Evaluation of the Rural and Remote Education Blueprint: final report

This report was originally published 26 May 2020.

Image: Evaluation of the Rural and Remote Education Blueprint: final report

Summary

Research shows that students in rural and remote (non-metropolitan) areas of NSW tend to underperform on major educational indicators when compared to students in metropolitan locations. To address this disparity, the NSW Minister for Education released Rural and Remote Education: A Blueprint for Action (“the Blueprint”) in November 2013. The Blueprint committed $80 million over four years to implement a broad set of actions in four focus areas:

  • quality early childhood education
  • great teachers and school leaders
  • curriculum access for all
  • effective partnerships and connections.

This final evaluation report examines the implementation and impact of actions contained in the Blueprint. It also examines important education performance indicators to assess any changes in the magnitude of the gaps between rural and remote students and metropolitan students since the launch of the Blueprint.

Data sources in this report

For this final report, we collected and analysed data from the following sources to determine the overall impact of the Blueprint:

  • interviews with department executives responsible for the implementation of the Blueprint
  • interviews with all Networked Specialist Centre (NSC) facilitators attending to schools in rural and remote areas
  • interviews with principals from six Education Networks (“Networks”) from rural and remote areas
  • a group interview with the Aurora College executive
  • responses from:
    • the Tell Them From Me (TTFM) student survey
    • the Focus on Learning (FoL) teacher survey
    • the annual CESE principal survey
    • a survey of Aurora College students
    • surveys of recipients of the 50 per cent rental subsidy, and the teach.Rural scholarship
  • student data on school attendance, NAPLAN, student retention to Year 12 and HSC awards.

While we examined changes in outcomes over time, in some cases we were unable to attribute these changes directly to the Blueprint. This is because the Blueprint was implemented at the same time as many other policy initiatives including Great Teaching, Inspired Learning; Local Schools, Local Decisions; and Early Action for Success.

Evaluation findings

The 50 per cent rental subsidy had little impact on teacher retention

As part of the Blueprint, the department introduced a 50 per cent rental subsidy at some four-point schools1 with the aim of attracting and retaining teachers. Overall, our analysis found that this subsidy had no meaningful impact on teacher retention. Any change in the risk of teachers leaving those schools where the subsidy was introduced was probably very small to small, and may have been either positive or negative.

Aurora College provides an important opportunity for gifted and talented students in rural and remote areas

Overall, Aurora College has provided greater opportunities to gifted and talented students from rural and remote areas to study specialist subjects. Enrolments in Aurora College have grown from 2015. Previously identified issues related to timetabling are being addressed, and the proportion of students who reported missing a class at their home school due to timetabling issues dropped from around 89 per cent (95% CI [76, 97]) in 2015 to around 67 per cent (95% CI [59, 74]) in 2017. However, we estimated that in 2017 around 78 per cent of principals (95% CI [58, 91]) who had students at Aurora College still considered timetabling issues to be a “major challenge”, compared to 81 per cent (95% CI [42, 97]) in 2016. Students at Aurora College reported that they appreciate the opportunity to interact with like-minded peers. If given the choice, around 64 per cent (95% CI [56, 72]) of students would choose to go to Aurora College again, if they were to start the school year over.

Education Networks and Networked Specialist Centres have had little impact

Education Networks provided principals and schools with an opportunity to collaborate more effectively. The ability of schools to tailor these Networks to their needs was seen as a key strength. However, while schools have largely used the Networks to share resources, they have not been used in the more substantial ways originally envisaged in the Blueprint, for example to increase community engagement or share budgets.

Networked Specialist Centre (NSC) facilitators reported working effectively with schools and other services to coordinate support for students with complex needs. However, some facilitators were unsure of their overall effectiveness in the absence of robust outcome measures, and some facilitators expressed confusion about the scope of the role and how they could be most effective in it. Furthermore, the awareness of NSCs among rural and remote principals remains low, with around one third of principals in 2017 reporting having an NSC available to them. A revised operating model for NSC facilitators was developed with the School Services Directorate and delivered in May 2018. The new model seeks to provide more clarity for facilitators and schools on facilitators’ role and function. This model was outside of the scope of the evaluation. The effectiveness of the new model could be evaluated in the future.

Enrolments of 4 and 5 year old Aboriginal children in community preschools in rural and remote areas have increased

The Blueprint introduced a new funding model for community preschools in 2014. This preschool funding model targeted 4 and 5 year olds. Between 2013 and 2017, the number of Aboriginal 4 and 5 year olds enrolled in community preschools in rural and remote areas increased by 45 per cent. The number of non-Aboriginal 4 and 5 year old children from low income families enrolled increased by 8 per cent. These increases occurred despite an overall decline in the total population in these areas over time.

The gaps between rural and remote and metropolitan students have generally not reduced on key indicators related to student achievement

Our analysis shows that the gaps in NAPLAN scores and school attendance between rural and remote students and metropolitan students have not reduced since the introduction of the Blueprint. The gap in retention between remote students and metropolitan students has narrowed since the introduction of the Blueprint. However, the gap in retention between provincial students and metropolitan students has not reduced. The gaps between remote students and metropolitan students have narrowed on each of the measures of the Best Start Kindergarten Assessment (Best Start) since the introduction of the Blueprint. However, the gaps between provincial students and metropolitan students have not reduced.

On NAPLAN scores, we estimated that the mean NAPLAN Reading and Numeracy scores for students in remote schools in 2017 were close to those for students in remote schools in 2013. Our results also showed that the changes in the gaps between remote and metropolitan locations from 2013 to 2017 were probably all very small.

Following the introduction of the Blueprint, the change in the attendance rate for remote schools (primary and secondary combined) was 0.01 percentage points (95% CI [-0.13, 0.11]) less than the change seen in metropolitan schools. This represents a negligible difference; the gap in school attendance between remote students and metropolitan students did not meaningfully change.

Limitations

A number of limitations affect our ability to attribute changes in outcomes to the Blueprint. Many other policy initiatives were also implemented during the same period as the Blueprint, and may also have been responsible for driving changes.

The size of the “gap” between metropolitan and rural and remote students is dependent on factors within both of those groups, rather than only being affected by a policy such as the Blueprint that directly attempts to reduce this gap. For example, a widening of the gap may be the result of specific initiatives targeting metropolitan students rather than an indication that non-metropolitan student outcomes have declined, or that the Blueprint has not been effective.

It should also be noted that results from remote schools often need to be interpreted with caution given the small sample sizes and the resulting high degree of statistical uncertainty.

The department has implemented a range of policy reforms focused on rural and remote schools following the implementation of the Blueprint in 2014 that may also have affected outcomes for rural and remote students. Notably, the Start Strong preschool funding model was implemented in 2017, and the Rural and Remote Education Human Resources Strategy was implemented in 20182. In 2019, an additional range of incentives and benefits were introduced for teachers and executives in rural and remote NSW public schools3.

Discussion

The negative relationship between location and outcomes has persisted for decades, with a long standing gap between metropolitan and rural and remote students on a range of assessments (Halsey 2018). It is likely that reducing this gap will require a long term, sustained effort, of which the Blueprint represents a first step. Our evaluation shows that the Blueprint achieved limited success against its aims of reducing the gaps between metropolitan and rural and remote students.

The persistence of the gaps suggests that the department should maintain a focus on the education of rural and remote students. The findings from this evaluation offer some insights into how future efforts may be better targeted for greater impact.

A refreshed strategy

A new strategy for rural and remote education should be evidence-informed and maintain a cohesive focus on improving student outcomes. A program logic methodology should be applied to a future plan to ensure that there is a clear definition of success; that there is coherence across activities; that there are adequate and robust measures available; and there is strong, central coordination, enabling continual monitoring and adjustment of initiatives as required to ensure success. The new strategy should incorporate revised remoteness classifications to allow funding to be more accurately targeted to rural and remote areas.

Addressing quality of teaching remains fundamental

The Blueprint focused heavily on attracting and retaining quality staff in rural and remote locations. This focus should be maintained.

The ability of rural and remote schools to attract and retain staff remains critical. Financial incentives appear to attract teachers to rural and remote locations, but do not appear to have had an impact on retention.

Filling vacant positions with quality teachers remains a critical issue for principals in rural and remote schools. This view was expressed to us repeatedly by interview participants, and is also one of the key findings of the recent Independent Review in Rural and Remote Education (Halsey 2018).

From the findings of this evaluation, there are clear actions that could be taken to maximise the effectiveness of financial incentives. They should be administered fairly, transparently and with as little “red tape” as possible to ensure that the benefits clearly outweigh the costs of accessing them.

In addition, the effectiveness of rental subsidies is dependent on the availability of high quality Teacher Housing Authority (THA) housing for teachers. Where there is an absence of such housing, rental subsidies become much less attractive for teachers and their effectiveness is diluted.

Financial factors, lifestyle factors related to local amenities, and proximity to major centres or transport, entertainment and recreational opportunities are all considerations for people thinking about moving to a rural and remote location. They also cite access to professional learning; curriculum planning support; and personal support as important.

However, in addition to renewed efforts to attract and retain new staff to rural locations, a refreshed strategy should provide greater focus on the professional development of teachers currently in these areas.

Improving access to relevant, high quality professional learning for teachers in these areas may offer a much quicker route to improved student outcomes. The department should consider flexible delivery models that overcome barriers associated with distance by, for example, making use of technology, on- site training or decentralised learning opportunities.

Providing a varied curriculum in rural and remote areas will require innovative approaches

Halsey (2018) has highlighted the need for the curriculum for rural and remote students to be relevant, flexible and engaging to encourage them to remain at school and maximise their chances of success. Smaller rural and remote schools may also have the added challenge of being able to deliver a broad enough range of curriculum options for students. Our evaluation found that the gaps in the study of advanced subjects in English and mathematics between rural and remote students and metropolitan students have not reduced since the introduction of the Blueprint.

Technology presents one potential solution to these challenges. Aurora College, which has been established specifically for gifted and talented students, has demonstrated that delivering specialist subjects remotely using interactive technology is possible. This new way of delivering lessons and interacting with students presents both challenges and important opportunities, with the experience of Aurora College showing promise as a new way of providing a relevant and varied curriculum for rural and remote students. Aurora College students’ HSC results have not been examined in this evaluation, noting that from Aurora only 27 students in 2016 and 15 students in 2017 sat HSC courses (16 students sat HSC courses in 2018, but the evaluation does not set out to cover data from late in 2018).

Networking and collaboration need support to effect improvement

The Blueprint included some actions aimed at increasing the collaboration between rural and remote schools, in particular the Education Networks. Some school staff felt that, while potentially valuable, greater collaboration could sometimes result in a greater workload and that this may represent a barrier to ongoing or greater collaboration. However, feedback from school staff indicates that where they are able to see the value of collaboration and, importantly, where they have meaningful input into the purpose of that collaboration, it is likely to be a sustainable and beneficial activity.

A refreshed strategy should make a clear case about the relationship between collaboration and networking with improved student outcomes. Guidance and examples of effective practices that are successful at improving student outcomes should be provided, along with measures of success.

Footnotes

1 The department uses a points system to attract teachers to schools in rural and remote locations. Service in eight, six and four-point incentive schools allows a transfer to a preferred location after a minimum period of service has been completed.

2 Under this strategy, the department: enhanced incentives for teachers who accept permanent or temporary placements to rural and remote schools; increased the number of teach. Rural scholarships and combined them with a more generous support package; and adjusted the Rural Teacher Experience program to give more flexible opportunities for experienced teachers interested in rural and remote education. https://education.nsw.gov.au/content/dam/main-education/en/home/teach-nsw/Rural-and-Remote-HR-Strategy_v5.pdf

3 https://education.nsw.gov.au/teach-nsw/find-teaching-jobs/choose-rural/benefits-and-incentives

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