Place Based Locally Determined Clusters – The Future of Rural Education?

A recent article in The Age featured the burgeoning cluster in the West Wimmera area, highlighting the growing interest amongst rural schools to work more closely with their neighbouring schools as a key tool to improve the learning opportunities for their young people and support their staff to have access to professional networks.

The article took me to a story I read recently focussing on the tenacious and resilient fire ant. Abridging their full story, a single fire ant faced with the prospect of heavy rains, will tragically succumb to the floodwater. However, these ants have a smart response. When water threatens to overwhelm their underground nests, the ants quickly carry their larvae and egg-laying queen – critical to their survival – to the surface. There, thousands of ants engage in an extraordinary act of collaboration. They link themselves together to form a giant living raft. The structure is robust, capable of enduring weeks on the surface of flood water if needed. Holding tightly together, the ants float to safety. Acting as a partnership, they achieve what they couldn’t alone: they do more than survive, they thrive.

Researchers more recently have discovered that raft-building was not only a survival trick. Faced with heavy rain, the ants used the same networking strategy to form a tower over the entrance to their nest – a living umbrella. Researchers even found that the ant structure had the same mathematical formula used in the building of the Eiffel Tower, ensuring that it could sustain its own weight efficiently. In other words, the
ants can deploy their partnership skills differently according to the nature of the challenge, successfully adapting to circumstances.

There is a clear method to this collaborative approach, “local solutions to local challenges”.

It raises the question as to whether this collaborative approach is the future framework for provision of education within rural communities and a key platform for addressing the challenges of decreasing youth population, difficulty of recruiting staff and ensuring that students have access to a quality and comprehensive learning offering.

Most rural educators would subscribe to the notion that collaboration is a powerful approach to increasing learning opportunities and lifting the outcomes for rural and remote individuals, groups and whole systems – many who would reflect that it has been a central element of education provision within these communities for many years. Some reflect that they collaborate for the purpose of a specific project (e.g. group days or VCE provision) while others have a much stronger collaboration underpinned by a Memorandum of Understanding.

Where this differs in today’s world is the method of collaboration, that can often be described as either “top down” or “centrally developed”. Underpinning all this “is an assumption of a deficit in the rural that can only be overcome by supplementing it with more metropolitan-type culture and material” (Roberts, 2015, p. 121).

There are many examples of rural schools across Victoria and Australia who have clustered over many years, with significant impacts on the education provided for their rural and remote young people. The establishment of the Mobile Art and Library vans, the concept of Shared Curriculum Specialists, the cross sector provision of post compulsory education in places like Nathalia and Myrtleford and the development
of cluster extra curricula programs in the Mallee Education Cluster are all examples of the impacts that local clustering has achieved.

Partnerships that have been forged out of necessity, often due to the set of local challenges facing these extended communities, whether that be declining youth populations, the challenge of providing an education program for the needs of their young people, or the isolation of teachers and other staff. Partnerships that strive for increased aspirations and outcomes for their students, underpinned by authentic and sustainable collegiate relationships between staff across multiple schools.

Some of the key founding challenges, which which have often driven the formation of these educational cluster
communities at a local level include:

  • Mediocrity in aspirations and self-belief
  • Difficulty in attracting and sustaining quality staff, particularly in specialty subject areas which are often part time in nature
  • Staff teaching outside of their trained speciality or overseeing a burdensome number of curriculum areas
  • Inability to provide full curriculum breadth and/or extra-curricular opportunities due to size and isolation
  • Less access to the amount of rich professional learning available to urban peers

Rural clusters of schools that use these common, local challenges as a foundation for their partnership, have found that they are able to be clear in their collaborative strategic thinking and planning. They form a solution focussed approach that is targeted purely on the opportunities and outcomes of all students in the cluster, foregoing any competition that may traditionally exist. Within the communities of Nathalia and Myrtleford, the secondary schools from different education sectors have worked together for many years now to provide a comprehensive education program for their young people – where students attend each school site depending on where the subjects and course were being offered.

Within the North Central cluster, we see a group of schools providing a comprehensive post compulsory provision for their young people, through a partnerships that has spanned many years.

In all of these cases the schools have developed locally determined Memoranda of Understandings to frame the partnership.

In the current Victorian context, the Department of Education and Training has clear provision for networking and a system structure through regions, areas, networks and communities of practice. It aims to deliver a suite of networking priorities, strategies, training and practices, informed by local and international educational experts. These system structures are invariably centrally developed, data focussed and reliant on teams of school personnel and abundant resources to implement successfully. Unfortunately, the result can often leave Principals and staff of small rural schools feeling like lone fire ants in the floodwaters, and not necessarily formed on the historical locally determined, place based approaches that have operated within these communities for years.

Without large teams of key personnel within their own education setting, and often with a teaching load themselves, rural education leaders are expected to take on initiatives that can seem futile and often not linked to the challenges they face in their local communities – like the recruitment of specialist staff, implementation of additional curriculum programs, centralised redevelopment of the strategic approach
and so on.

At its core, the challenge between these two elements is not new and didn’t go unnoticed by the Victorian Government, noted by the Expert Advisory Panel for Regional and Rural Students who concluded within their Executive Summary.

Each local challenge requires a local approach and a local solution, [there are] accounts of innovative and effective educational practice occurring across Victorian schools in rural and regional Victoria, as well as reports of many schools and broader communities effectively addressing barriers to ensure students are given the best opportunity to reach their full potential.”

(State of Victoria Department of Education and Training, 2019, September, p. 2)

As we peruse the current Victorian landscape, there are many rural schools who have formed collaborative, cross community partnerships to develop local, place based solutions to common challenges – some of them operating for many years. These schools span from the northwest of the state, in the Mallee and Wimmera regions, to the southeast regions of Inner and Outer Gippsland. They are sporadically dispersed
in the regions in-between, such as the Pyrenees, Upper Murray and Ovens, North Central, Sale, Otway, and Camperdown regions.

There are a few vital factors that are common to each of these partnerships, that ensure sustainability and an ongoing commitment to students across all the communities in the cluster.

At the inception of these collaboratives, there is a focus on building the “organics” of the partnership prior to the development of “structural” elements. School leaders within these rural clusters have taken a primary focus on forging authentic relationships between all stakeholders across the partnership, followed by developing a structural approach that documents areas around the purpose, aims, key focuses,
protocols and eventually the strategic intent.

As experienced within the Catholic schools around the Camperdown area, where their partnership began with a discussion between a secondary college and their feeder primary schools centred on the transition of students from primary school to the secondary college, but is now developing into a partnership that is exploring the formation of an overall teaching and learning approach across all schools.

In the words of these Principals, “we run and own it!”.

In practice, this means that the partnership and its focus can evolve over time, displaying flexibility, innovation and most importantly, trust. Many of the clusters that continue to operate across rural Victoria and have done so for many years now, reflect this approach, regardless of changes in government and education policies. There is strong and unwavering focus on the whole child across these clusters. By considering the very students they serve, the educational practitioners across the partnership can view all the needs of the students – not to mention that the
students who may attend different school settings within the area. At a community level they play sport together, work together and engage in community activities together. So, the idea of schools forming partnerships just reflects this community experience.

Often due to small cohorts in individual settings, one of the biggest barriers is simply a lack of peers. Yes, friends. Cross community collaboration opens whole worlds for these students, as they make and maintain friendships across the partnership. Suddenly, camps become an option, as do other vital socially immersive activities like sporting programs, incursions/excursions, STEM days, formals, debutante balls, student councils and the like.

As with the students, staff across these clusters and partnerships who traditionally teach in isolation within their school setting, can form cluster learning teams, comprising members from common faculties and/or age levels across the partnership. Again, this opens a range of curriculum opportunities otherwise unavailable to the students in these schools. The ability to learn, set goals, plan and practice your craft, is enhanced exponentially when provided with the opportunity to collaborate in such teams. The approach developed within the rural Pyrenees cluster, a group of seven small schools have developed a range of collaborative education programs that provide a wide breadth of learning opportunities for their students.

Through a cluster MoU, all students come together every two weeks to participate in learning experiences that they perhaps otherwise would not have the opportunity in their own school setting – many of them who have less than ten students in their own right. STEM, Music, the Arts, Physical Education and the like are all experiences that the students have access to as a result of the cluster. Not only do students benefit,
but the staff have the opportunity to be released on these days to form “professional learning communities” where they share and develop curriculum and learning programs for their students. In addition, we are beginning to also see these local clusters beginning to develop a shared approach to the engagement of both teaching and support staff – something that was key in the early days of rural and
remote clusters where we saw the Shared Specialist initiative engage Science, the Arts and Technology staff across the cluster. The engagement of a Science specialist across the Sale Rural Cluster and the engagement of a Mental Health worker within the Balmoral, Edenhope and Goroke clusters are examples
of this growing trend.

At the Principal level, the above mentioned collaborative climate enables previously unimaginable opportunities. Within a strong organic relationship, schools have pooled physical and financial resources, to explore the expansion of curriculum offerings, recruit specialist staff, develop regular cluster incursion/excursion days, share grant funding opportunities, share learning facilities, share professional
learning, and so many more opportunities. At its most entrenched level, examples of these partnerships have led to the development of Memoranda of Understandings between schools, aligned strategic planning and even the creation of a singular governance model for the cluster. Cluster such as the North Central Cluster, Mallee Education Cluster, Nathalia Learning Community, Pyrenees Cluster and the
Myrtleford Partnership are all examples of how local rural education communities have worked together to provide an enhanced learning program for their students, and in some cases across education sectors – all underpinned by an MoU.

Most importantly, these place based, locally determined partnerships have seen a clear and marked increase in learning at all levels of schooling, along with increased aspirations in their students. In some cases, this collaborative approach has literally been the difference between the school maintaining its existence and thriving or continuing its decline in enrolments and eventual closure. The latter of these
results is something that affects whole communities, in regional and rural areas where the school is often the glue that holds the community together.

While CEP is an organisation that has supported regional and rural schools for many years within its capacity, is it time that this way of collaborating is brought forward as the way for supporting education provision into the future with rural schools given the impetus to form such place based and locally determined relationships with their neighbouring communities, for the betterment of all?

Is it time that we reflect on the current school funding model, along with the role out of specific education initiatives, where resources are currently allocated to individual school settings, and explore the allocation of resources that support rural education settings to work together?

While it is pleasing to see in recent discussions related to the latest education initiatives such as the Mental Health Reform and the Senior Secondary review, the concept of clustering within rural and regional education communities has been a key focus of discussion, it raises the question as to whether it is now time to strengthen this approach to incentivise the partnering place based approach within rural education settings thus becoming a key requirement for resources that are made available through new government and education sector initiatives?

 

References
Expert Advisory Panel for Rural and Regional Students: Executive Summary. (2019, September). Melbourne: State of
Victoria Department of Education and Training.

Roberts, P. (2015). Education for Rural Australia. M. Young & A. Hogan (Eds). Rural and Regional Futures. Oxon:
Routledge