Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently announced a plan to attract teachers to remote areas by promising to remove all or part of the HECS debt of up to 3100 teaching graduates.

To be eligible, the teachers must commit to working at a rural Indigenous school for at least four years. The plan is part of the ‘Closing the Gap‘ strategy aimed at combatting the intergenerational disadvantage faced by remote Indigenous communities. These strategies are based on recommendations by the Special Envoy to Indigenous Affairs, Tony Abbott. This year’s ‘Closing the Gap‘ report revealed that only two of the strategy’s key targets are on track.

Experts have praised the announcement, but they stress that graduates who are from remote communities themselves are best suited to taking on jobs in rural areas. Graduates from metropolitan areas are less likely to consider staying long term, creating a high staff turnover.

‘The attraction and retention of teachers in Rural Regional and Remote communities has been a problem since the advent of compulsory education.’ – Philip Roberts, Associate Professor in Curriculum Inquiry & Rural Education at the University of Canberra.

Professor Philip Roberts told the Katherine Times that teachers from urban areas often struggled with feeling “out of place” in remote communities. His concerns echo a recent study conducted by researchers at Melbourne University investigating the nationwide staffing shortage in rural schools.

Teaching students undergoing placements in remote areas cited isolation, lack of resources, and lower academic standards as reasons why a remote teaching job would not be attractive in the long term. They stressed that they had not had adequate training to deal with the special requirements of a rural position. The report recommended that more emphasis be placed on encouraging rural students to a teaching career and supporting them through their studies.

Aboriginal students deserve informed education policy. Image via The Green Left.

Free degrees may attract graduates to remote areas, but they will not be enough to encourage them to stay after the required four years – particularly not metropolitan graduates. What’s more, the new policy ignores the reality that the majority of indigenous students do not live in very remote areas, and that those students are still markedly underperforming non-indigenous students.

After over a decade of failing to address the systemic disadvantage faced by Aboriginal Australians, one would hope that the government’s approach to ‘closing the gap’ would have evolved beyond quick-fix approaches. It is disappointing, to say the least, that new policies seem to continuously disregard the complexity of the issues they claim to address, on the mere recommendations of a ‘Special Envoy to Indigenous Affairs’ who has widely been widely condemned by the Aboriginal community. At this point, ‘closing the gap’ feels like little more than a buzzword.

If the government really wants to improve education for rural kids, they’ll need an informed, comprehensive approach – not an easy to sell, bandaid solution. In order to make that happen, the government needs to really care about Aboriginal communities and to work with Aboriginal leaders.