Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

Small Schools, Big Future

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

Small Schools, Big Future

Article excerpt


Vibrant, productive rural communities are integral to Australia's sustainability. Population growth and an increasing preference for urban living linked with the challenges of food security, water supply, energy sufficiency, environmental health and territorial security underpin this position (Barlow, 2007; Diamond, 2005; Homer-Dixon, 2006). For rural communities to survive, prosper and be the innovative places and spaces Australia requires, leadership of small schools needs to be better understood, valued and supported by governments and policy-makers. A historical sketch of small schools and their characteristics together with some national and global population data provides the context for this article. Research undertaken on rural educational leadership in 2010 is used to argue for better ways of supporting the ongoing learning and work of principals of small schools.

By 2050 the world's population is predicted to peak between 9 and 10 billion. Australia's population is likely to have increased by 12 million to around 35 million, and an estimated two-thirds of the world's people will live in cities, with the pressure to guarantee food security likely to be at record levels (Brugmann, 2009). These factors, along with others such as the continued growth and reach of Information and Communications Technology (ICT), have important consequences for how children acquire their education and consequently for the futures of small schools in Australia.


Australia comprises six states and two territories, each of which has an elected parliament, as well as national government. Australia has a population of 22.5 million, the majority of whom live in the three most populous states--New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland--and a land mass of 7.5 million square kilometres. Distance and very low population density are two of the dominant challenges of ensuring all children access schooling. Under the Constitution, the states and territories are responsible for providing and managing schools. In recent years the national government has played an increasing role in education, through its financial powers and by developing coalitions of support for national initiatives such as the Australian curriculum, the public release of school performance data, and literacy and numeracy testing.

The significance of small schools

At the start of the 20th century, small schools, especially rural schools of one and two teachers, dotted the Australian landscape and were the face of public education for many thousands of children and their families.

In South Australia, for example, the situation for government schools was described as one in which:

more than half [of the 1,010 schools in the state] were one-room schools [mostly rural] staffed by mostly uncertified teachers ... discussion about rural schools, teachers and their practice was muted but rarely were they seen to be achieving the same standards as urban teachers and larger schools. (Whitehead, 2005, pp. 293-5)

By the 1940s, with growing pressure for universal access to secondary education and increasing mechanisation of farming (which accelerated farm amalgamations), the closure and consolidation of small schools gained momentum. Improved rural roads and transport options also played a significant role, as did the introduction of schools providing both primary and secondary education at the one site.

Notwithstanding the closure and amalgamation of small schools in Australia over the last half century, they remain numerically significant in the provision of education. Stipulating 100 enrolments or fewer to define a small school, based on 2008 data, there are more than 2,500 such schools in Australia. If 200 enrolments or fewer is used as the definition, there are 4,253 representing approximately 45% of all schools in Australia (Anderson et al., 2010). The majority of small schools are in non-urban locations and the more distant a community is from a capital or regional city, the more likely it is to have a small school. …

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