School & District Management

Network Gives Voice to Parents in Rural Australia

August 30, 2005 6 min read
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Jeanette De Landgrafft lives on her family’s farm 40 miles from the “nearest anything” on the sparse southern edge of Western Australia. Yet she and thousands of other rural parents have developed a significant voice in state and federal education policies, unlike such parents in the United States.

Through the Isolated Children’s Parents’ Association, or ICPA, thousands of parents in Australia’s tiniest towns and remote areas can bend the ears of national politicians and state education leaders who make the rules for schools in a nation similar in geographic size to the United States but with less than one-tenth the population.

Founded in 1971 by a farmer to push for more money and attention to families teaching their own children in remote areas, the ICPA also highlights the needs of small schools in Australia. It now has nearly 2,900 members in 106 local branches. Members pay $50 a year in dues, or about $38 U.S.

“Without a more united voice to government, nothing would happen,” said Rosemary Philp, another rural parent who has been the statewide president of the ICPA in Queensland the past two years.

Even though one-third of American public schools are situated in rural areas or small towns, the United States does not have a comparably influential network that unites rural parents and supporters of small schools.

“The problem in the U.S. is not infrastructure [in rural schools], but cooperation. In Australia, it’s infrastructure,” maintained Megan McNicholl, the immediate past president of the ICPA and the board chairwoman of a larger policy coalition called the Rural Education Forum Australia, or REFA. She traveled to the United States this summer to learn more about rural education policy globally.

Rural communities in Australia still struggle with finding good teachers, with technology that doesn’t yet reach all rural students, and with a nation that has built its public education system mostly for students in urban centers.

That’s why the ICPA’s voice is so crucial, said Ms. McNicholl, whose three children attended a two-teacher school in Dulacca, a community of about 200 residents, situated north of her family’s cattle ranch in southeast Queensland.

“It was an opportunity for my voice to be heard,” she said.

Political Victories

Over the years, the ICPA has kept its focus squarely on the needs of Australia’s rural and remote students, many of whom live several hours’ drive from any town or city. But the group has made room for policy issues that affect Australia’s small rural schools—one-room schoolhouses for young pupils or regional secondary schools that often serve only a few dozen high-school-age students.

The ICPA has become a vital link between rural voters and Australia’s state and federal governments, said Murray Lake, a rural education scholar and the chairman of the rural and remote advisory council for the state of Western Australia. The council advises the state education minister.

Local, state, and federal ICPA meetings often attract elected officials, Mr. Lake said. They often fly in and “have morning tea, wave the flag a bit” at local ICPA meetings, which usually take place only a few times a year because of the distances people must travel, he said.

The ICPA has had plenty of policy victories to celebrate.

The all-volunteer organization, which includes local chapters in all of Australia’s eight states and territories except the predominantly urban Victoria, has successfully fought for federal payments—now about $6,000 per student, or roughly $4,550 U.S. a year—to help rural students attend secondary boarding schools. It also has pushed for funding for remote students who learn at home, and for better training and incentives for teachers.

Ms. Philp said more close-to-home issues drew her into the ICPA. She joined after she began teaching one of her four daughters at the family’s ranch in remote central Queensland, realizing the correspondence school materials “were exactly what I had done when I had been in grade 1 and 2” many years earlier. “That sort of fired me up.”

The ICPA has helped update those materials, but other significant policy issues remain. Many rural families in Australia still cannot afford better public or private boarding schools, and roughly one in four Australian teenagers do not finish the final two years of secondary school after age 15. Small schools cannot offer adequate secondary-level classes, and rural schools find it hard to recruit and retain teachers who have graduated from urban universities and are unfamiliar with rural areas.

“We have made inroads into those areas, but we still have not gotten to the stage where a child from a working-class family in rural Australia can have access to [a good] education,” said Jack Beach, the current national ICPA president.

Such issues led to the creation of REFA, a coalition of rural-minded policy groups that includes farmers, rural health workers, and others. ICPA members founded the coalition following a federal human-rights report that brought attention to rural poverty in 2001, Ms. McNicholl said.

At the annual ICPA federal conference last month in Canberra, hundreds of ICPA members promoted improved curricula in small high schools and learned about the future of telecommunications in rural areas, Ms. McNicholl said.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard made an appearance, along with national education minister Brendan Nelson, Ms. McNicholl said.

And the ICPA isn’t the only organization working for Australia’s rural families.

The Society for the Provision of Education in Rural Australia, a group of about 250 members founded in 1983, unites educators, parents, and community leaders to share ways to make rural schools better, said Anne Napolitano, the group’s president and the principal of Exmouth District High School, a pre-K-11 school of 400 students in the coastal resort town of Exmouth in Western Australia.

On the other side of the world, several national groups in the United States have worked over the years to build up rural education activism.

The National Rural Education Association and the Rural School and Community Trust are among those giving voice to rural parents and small-community supporters. But neither organization has the clout that the ICPA and its partners have cultivated.

“It’d be great if we had an effective rural parents’ organization,” said Rachel Tompkins, the president of the Rural School and Community Trust, a nonprofit organization based in Arlington, Va., who has learned of the ICPA. “I do think there are things to learn from each other.”

Barriers to Cross

The ICPA’s accomplishments in Australia do not mean that rural parents and government officials always work well together. Only in recent years have state leaders in Queensland and the ICPA grown more cordial, said Ken Rogers, an assistant director general at the Queensland education department.

The improvements have resulted from the state education department’s recognition of “the burr in our saddle that wasn’t going to go away,” Mr. Rogers said of the ICPA. He also credited better personal relationships between the parties. “There’s more to be achieved by dialogue than by confrontation,” he said.

Queensland has responded to the ICPA’s lobbying by improving the training and increasing incentives for rural teachers, he said. The state also is adding preschool and the state’s first-ever mandatory school attendance for two years past age 15. All students must take the extra years either in school or through distance learning by 2007, Mr. Rogers said.

Until recent years, he lamented, “we’d been complacent” about rural education.

One of the ICPA’s ongoing challenges is to involve Australia’s indigenous peoples. Because of a history of discrimination, ICPA leaders and observers say the low participation of minorities isn’t surprising.

The lack of inclusion of native Australians highlights the ICPA’s roots as a group originally meant for “the landed gentry,” Mr. Rogers said.

Ms. McNicholl acknowledged the ICPA’s struggle with minority issues. ICPA President Beach said he wants more minority interest, but such efforts could take years to achieve. “It has taken 35 years, but we’ve made huge changes in policy,” said Mr. Beach, a father of four who runs a cattle and sheep station in northwest Queensland. “The one thing that holds us back is time.”

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