Country students continue to lag city kids in NAPLAN results

Country Victorian students continue to lag their Melbourne counterparts, with analysis of last year’s NAPLAN results showing metro students were more than a year ahead of their country counterparts in reading.

The data comes as students in years 3, 5, 7 and 9 this week start the latest series of NAPLAN tests. It shows that although average scores across rural and regional schools have rebounded slightly since 2018, the gap between country and city school results was still wider in 2021 than a decade earlier.

Primary school students sitting the NAPLAN test.Credit:Justin McManus

The Grattan Institute said the pandemic seemed to have widened the gap. The think tank found year 3 metro students were about seven months ahead of regional students in reading. By year 9, the gap had doubled, and they were more than a year ahead.

The scores achieved by year 9 country students in 2022 was below the results achieved by the same cohort pre-pandemic – a drop of about six months in numeracy and three months in reading.

Nick Parkinson, an associate in the Grattan Institute’s education program, said the gap was likely driven by country schools struggling to attract the best teachers and having a greater proportion of disadvantaged students than city schools.

“Country schools are hard to staff, more likely to have new teachers, teachers teaching out of field (for example, a teacher who isn’t trained in maths teaching maths) and a higher rate of teacher turnover,” he said.

“Rich kids tend to do better on NAPLAN, and there are fewer rich kids in country schools.”

The latest NAPLAN results show a lower percentage of Victorian regional students meet minimum standards for literacy and numeracy.

Metropolitan students in years 3, 5 and 7 outperform their regional peers in numeracy, reading, writing, spelling, grammar and punctuation.

Results for remote students in years 3, 5 and 7 were suppressed as fewer than 30 students were tested. However, the data shows remote students in year 9 outperformed students in regional areas and Melbourne, a result possibly driven by the small sample size as fewer than 100 students were classified as remote.

A separate analysis of VCE data showed metropolitan Melbourne schools achieved higher subject results, on average, than their rural and regional counterparts. In Melbourne schools, the average study score was 29.6 for VCE students in 2021, but regionally and rurally, the average study score was 28.

However, Melbourne has a much higher percentage of private and selective schools, which are more likely to be attended by advantaged students, and the gap between city and country schools is wider among private schools than state schools.

A 2019 government report recommended developing a strategic plan for rural and regional education.

Mark McLay wants a strategic plan on boosting academic opportunities for rural and regional students. Credit:Simon Schluter

Mark McLay, chief executive of Country Education Partnerships, which advocates for improvements to rural and remote education, said there had been improvements in mental health, staffing incentives and workload reduction, but the government was yet to release its full strategy.

He said there was more work to be done building school clusters, so that teachers and principals from different schools could work together to share staff and resources, or run combined camps.

A government spokesperson said money had been spent on teacher recruitment, STEM camps, online education, student mental health programs and capital works.

“We understand there are unique challenges for students and teachers in rural and regional parts of our state – that’s why we’ve increased funding and support.”

But Anthony Shaw, veteran principal of Glen Park Primary School near Ballarat, said Victoria needed a systematic approach to rectifying the issues holding back rural education.

Among the issues facing country schools that he highlighted were: the loss of shared specialist teachers; difficulties attracting and keeping quality teachers; administrative burdens on full-time teaching principals; and, limited services for at-risk students.

A shared specialist scheme for speech pathologists, psychologists and paediatricians, and attractive packages for teaching staff were initiatives he identified that would help bridge the gap.

“The loss of teacher housing may have an impact there,” he said. “Teachers need to have a quality career path in rural [and] remote areas, not just a fist full of cash absorbed by the higher cost of living in rural areas anyway.”

The Grattan Institute has previously called for the rollout of nationwide tutoring to help students who fall behind, and incentives to increase the supply of high-performing teachers, such as increasing salaries and scholarships for high-achieving school-leavers.

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