Our clever country deserves better than two-speed education

HINDERED: For too long, regional students have been disadvantaged in comparison to their city peers. Picture: Shutterstock
HINDERED: For too long, regional students have been disadvantaged in comparison to their city peers. Picture: Shutterstock

AUSTRALIA'S two-speed education system has been tolerated for too long - with recent research showing school closures widened the city-country educational divide.

The study exposes clear distinctions in how parents feel schools supported home-based learning, how students progressed, and their take on the education system.

About one in three country parents now have a more negative view of the curriculum and schools' education standards. That's a clear sign parents' confidence in schooling within the regions has been shattered.

Our regional students have long been disadvantaged in comparison to their city peers. The exacerbation of the rural-urban divide during the pandemic is but another nail in the proverbial coffin.

The OECD-run Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has continually exposed the scale of the educational gap. Sixty per cent of country 15-year-olds don't meet the proficient standard in reading and science - and it's worse in maths; where two-thirds don't meet the bar.

Compared to city students, there's twice as many country kids in the bottom cohort of performers. The average student in remote Australia is around two years behind the average city student.

This has persisted despite countless reviews - including a flurry in recent years, from both state and federal governments.

Well-meaning reform efforts consistently dismiss the issue simply as one of resourcing.

Yet, under the Gonski plan, schools already attract around twice the funding, per student, than those in the city.

Throwing money at the problem hasn't alleviated the obvious capacity and quality issues letting down students, parents, and educators.

Despite considerable investments upgrading school facilities and internet connectivity in the regions, it's clear this hasn't translated to better educational delivery when it was needed most.

Our research shows that while schools were shuttered, students in regional and rural areas were less likely than others to complete work online with a teacher - one in four never doing so in that time.

It's little wonder parents report nearly half of rural kids learnt less - a much higher rate than reported by city parents - since our analysis shows regularly working online with a teacher is a strong predictor of students' progress while at home.

The other strong predictor is how effectively parents were supported by schools.

Again, it appears country parents have been short-changed.

Our research shows country parents heard from schools less - and, as a result, were less informed and confident about the expectations of them; with obvious implications for how well they could support their child.

It's disingenuous to pin this down simply to an infrastructure deficit, while evading the wider issue - that an acceptance of lower standards in the regions has bred educational complacency.

OECD data shows Australia's rural students have markedly lower educational expectations and that there's a whopping gap in how often teachers provide extra help to students who need it.

Our country teachers are among the least experienced - relative to city teachers - in the OECD, and they report being less prepared when they enter the classroom.

That's despite evidence that high quality teachers are critical to improving education outcomes.

Yet policymakers have been slow responding to the obvious deficit in the teacher workforce - including the low take up of digital upskilling from teachers.

Scaling up and fast-tracking approaches to incentivise high-ability teachers to the regions has been on the radar for years, but only recently followed through to action.

An immediate concern is rapidly assessing and diagnosing students' needs so that schools can address those who have fallen behind quickly.

The task is urgent in Victoria where students are only now returning from about 18 weeks of times out of class - almost half the school year.

The federal government has committed to appoint a Regional Education Commissioner in 2021 to oversee an overhaul of education inequities.

Their hands may well be full before they start - as investigating the source of implementation gaps during home-based learning must now be a priority.

Genuine evaluation of what went right and wrong these past months will be revealing.

The pandemic has been a truth serum to the education system's weaknesses. It's important now that we act on this.

Education is often called society's great equaliser.

We can only live up to this promise if we truly give all our kids a fair go, not just lip service.

The future of Australia's regions rests on it.

Glenn Fahey is education research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and co-author of Parents' perspectives on home-based learning in the COVID-19 pandemic.