All in for a smart country
The educational divide between regional areas and our biggest cities is stark with Australia on track to develop the most segregated education system in the OECD. For a country that prides itself on being the ‘land of the fair go’, where a person lives is now second only to socioeconomic status as a determinant for success.
The Government’s recent announcement of an independent review into regional, rural and remote education is welcome news.
If Australia is serious about addressing this entrenched education gap it will need to keep its promise to look at the ‘complete puzzle’. This means examining access to learning opportunities and the quality of engagement in learning across the entire regional community. Whether you’re 8 or 88, if you’re in a regional area we want you to be engaged in learning.
If we want to shift things we need a leapfrog strategy founded in national ambition. Radically lifting access to learning opportunities in regions regardless of age. Supporting educational and other leaders in regions to problem solve their key local challenges. Building a strong learning culture led from within our towns and communities.
As it stands now the numbers aren’t pretty for regional learning outcomes. Based on NAPLAN results, regional areas perform significantly lower than their metropolitan neighbours in both primary and secondary numeracy and literacy.
Regions also have 20 per cent fewer residents who have completed high school and the proportion of young adults between the ages of 15-24 not engaged in some form of education, training or employment is 44 per cent higher than in metropolitan areas.
This significant education divide carries through to post-secondary education too; 9 per cent fewer Australians in regional areas are university qualified and 2 per cent fewer adults are enrolled in some form of education.
Worse still, nothing’s changed in 10 years. Australia’s performance in the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) demonstrates that on average regional students trail their metro counterparts by a year of schooling, and have done since PISA began in 2000.
Yet despite its significance, policy reform is yet to bridge this divide. Ad hoc and sector focused policies in the past have aimed to address specific issues in the regional education system. Yet these on their own won’t address what is a systemic challenge.
The Regional Australia Institute (RAI), with the support of Bendigo and Adelaide Bank, has developed a new Human Capital Index that looks at educational development across ages and stages.
Tools like this enable communities all over Australia to benchmark their performance across different life stages and focus their energies accordingly. No two regions are the same and individually many fare comparably well on select indicators.
For example, Queenscliffe in Victoria performs strongly in primary numeracy and literacy, Hobart and Armidale Dumaresq have similar rates of high school completion to metro areas and regions like Kiama and the Snowy River have high rates of young Australians either learning or earning. Yet in other indicators these regions do not fare so well.
This diversity of regional strengths and weaknesses means that while our standard schools funding debate, VET or university reform options can contribute, on their own each will fail to solve the problem of the regional divide.
We won’t win this battle with one-time national reforms on systemic issues, the answer is to go all in. The outcome we want most is that in regions, every person is engaged in education in some way.
Radically shifting the overall levels of engagement in education in regions is not just important for better international rankings.
Technology change and job mobility means the concept of one-time education completed early in life is fast becoming obsolete. Regional or urban, if you don’t regularly update what you know and what you can do, you risk being left behind.
Regions are starting from further back in education terms and they are also more exposed to technology change. It’s a double whammy.
Without a dramatic change in how we approach the challenge of lifting regional education outcomes it is unlikely that we will bridge this divide. Australia cannot afford a two-speed education system which compounds existing health, opportunity and income gaps in regional areas. This review has to take the chance to craft a new way forward.
Written by Jack Archer (CEO) and Ben Vonthethoff (Researcher)