Rural schools targeted for reform

Bendigo Senior Secondary College principal Dale Pearce has urged the government to be bold. Photo: Eddie Jim
Bendigo Senior Secondary College principal Dale Pearce has urged the government to be bold. Photo: Eddie Jim

FUNDING for rural schools could be overhauled, mobile kindergartens may be used in remote areas, and teachers could get more incentives to work in small towns, as the Napthine government tries to tackle the growing gap between city and country students.

Two months after Victoria's Auditor-General slammed the Education Department for failing to provide high-quality schooling to all students, the government is working behind the scenes on a strategy that will seek to bridge the divide.

Teachers and principals say the move is long overdue, but some have questioned why it has taken years to properly confront the issue given the problems for rural students, such as limited curriculum choices, higher dropout rates, and lack of access to TAFE and university, are well known.

While the government refused to provide details of its blueprint, leaked department documents obtained by The Sunday Age suggest a range of reforms across schools, early childhood and higher education.

Pointing out that ''there is strong Victorian government commitment to rural and regional areas, but no overarching rural plan'', the proposals include:

■ Reforming the funding criteria in rural schools and kindergartens.

■ Different learning models such as mobile kindergartens and ''virtual'' classrooms.

■ Greater incentives for teachers and principals to work in country schools.

■ More kindergarten-to-grade 2 classes to ''remove barriers to integration''.

■ A new regional VET (vocational education and training) strategy to boost job prospects.

The rural and regional education policy has been a work in progress for several months, and it is expected the final strategy will be unveiled before the November election, which could be won or lost in the regions.

It comes after a damning report by Auditor-General John Doyle found that past attempts to tackle the gaps between city and country students had little impact, partly because the department did not have a comprehensive strategy to address known barriers. Proximity to schools, social disadvantage and lower student aspirations are among key factors keeping country students behind their metropolitan counterparts.

Bendigo Senior Secondary College principal Dale Pearce urged the government to be bold, for instance, by forcing schools to collaborate in exchange for access to new funding, or by developing new online learning models to teach students in remote areas.

''The government has to accept that it must lead. Its agenda of autonomy assumes that schools have the capacity to improve themselves. In rural Victoria this is clearly not the case,'' he said.

Australian Education Union state president Meredith Peace was surprised the government had taken so long to develop a policy given ''there are clearly identified problems around access to comprehensive curriculum, employment, participation in education and training.''

But a spokeswoman for Education Minister Martin Dixon said the rural and regional education plan is ''well under way'' and would take ''on board the views of practitioners, policy makers and the recommendations in the recent Auditor-General's report.''

Almost half of all government schools are in rural Victoria.

However, compared with city schools, absenteeism is higher, fewer students meet minimum standards in literacy and numeracy, and year 12 completion rates are lower.


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