“A concerning proportion of Australia‟s lowest performing students are not meeting minimum standards of achievement. There is also an unacceptable link between low levels of achievement and educational disadvantage, particularly among students from low socioeconomic and Indigenous backgrounds.” (Gonski Review)
At a time when the funding of education is high on the public agenda, it is worth remembering the strong relationship between education and health, and the particular challenges of education in rural and remote areas.
Education is a critical determinant of health at both individual and community levels. It reduces poverty through increasing employability and „health literacy‟ - the collection of capacities, skills and experiences an individual has to manage their way to a healthy lifestyle.
In developing societies, education for women is particularly important, enabling them to make informed choices and adopt better health and nutrition practices. It also increases the pool of health care service providers, carers, community educators and business operators.
There is also evidence that the benefits of education for women and girls transcend generations. There is a strong inverse relationship between female literacy and neonatal mortality due to low birth weight. And this is not just a case for developing nations. Jeff McMullen is quoted as saying that every extra year of education provided to a community of young mothers can add up to four extra years of life expectancy for their first child. The then Head of Aboriginal Health in NSW, Ken Wyatt (now the Member for Hasluck in WA) said that increasing mothers‟ education by a single year can reduce the danger of infant mortality for their babies by 7 to 10 per cent.
Education in rural areas and for rural people is also one of the keys to regional development and community sustainability.
In 2006, country people comprised over 31 per cent of Australia‟s population but only about 19 per cent of tertiary education students. Despite recent improvements and a strong government focus, the „education revolution‟ still has a long way to go in the bush. That year, 72 per cent of 19 year olds in Australia overall had completed Year 12 but in Very remote areas the figure was less than 40 per cent. The proportion of young people who leave secondary school without completing Year 10 is also higher in Remote and Very remote areas.
Improving educational outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is a particular challenge – and 70 per cent of them live outside the Major cities. Despite improvements between 1996 and 2006, in that year only 37 per cent of Indigenous people aged 19 had completed Year 12, compared with 74 per cent of non-Indigenous people of the same age. In Very remote areas 20 per cent of Indigenous 19-year olds had completed Year 12.
Targeted programs will continue to be needed to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students have equivalent educational outcomes and to increase their number in higher education and training.
Only 12 per cent of the nation's tertiary education is provided in rural and regional areas, and over half the rural and remote students undertaking tertiary study have to live away from home. Cost is therefore a major inhibitor for people from rural areas seeking to obtain further education, especially for those in lower socioeconomic groups. Many rural students and their families are faced not only with the direct costs of university or TAFE education, but also the need to cover the costs of relocation and accommodation. It was estimated some years ago that the annual living cost for a regional student living away from home was $15,000-$20,000 – not including relocation and start-up costs of $3,000-$6,000.
With lower numbers and sometimes combined classes, schools in rural and remote areas may provide a narrower curriculum than in the capital cities. And it‟s not just the supply of good education that is threatened. Because of the nature of work available, a higher proportion of jobs in country areas have historically not required tertiary qualifications. This has meant that a greater proportion of young people there are likely to perceive higher education and training as less relevant.
It is also a matter of concern that real and perceived options for secondary education are frequently the cause of health professionals with young children leaving rural areas.
Providing the opportunity for first class schooling and further education for all those eligible requires substantial new investment and innovation in rural education. But it will reap major rewards: evidence suggests that over half the tertiary students from rural areas stay in or return to rural areas after graduation, thereby contributing to the professional workforce in rural and remote areas.