Reflecting on his own school education, Mike Stephens says it was “hardly inspirational”.
He dropped-out not long after his fifteenth birthday and never looked back, at least not until he realised the value of education when he “got old ” – his words, not ours.
“I turned my back on it (school) just as much as it turned it’s back on me; I guess you could say it was a mutual dislike,” he says.
“I couldn’t wait to get out and when I did I thought it was the best moment of my life.
“In hindsight … it wasn’t the best but, eventually, I found education again, I realised its worth … and now in my 60s I’m about to complete my PHD.”
Stepping into the role of CEP Chairman, Mike says it is the legacy of his early education that serves as one of his greatest motivations, along with his love of rural Australia.
And while he is distinct from most CEP committee members, in that he works in agriculture and not education, he recognises the latter as the lifeblood of rural towns and is determined to do his bit to help rural schools thrive.
“More or less, I’ve always lived in the country working in agriculture, so I’ve seen the shift – I’ve seen our rural towns dwindle away and drop off the map,” he says.
“Unfortunately, I believe we must accept this population decline in many of our rural communities because it’s reality … but I also believe there’s no point being a spectator; if you want to see change then you’ve got to create it, and it starts with education.
“If we don’t retain students in our small rural schools then the schools close, and when the schools close the local shops shut and then on it goes until there is nothing left.”
To work against this trend, Mike firmly supports the creation of rural school clusters, describing them as a way to “act big without being big”.
And he expects CEP’s role in clustered education will expand, as more communities realise its potential.
“That’s the challenge at this point, getting people to realise what these clusters are about and what they can achieve,” he says.
“We need schools to realise that the answer is to work together and that by doing so they will indelibly increase opportunities for their students.”
As for CEP and what it should achieve in the foreseeable future, Mike has some firm goals, starting with membership.
“I’d like to see our membership grow to include every rural and remote school, and I think our work with clusters will be key to that.
“Second to that, or just as importantly, I’d like to see a period of genuine consolidation by CEP, increasing awareness of who we are, what we do and what we have to offer.”