Government must address barriers to education in rural and remote areas, inquiry finds

By Shannon Jenkins

Thursday November 12, 2020


The federal government must ensure that all Australian students can access quality secondary school education regardless of their geographic location, according to the Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training.

The committee on Wednesday tabled its report on the learning needs of students in regional, rural and remote communities, and how to overcome barriers to education in these areas.

Australians growing up in regional and remote areas have lower educational attainment rates in school, in Year 12 and in tertiary education, compared to those living in metropolitan areas, the committee found.

“They are around 40% less likely to gain a higher-level tertiary education qualification and less than half as likely to receive a bachelor and above qualification by the time they are 35 years old, compared to people from metropolitan areas. This gap is most pronounced in remote and very remote areas and at university level,” the report said.

There are also a range of factors that “contribute to gaps in access and equity across a child’s education journey”.

The committee explored a range of barriers to education that “may require reform across multiple portfolios”, including issues relating to geographic isolation, socioeconomic factors, health challenges, environmental factors, and access to Information and Communications Technology (ICT).

For example, families living in regional, rural and remote areas “have limited choice in where and how they educate their children and limited access to other services and supports that families in towns and cities rely on”, the report said.

And while ICT has the potential to “bridge gaps in access”, there is a “digital divide” between Australians who have access to the internet, computers and other devices, and those who do not.

“This gap in access is particularly acute for Australians on low incomes and those living in geographically isolated locations,” the report said.

The committee set out 14 recommendations to government, including for it to “ensure all students can access secondary school education, to a nationally-consistent minimum standard, regardless of their geographic location”.

For regional, rural and remote communities, the government should also ensure education is inclusive for children and young people with disability; improve access to quality early childhood education and care; and develop policies and programs that improve access and affordability to a range of services and resources, such as broadband and mobile phone reception.

Giving families and communities more opportunities to have a say in how schools apply the Australian Curriculum, and enhancing the integration of Australia’s Vocational Education and Training and Higher Education sectors was also recommended.

Read more: New Closing the Gap targets aim to up number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages spoken, reduce incarceration and suicide rates

The committee also made a number of recommendations calling on the commonwealth to implement measures as part of its 2021 policy commitments to Closing the Gap, including to:

  • Set out a roadmap for improving the social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including improved access to mental health treatment and support,
  • Provide more flexibility and surety in funding for wrap-around models of early intervention, family support, early childhood education and health care in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities,
  • Provide up to 30 hours per week of subsidised early education and care for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children,
  • Provide adult literacy campaigns in communities with low levels of adult English literacy,
  • Ensure all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students can access English as an Additional Language or Dialect support and instruction at school,
  • Ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students can access bilingual education where Standard Australian English is not the first language spoken, or where school communities have asked for this to occur,
  • Establish programs that support the development and professionalisation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education workforce,
  • Establish trauma-informed, cultural induction and training programs for educators working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

Labor committee members Lisa Chesters, Ged Kearney, and Joanne Ryan argued that while the report encourages the current government to “get on with addressing the educational inequality of regional, remote and rural students”, the recommendations do not go far enough and lack urgency.

“Real action by the government to address inequalities in the educational outcomes of regional, rural and remote students is urgently required,” they wrote in the report.

“At the very least, the Labor members of the committee would have liked the report to highlight the urgent need for a fairer needs-based funding model.”

Other issues Labor said must be addressed include access to early childhood education and care, the low wages of workers in the sector, and the financial impact of COVID-19 on universities.

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