Country Roads: Education and Rural Life

by Marc Fuster
Consultant, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills


“Country roads, take me home” sang John Denver a while ago and, in fact, improvements in transportation and communication technologies have brought our cities and towns closer together. Some rural regions benefit today from their proximity to social and economic urban centres to attract people and enhance their economic competitiveness. Nevertheless, the attractiveness of rural regions, particularly those more remote, has been dropping off in many OECD countries. The trend is more severe among the young: Rural populations are ageing faster and in some cases declining.

The loss of critical mass makes service delivery more difficult and puts economic and social sustainability at risk. Education plays an important role in this equation as knowledge and skills are critical drivers of individual development, community cohesion and economic competitiveness. Yet several challenges for individuals in rural communities remain, such as lower levels of educational achievement and attainment.

The urban-rural divide begins in the early stages of education. Access to pre-primary programmes is more limited in rural areas, according to latest PISA data. As students advance in their education, the provision or quality of material resources, the percentage of computers connected to the internet, and the supply of extracurricular activities are all on average lower for pupils in smaller towns. This can have an impact on performance – and indeed, in PISA 2015, urban pupils outperformed rural ones in science by the equivalent of one year of schooling on average.

Indeed, rural schools are quite different from urban ones. Rural schools are usually smaller and have lower student-teacher ratios than urban schools. They are also more likely to have a less socio-economically advantaged student body, experience staff shortages and have a lower proportion of qualified teachers. These differences can have both negative and positive implications.    
     
On the one hand, smaller rural schools often combine students of different ages to make more efficient use of resources. This can also facilitate a climate of stronger co-operation and sense of belonging to the school. According to PISA 2015, teachers in rural schools support students in their learning more frequently than teachers in urban schools.

On the other hand, although school size does not necessarily determine the level of education provided, larger schools might be in a better position to offer more curricular and extra-curricular options to meet a diverse range of interests and needs, as they benefit from economies of scale (size-related cost advantages). They might also be more able to support teachers to work effectively.

Children’s schooling experiences largely depend on the quality of teaching. Nevertheless, teachers may feel insufficiently equipped or be reluctant to move to rural areas. Professionals need good knowledge and skills to teach multi-grade groups and a clear picture of what rurality means and rural communities can offer. Pre-service preparation with regards to rural teaching and living (rural practicums, for example), continuous in-service support, and adequate incentives to take up with work posts in smaller towns can raise both teachers' satisfaction and effectiveness.

Making appropriate use of new technologies is of crucial importance too, especially in more remote regions. Multiple forms of distance support can help in meeting the diverse needs and interests of students, widening student learning opportunities and providing more tailored support. ICT may also keep teachers closer to their peers, administrations and teacher education institutions to strengthen their professional position, and even allow schools to benefit from shared instructional materials and human capital in times of school closures due to financial constraints.

A new Trends Shaping Education Spotlight provides a closer look to these challenges and opportunities for education in rural regions. Rapidly growing urbanisation is undoubtedly one of the main characteristics of our time but, as Asterix would say, some small villages still indomitably hold out against it. Access to quality education is a key for them to thrive.

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Photo source: Child goes on a country road. Sunlight. @shutterstock

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