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How do school resources and learning environments differ across Australian rural, regional and metropolitan communities

Sullivan, Kevin (2018) How do school resources and learning environments differ across Australian rural, regional and metropolitan communities. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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Despite recent emphasis on improved government funding and advances in technology that reduce the isolation of rural communities, research continues to highlight that Australian students attending rural schools, on average, achieve poorer academic outcomes than their urban peers. It is plausible that these lower academic outcomes are associated with the characteristics of rural schools. Little is known, however, about the nature and degree to which schools differ between rural and metropolitan communities in Australia. The aim of this study is to compare school characteristics across a range of rural and metropolitan settings, using a large-scale and nationally representative dataset.

The study comprised three investigations that examined how student achievement, school resources and school learning environments vary across urban, regional, rural, and remote communities using data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). PISA is an international assessment created by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that assesses the reading, mathematics and science literacies of 15-year-old students. PISA also collects data from school principals and students about a range of student and school related variables that may be related to student literacy in the three subject domains. The three investigations used data from the 2009 cycle of PISA, which comprised approximately 470,000 students from 65 countries and economies, including over 14,000 Australian students attending 353 schools. Descriptive statistics were used to compare student and school principal perspectives about a range of school resources and learning environments.

The initial paper investigated school resource variables across eight rural-urban community categories in Australia. The school resource variables included computers for education, the ratio of computers to students, computers with internet access, and principals’ perspectives of the degree to which shortages of teaching personnel and teaching materials and resources hinder student learning. On average, principals of schools in rural communities were more likely than their counterparts in larger communities to perceive that instruction was hindered by shortages of teaching personnel and to a lesser extent by shortages of teaching resources. Principals in larger towns and very large towns (ranging in size from 15,000 to 50,000 residents) reported that shortages of mathematics teachers were a hindrance to a similar degree as school principals in small rural communities.
The second paper examined differences in school learning environments across eight rural-urban community categories in Australia. Learning environments were measured by the following: principals’ perceptions of teacher and student behaviour, student attitudes towards school, and student perceptions of their classroom disciplinary climate and relationships with teachers. The findings show that regardless of location, most Australian students believed that schooling is worthwhile and reported positive relationships with their teachers. However, both student and principal perceptions of disciplinary climate and learning environments were more positive in urban communities than in rural communities.
The third paper compared school community differences at an international level, contrasting two economic, culturally, and socially similar nations, Canada and New Zealand, with Australia. Research focused on: average student reading performance, socioeconomic status and parent education ,principals’ perceptions about their school’s resources, and student perceptions of classroom disciplinary climate, teacher-student relations, and teacher instructional strategies. The findings showed that across Canada, New Zealand and Australia reading literacy performance and school learning environments are less positive in rural communities than in urban communities. However, these inequalities between rural and urban school communities are greater in Australia than in the other two countries. Of the three countries, rural school principals in Australia are the most likely to report that shortages of teaching personnel hinder learning.

The findings show that school learning environments and school resources vary substantially across Australian school communities. Given the patterning of student performance favouring urban over rural school communities, it may very well be that elements such as rural school shortage of resources and relations between student and teacher negatively impact the academic performance of students. The three studies highlight that much still needs to be learned about: (1) recruiting and retaining teachers in large regional Australian towns; (2) the degree to which shortages of instructional material and equipment are associated with geographic location; and, (3) the reasons underlying students’ and principals’ views of school learning environments in large regional towns (up to 50,000 residence) are less positive than their counterparts’ views in rural and remote communities. The findings also suggest that education policies and structures can play a role in ameliorating or exacerbating rural educational disadvantage.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Education
United Nations SDGs: Goal 4: Quality Education
Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities
Supervisor(s): Perry, Laura and McConney, Andrew
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