural and metropolitan students but DEECD has no empirical evidence to support improvement as a result of this ad hoc state and federal funding. 

DEECD produced a 'Rural Education Framework' in 2010 ( I was involved in its development) It was a modest attempt to address the concerns of rural educators and included providing financial support for rural teachers to participate in PD, increasing opportunities to access LOTE and piloting community education plans. One of the key principals of the framework was the recognition that improving education outcomes needs a wide ranging approach incorporating school, family, community, network, region and central office.
There was a change of government in November 2010 and by December 2010 the Framework disappeared never to be seen or spoken of again. It is hard to see this as anything other than a political decision and it resulted in a fragmented, half-hearted attempt to address the growing gulf between country and city students which was well- known at the time and has grown since.

DEECD is currently developing a new framework ( yeah, let's just re-invent the wheel) which according to the auditor's report will draw upon school networks to allow performance to be measured and reviewed at a local area.( What networks are they talking about? The current government scrapped and dismantled networks and sacked or re-assigned network leaders. Many rural schools are not part of recognised networks as opposed to collegiate groups. What data collection are they talking about? What support will we get to gather this data? How will they facilitate the establishment of these networks?) This is of course a mute point anyway because the new plan was supposed to be released in May this year, now it is supposed to be June ( an unnamed contractor has developed it. Were rural schools consulted at all? ) and the Auditor says that there is no guarantee that it will be finished on time. He also believes that it will not be sufficiently robust to make a difference to student outcomes anyway! One of the auditors recommendations is that: ( DEECD) completes it's Rural and Regional Plan, ensuring that it is comprehensive, outcomes focused, contains detailed time bound actions, and is informed by high-quality research and stakeholder engagement.The auditor, throughout his report puts a lot of trust in this plan ( that is late and which he believes is inadequate) to solve the long standing problems with rural education. 

The current government's 2013 policy Professional Practice and Performance for Improved Learning acknowledges the problems without actually articulating how it will monitor, support and guide schools to a solution. DEECD amalgamated nine regions into four cutting services and support along the way. For political reasons DEECD defined Networks were abolished with schools encouraged ( without too much enthusiasm shown by DEECD) to form their own networks based on curriculum provision and performance outcome criteria.
In the Ballarat area that has been patchy to say the least. Glen Park is part of a long standing collegiate group ( The old Bungaree Cluster was originally formed to support shared specialists in the early 1980s ) but many schools are on there own.
DEECD hopes that peer review will help schools understand their performance better and work together to solve common problems. Will they provide the genuine support required to do that? By their very nature rural schools can be physically isolated. how will peer support work in those schools? The tyranny of distance has a significant impact on schools. Apparently DEECDs new plan has incorporated ( page 23 of the Auditor's report) a review of digital learning in curriculum provision and has recommended that DEECD expand the use of digItal technology in schools while ensuring that all students maintain a degree of face to face contact with teachers. ( I find this amusing given that video conferencing equipment was distributed to some schools at least 4 years ago but not to mine which is a one teacher rural school. You would think an isolated one teacher rural school would be the first to be given that equipment. There is a push to use digital technology to provide LOTE by 2015 - rather than employ sufficient teachers but I would have to do that using my own lap top with cobbled together technology. Nobody who has taught Preps would advocate teaching them anything via video conferencing equipment anyway!)

In conclusion whatever this plan is that DEECD are sitting on the Auditor believes ( I assume he has seen at least some of it) it isn't worth the paper it is written on.
They need to have widely consulted small rural schools not hired an unamed contractor to concoct something. The old Framework ( hardly old dated 2010) would have been an excellent place to start.
The plan needs to include:
Financial support for small rural school educators to access quality PD
Financial incentives to keep good quality teachers and school leaders in rural education
Access for all rural schools to state of the art video conferencing equipment. ( Do an audit and locate all the equipment still sitting in boxes or in old portables in big schools) 
Genuine hands on and financial support for small rural schools to form learning networks where they can share expertise, resources, best practice and enable funded peer support.
Encourage rural universities with an education faculty to embark on quality research led by school need in rural schools.
Ensure that there are sufficient DEECD staff to support rural schools not one or two people trying to stretch themselves across a region that is half the size of Victoria.

These recommendations ( and they are not an exhaustive list) will cost money and require hard work from DEECD and more heavy lifting by rural principals and their learning communities but the gap between metropolitan students and rural student school achievement is widening! The 2010 Framework was a good start but we have already wasted 4 years! Unless we want to see a two tiered state with a dominant Melbourne and the rest of Victoria a wasteland that young people can't wait to flee from then we need to start now. To do that we need the political will to accept past failures and accept that action needs to be done and we need DEECD to get its head out of the sand and fight more effectively for state education and to make closing the rural/city gap it's number one priority.

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