Rural and remote education: literature review

This literature review was originally published 22 November 2013.

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The importance of rural and regional education is highlighted by the fact that nearly one in four New South Wales students attends school outside metropolitan areas. Less than one per cent of New South Wales school students attend schools in either remote or very remote areas (894 students attended a very remote school in 2012). However, 40 per cent of schools are located outside metropolitan areas, including 3 per cent in remote and very remote areas.

This report uses the umbrella terms ‘rural and remote’ or ‘non-metropolitan’ frequently. This carries with it the risk of ‘homogenising rural and remote Australia’, and ‘constructing non-urban locations as inherently deficient and marginal’1. Assuming all non-metropolitan areas are similar is problematic: as one source points out, ‘Everything is so contextual. You drive out here but even the school down the road might not be the same’2.

Nonetheless, this paper uses umbrella terms for a number of reasons. While outcomes are generally worse for students further away from major centres, the data also tells us that there are general educational trends across non-metropolitan areas that are distinct from trends in metropolitan areas. Furthermore, the comparatively small numbers of students in remote or very remote schools arguably impacts on data being less robust, when disaggregated at this level.

Education in rural and remote communities has been the subject of many government and non-government reports, including the Commonwealth Schools Commission’s report on Schooling in rural Australia (1998); the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s National inquiry into rural and remote education (2000); the NSW Teachers’ Federation’s report, Staffing an empty schoolhouse: Attracting and retaining teachers in rural, remote and isolated communities (2004), and the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport’s report on Rural and regional access to secondary and tertiary education opportunities (2009).

The issues most frequently identified in these reports include the poorer educational outcomes of students in rural and remote areas, (including lower levels of attendance, engagement, and transition to further study) and the difficulties involved in recruiting, retaining and developing high-quality teachers and school leaders.

The first part of this paper analyses student data, describing and then seeking to explain the differences in outcomes attained by students in rural and regional areas. This analysis demonstrates that most of the differences in outcomes can be explained by factors that we already know have a strong impact upon student outcomes, in particular, socio- economic status, and the proportion of Aboriginal students.

The second part of this paper examines the national and international literature available on rural and regional education, identifying major issues and responses to those issues. It is, however, beyond the scope of the present paper to attempt comprehensive reviews of all identified and relevant issues, such as effective education for students from low socio-economic status backgrounds, or Aboriginal education more broadly.

1 A Welch, S Helme and S Lamb 2007, ‘Rurality and inequality in education: The Australian experience’, in R Teese, S Lamb and M Duru-Bellat (eds) International studies in education inequality, theory and policy volume 2: Inequality in education systems, Springer, Netherlands: 272.

2 C McConaghy et al 2006, ‘Bush tracks: Journeys in the development of rural pedagogies’, Education in Rural Australia 16(2): 22.


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