Rural young people from across Australia have identified a number of common themes and key initiatives that they believe would enhance their education experience in country areas, and therefore improve their education outcomes and learning opportunities.
Meeting with State and Federal Ministers for Education, senior personnel within education sectors, they encouraged governments and education sectors to support the ideas that they have developed so the education of young people in all rural communities can be improved.
Their ideas have been developed over the past twelve months through a series of state-wide based programs known as the Rural Youth Ambassadors program, facilitated by the Country Education Partnership in collaboration with state education sectors and key partners. The rural and remote young people were involved in a number of online forums throughout 2020, culminating in a face-to-face forum during February and March in each of the states of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.
As part of their face-to-face meetings earlier this year, each of the state-wide Rural Youth Ambassador groups presented their ideas and initiatives to Ministers for Education, senior education personnel and key organisations.
Access to a breadth of learning opportunities
The Rural Youth Ambassador across all the states would like to see education sectors and governments encourage and support rural and remote schools within a geographic region to work more collaboratively – developing joint education programs, sharing staff across schools, facilitating joint extra curricula activities and the like.
Underpinned by the use of a Blended Learning model, the Rural Youth Ambassadors believe that such a partnership approach would address the challenges faced by them in accessing the learning choices they need have access to, to achieve their future life and career goals.
The New South Wales Rural Youth Ambassadors highlighted the potential of regionalising the Aurora College model, where partnerships of rural schools would work together, with the support of Aurora, to provide a combination of both face-to-face and online learning. This was also reflected within the South Australia group where the idea of “Local Delivery” was seen as an option that could be utilised and expanded.
Across all states, the key challenge that the Rural Youth Ambassadors identified was not having access to the breadth of subjects within their communities to be able to support them in achieving their dreams and career goals.
Due to their size, the difficulty of attracting staff to their communities and their location, their schools were often limited in the subjects and experiences that they would like to have access to.
“Not only do we have fewer subjects to choose from, because of our smaller numbers we also miss out on extra curricula activities such as playing team sports, getting involved in debating teams, having the opportunity to put on school productions and other similar opportunities,” Taylah said.
The Rural Youth Ambassadors highlighted that not being able to have the subjects they would like within their communities; the main alternative was to learn through distance education – a format that many of the Rural Youth Ambassadors highlighted as not the most engaging and rewarding learning experience.
They heard of isolated examples where this occurred within rural and remote communities such as Nathalia in Victoria, the Western Districts Partnership in New South Wales and the Local Delivery approach in some of the South Australia’s rural communities. The outcome of these partnerships resulted in greater opportunities for students, the opportunity to be involved in joint school master classes and the chance to learn with young people from other rural communities similar to their own.
What happens after school and how do students access that information?
Across all states, the Rural Youth Ambassadors would like to see a couple of creative approaches, such as websites and workshops, implemented to supporting them in accessing the information and support they needed after finishing secondary education.
While the Rural Youth Ambassadors acknowledged that there were information sites available through the web, many of these were not presented in a “youth friendly” way, or young people in rural and remote communities were not aware of them.
Firstly, they would like to see a “youth friendly” website and social media network that rural and remote young people across Australia could access for information and support. They identified the Rural Inspire initiative being developed by the Country Education Partnership and supported by the Commonwealth Government as a step in the right direction. The Commonwealth “Future Career” website and online support was another strategy they believed would be most valuable.
“While we hear about a number of websites that are available for us through the program, we are not aware of them and we would love to have more information focused on young people like we saw on the Rural Inspire website,” Logan said.
Secondly, the Rural Youth Ambassadors would like to see a number of information workshops on opportunities and pathways after they finish school. The difference to their proposal centred on the utilisation of young people who grew up in a rural or remote community and are doing something exciting, such as university, TAFE, charitable endeavours or employment, and supporting them to share their stories and experiences, along with their advice, to rural and remote young people.
Within this framework, they would like to see a number of online webinars and information sessions could be provided to allow young people from rural and remote Australia to have access to a range of information that they would like to have – things like what courses are available after school, what is it like moving from your hometown to a bigger city, how to cope with accommodation – all very important areas for rural and remote young people to be aware of.
A key concern the Rural Youth Ambassadors talked about was having more knowledge on “what happens” after secondary schooling. Information about where to live (on res, college, shared house, family), how to budget, what options are there for university, TAFE, other pathways and how to get a job were top questions they and their peers commonly find they need help answering.
The Rural Youth Ambassadors also highlighted that accessing information on further education options was very difficult as many of these information sessions were offered in capital centres, thus making it difficult for rural and remote young people to access them.
The various state Rural Youth Ambassador groups are working with the Rural Inspire initiative to see if a number of these activities and workshops can occur throughout term three this year.
Access to mental health and wellbeing support
The Rural Youth Ambassadors wanted to congratulate the focus that this area was generating amongst governments but would like more work undertaken to support this growing area of concern. For example, within Victoria where there was a major investigation into mental health and well-being recently by the State Government.
The Rural Youth Ambassadors would like to see a greater focus on preventive initiatives to be supported by governments and education sectors. The development of programs that supported both students and teachers in gaining the skills to be able to identify when their peers were facing mental wellbeing challenges was seen as a key strategy in addressing the growing area of mental health and wellbeing.
The Rural Youth Ambassadors also highlighted that one cannot focus on mental health and wellbeing in isolation from all the other challenges being faced by rural and remote young people.
As one Rural Youth Ambassador shared:
“As a result of not being able to study the subjects that I needed to achieve my dream and career, my stress levels instantly increased – I started worrying about whether I would ever be able to achieve what I really want to.”
The Rural Youth Ambassadors across all states highlighted the growing concern of mental health amongst rural and remote young people, with many of them sharing heartbreaking stories of the experiences that they, and their peers had experienced.
While the Rural Youth Ambassadors want to see a greater number of support people being made available to rural and remote young people, they agreed that breaking down stigma was a way forward and providing such support across a group of schools might allow for a little more confidentiality
The Rural Youth Ambassadors reiterated that mental health is a huge problem in rural and remote areas and having the pressure of school, grades, parents, teachers, peers and just going through teenage years had a massive effect on their mental health and therefore their educational outcomes
Better access to mental health facilities was raised as a key area of concern for many young people in rural and remote areas. The Rural Youth Ambassadors noted that a mental health officer or qualified counsellor in their school or region would ease many of the pressures and anxieties faced in the secondary school years.
However, the stigma and reputation that is associated with rural and remote young people seeking such support was not seen as a positive – many of them indicating that they would not seek this support as a result.
Specialist teachers and teacher recruitment and retention
Over the twelve months of deliberations, the Rural Youth Ambassadors developed a proposal that built on the education provision approach outlined above. If education organisations within a region working more collaboratively to provide education, then staff within these difficult to recruit learning areas could be engaged across a partnership of schools.
The Rural Youth Ambassadors also highlighted the need to explore incentives that would be attractive to people who may be interested in taking on a teaching position within a rural or remote community. The ambassadors suggested access to better teacher housing in rural and remote areas; providing lifestyle incentives such as membership of gyms, etc., and providing the costs of travel back to their hometown were all worth exploring.
The Rural Youth Ambassadors noted that in addition to above areas, a lot of rural and remote young people are unable to study certain subjects due to a lack of teachers in their communities. It was noted that this can prevent them from taking a prerequisite subject for a higher education course or teachers taking subjects that they are not trained for.
They also identified teacher retention as a big hurdle in improving rural education. They noted that while some rural and remote schools retain skilled teachers, they often struggle to keep them beyond two to three years.