Equity in Access to 'Quality' Education for Students in Remote Communities

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ADDED 04/05/14

One can regularly find glaring differences between the have's and have-not's, particularly when structural factors in society - whether you can it class, discrimination, inheritance, geography, etc - serve to perpetuate the differing outcomes for members or groups in the community. I say this in reflection to a specific place and to specific people. It is a place to which I travel often, and the observations made here are observations which I have made previously. Yet I have never quite conceptualised them in writing in the way that I am attempting to do now.

To be more specific, I find myself at the local primary school in a town in a remote desert. Like many schools, the yard at recess is a space of chaos, screams, chattering and climbing. The school population is diverse, which is reflected by the students of Anglo, Asian, and Indigenous backgrounds. Buildings are colourful as are the classrooms. Inside a particular classroom, I see the divide between those who live in literacy and technology-rich environments and those whose access to books is severely limited outside of school (and in school as well). Those from literacy-rich homes benefit from experiences that are consistent with the content and ways of learning to be found in this typical classroom. The types of investigations and the routines of learning are consistent between school and home contexts. Successful students learn the rules, acquire the knowledge, perform the tasks, and imagine future school and post-school success. And these students are able to do so with a fair amount of stability and support from family in the home, who often have a strong understanding of what is occurring in the classroom. The fact that some students come to school better placed to succeed is something well documented. The fact that the school curriculum can inadvertently benefit the culture and experiences of certain students over others is also demonstrated by the work of Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron (1990).

I can't help but ask myself the following question, "what if the content of this particular classroom was not those topics and investigations with which a city-dweller would normally associate with an upper primary classroom?" What if the content was not the Egyptian pharaohs, the solar system, Halloween and the annual book fair? What if the content was bush tucker, caring for the land, the significance of local stories and local heroes, learning local language(s), examining the skill and importance of artistic practices, and respecting the social order and cultural obligations? I am not referring to a tokenistic notion of these topics, but am asking for deep investigations that involve reading, writing, researching, speaking and listening. What if these classes took place in quite different settings, such is in the countryside, through apprenticeship and delivered by quite different people, such as the knowledgable elders in the community? What if the learning matched the ways of knowing with which children are familiar at home and in the community, as suggested by Kathryn Au's (1998) observation of improvements in reading engagement when traditional talk-story methods are used with Indigenous Hawaiian students. If the methods and content were altered,  would the same student succeed who succeed in the current classroom? What would the current teachers do? What expertise would teachers need to demonstrate? What forms of living would this teaching encourage? Would these forms of life be sustainable in our modern globalised age? How could they be made sustainable? And could certain Western understandings of medicine, nutrition and social science be taught alongside so as to complement the learning?

I guess I am asking this, "what if the education in the classroom better reflected the place and its people?" In fact, many of those who do succeed in the typical classroom to which I refer are gearing up to finish primary school and complete their secondary education elsewhere. When I state "elsewhere", I refer to a more urban location. The education they are acquiring presently and in the future is one that is more nationally and globally transferable. For these individuals, a local (or place-based) education could close the doors to broader pathways that the typical education provides. A place-based education may not prepare these students for boarding school and beyond. However, what about those who remain local and who should be future leaders in this local community? What is the education that will equip these individuals to engage critically in the social, cultural and economic skills and variables of the place that they call home and will likely continue to call home? Is education serving these students? I do not necessarily have the answers to these questions, but I do find that they are questions worth asking, exploring and responding to.

Pam Bartholomaeus (2013), recently observed something that I have witnessed, "some secondary students may … be encouraged to resist school if their parents see schooling as focused on equipping young people for leaving, with learning having little relevance for a future life in the rural place, and not providing the skills and knowledge required for building a life locally (Corbett, 2005, 2007)." (pg. 17). Bartholomaeus also observes that "place-based education is … valuable as a means of assisting student to better understand both the challenges faced and the benefits of living in their community." (pg 21 - 22). That said, sustaining a critical and vibrant placed-based education can be significantly challenging when there is a high turnover of school staff, the school staff are not equipped to deliver place-based education, and few to no teachers come from the community. Developing a critical curriculum that builds students' capacity to ask questions about the future of their community is something that is necessary but difficult to achieve. "Public education bureaucracies have not been capable of allowing children in underserved populations to acquire literacy and numeracy skills and the chance to learn material relevant to their lives and communities" due to 

  • "centrally managed systems of teacher development and deployment;
  • "bureaucratic administration that results in adequate supervision and support for schools and ineffective school school-community relationships; and
  • "overburdened curriculum and inadequate methods, materials and supervision that lead to ... low levels of learning." (DeStefano, et. al., 2007, p. 9)

The traditional curriculum implemented in remote contexts does not necessarily equip students to use their education to transform themselves and their social contexts.

On the  other hand, there are distinct voices in the debate who have serious doubts over the ability for remote education to deliver the skills and knowledge necessary for remote children and youth to navigate the national and global agendas that impact upon their local communities. The ABC News (2013) outlined a report tabled to the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) by Bruce Wilson that indicated, "it is impossible to provide quality secondary schooling in remote communities, and boarding school may be the only option for children continuing with their education." Mr Wilson is quoted as saying, "You have a generation of children in remote schools getting an education that does not lead anywhere." Bruce Wilson's report would appear to suggest that the realities of high staff turnover, hamstrung resources and limited opportunities for rich learning outweigh the hope that youth can receive a quality education in remote context. Wilson's viewpoint also points to a broader observation: this perspective does not see any future in sustaining the forms of living and learning in remote communities. Rather than seek to improve the responsiveness of education in remote communities, the solution is to move the students into educational context and cultures that are more familiar and uniform with dominant social, cultural and economic trends. As Burbles suggests, it is "easier to be a ‘tacit teacher’ within an ongoing community of practice, where one is not the only influence drawing learners into reflective participation; conversely, it is harder to be a ‘tacit teacher’ when a cacophony of other influences distract and compete with one’s own influence.” (Burbles, 2010, pg 212)

This essay is littered with difficult questions. I must turn back to the original issue. Should the education in remote Australia be re-rendered so as to equip students with the knowledge and skills to forge the community (and industry) links - both existing and potential - of the communities in which they live? If this is to be the case, what would this curriculum look like, who would the teachers be, and what would the teachers' knowledge consist of? If this isn't going to be the case, then what other option would there be than to immerse the students in the habitus of school learning, which is an education that could interpreted as one focused on leaving home.

“Put a man in the wrong atmosphere and nothing will function as it should. He will seem unhealthy in every part. Put him back into his proper element and everything will blossom and look healthy. But if he is not in his right element, what then? Well, then he just has to make the best of appearing before the world as a cripple.” (Wittgenstein, Culture & Value)

References  (back to top)

  • ABC News (2013) Boarding school call to bridge road to nowhere. Retrieved from on 4 November 2013
  • Au, K. (1998). Social constructivism and the school literacy learning of students of diverse backgrounds. Journal of Literacy Research, 30(2), 297–319. doi:10.1080/10862969809548000
  • Bartholomaeus, P. (2013). Placed-based education and the Australian Curriculum. In Literacy Learning: the Middle Years. Vol. 21, No. 3, pp 17 - 23.
  • Bourdieu, P and Passeron, J. (1990). Reproduction in education, society and culture (2nd edition). London: Sage Publications.
  • Burbles, N. (2010). Tacit Teaching. In M. Peters, N. Burbles, and P. Smeyers (Eds), Showing and doing: Wittgenstein as a pedagogical philosopher. (pp. 199 - 214). London: Paradigm Publishers.
  • Corbett, M. (2005). We're a practical people: schooling and identity in a Canadian costal community. Paper presented at AARE 2005 International Education Research Conference: Creative Dissent: Constructive Solutions . University of Western Sydney, Parramatta.
  • Corbett, M. (2007). Learning to leave: the irony of schooling in a costal community. Halifax, Newfoundland, Canada: Fernwood Publishing.
  • DeStafano, J., Schuh Moore, A.-M., Balwanz, D., & Hartwell, A. (2007). Reaching the underserved: complementary models of effective schooling. EQUIP2: Educational Policy, Systems Development and Management.
  • Wittgenstein, L. (1980). Culture and value. Translated by Peter Winch. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.