Evaluation of the Rural and Remote Education Blueprint: Interim report
This report was originally published 21 October 2016.
Students in rural and remote areas of NSW typically tend to underperform on major educational indicators when compared to students in metropolitan locations. The NSW Minister for Education released Rural and Remote Education: A Blueprint for Action in November 2013 to address disparities in educational outcomes between rural and remote and metropolitan students. Overall the report found that implementation of the actions in the Blueprint is progressing as intended, with some closing of the performance gap between rural and remote students and metropolitan students.
The Blueprint commits $80 million over four years to implement a broad set of reforms and actions aligned with four focus areas:
- quality early childhood education
- great teachers and school leaders
- curriculum access for all
- effective partnerships and connections.
This evaluation report examines the implementation and impact of the specific actions contained in the Blueprint. It also examines important education performance indicators such as attendance, retention, NAPLAN and Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR) for any changes in the magnitude of the gaps between rural and remote and metropolitan students since the launch of the Blueprint.
The Department of Education is implementing the Blueprint concurrently with many other reforms and initiatives across early childhood education and NSW government schools. These include Great Teaching, Inspired Learning; Local Schools Local Decisions; Every Student, Every School; and Early Action for Success.
This evaluation report considers implementation, impact and changes in indicators of student engagement and performance, and the quality of teaching.
Key findings: implementation and early outcomes of key actions
The implementation of the Blueprint appears to have progressed as intended. There is evidence that some of the actions are already achieving their objectives, although most are experiencing at least some challenges. However, it is important to note that any observed outcomes for rural and remote children and young people may be due, at least partially, to other reforms and initiatives being concurrently delivered. Similarly, where desired outcomes for rural and remote children and young people have not been observed, the failure cannot be solely attributed to the Blueprint.
Key findings: performance indicators
Important indicators of education performance include attendance and retention, NAPLAN performance and ATAR eligibility. To see if there were any changes in these indicators as a result of the implementation of the Blueprint we have analysed the changes in magnitude of gaps between rural and remote and metropolitan students since 2013, the year immediately preceding the Blueprint.
There have been small gains in the attendance of primary school students across provincial1 (+0.58 days per annum) and remote and very remote (+1.36 days per annum) schools relative to metropolitan schools. Over the same period there have been no significant changes in attendance by secondary school students across rural and remote schools relative to metropolitan schools. In fact, absolute secondary school attendance has declined by 1.6 percentage points across remote and very remote schools.
Retention to Year 12
The retention of students from Year 10 to Year 12 has increased across provincial schools (+ 3.0 percentage points) but has decreased across remote and very remote schools (-6.4 percentage points). This has resulted in the gap between provincial and metropolitan schools closing by 1.7 percentage points but widening by 7.7 percentage points for remote and very remote schools.
Gaps between the percentage of rural and remote and metropolitan students in the top two bands for reading and numeracy continue to be widest for remote and very remote students. Changes in the performance and the size of gaps are mixed depending on the year group and assessment. For example, the percentage of provincial students in the top 2 bands has decreased across all assessments except Year 5 numeracy. On this measure the gaps between provincial and metropolitan students have widened for all assessments except Year 3 numeracy. In 2015, the gap between provincial and metropolitan students for Year 3 reading was at its widest since 2009 (-13.4 percentage points; +3.4 percentage points since 2013). For remote and very remote students the percentage of students in the top 2 bands has increased for reading and numeracy across all year levels with the exception of Year 7 where performance has declined. As such the gaps closed for reading and numeracy for all year levels except Year 7.
Absolute mean scores for reading have declined for rural and remote students except for Year 7 students. With the exception of Year 9, mean scores for numeracy have declined for provincial students. For all Year levels mean scores for numeracy have increased for remote and very remote students. Gaps between mean scores of rural and remote and metropolitan students are also widest for remote and very remote students. For provincial students these gaps have widened for all assessments except Years 5 and 7 numeracy. Conversely the gaps have closed for remote and very remote students with the exception of Years 3 and 5 reading.
However, since the start of the Blueprint, the ‘location-dependent’ component of the NAPLAN gap has closed for primary and secondary school numeracy but not for reading when factors known to impact NAPLAN performance (socio-economic status (SES), Aboriginal status, gender and language background) are accounted for.
Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR)
For those students that go on to achieve a Higher School Certificate (HSC) Award, the percentage that are eligible for an Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR) decreases with increasing remoteness. Since 2013, the gap between remote and very remote students and metropolitan students has narrowed by 3.8 percentage points, although caution needs to be taken interpreting this as a trend due to considerable year-on-year volatility in this data.
Access to specialised or advanced HSC curriculum
Gaps continue to persist in the access of rural and remote students to specialised or advanced HSC English, Mathematics and Science subjects. Since the start of the Blueprint these gaps have widened for remote and very remote students in HSC Mathematics, Extension Maths, Chemistry and Physics but have remained largely stable for provincial students.
The quality of teaching
Data from teacher and student surveys suggest that the quality of instruction is lower in rural and remote schools compared to metropolitan schools, in particular at secondary schools
The implementation of the Blueprint appears to have progressed largely to plan, albeit with some challenges, and there is evidence that some of the actions are already achieving their objectives or are likely to in the future. For example, the 50% rental subsidy has improved teacher supply and reduced the risk of a teacher leaving these schools by almost half, 27 teachers have been directly appointed into vacant positions at remote and very remote schools, and potential for a further 357 new preschool places for rural and remote students due to increased capital works expenditure. However, as discussed above education gaps between metropolitan and rural and remote schools and students are not being closed in all areas.
Furthermore, this report confirms previous research that at least until Year 9, gaps in the performance of rural and remote students relative to metropolitan students are not just due to location per se. Other factors that co-vary with location, such as SES, are also significant predictors of educational outcomes. Certainly location appears to influence NAPLAN performance, indicators of the quality of teaching, primarily in secondary schools, and curriculum access in senior secondary years. However, the contribution of the latter two location-dependent gaps on student performance requires further investigation.
With the exception of the preschool funding model and NSCs, there does not appear to be a direct link between the actions in the Blueprint and SES-related barriers to the performance of rural and remote students. However, the Blueprint is clearly attempting to address challenges such as senior secondary curriculum access and the quality of teaching in rural and remote schools. Logically, however, any strategy targeting improved outcomes for rural and remote students should be part of a multi-agency response that addresses social disadvantage in rural and remote communities concurrently with the quality of the learning environment in schools.