Skip to main content

Rural education: Executive Summary

Executive Summary


HREOC has conducted

a range of national inquiries into systemic human rights problems. Public

inquiries offer HREOC an opportunity to promote an understanding and acceptance

of human rights in Australia and to promote public discussion. Principally

through media coverage and public forums they publicise both the Commission

and the subject of the inquiry, put the subject of the inquiry in a human

rights context and framework and engage the public in discussion and debate.

For the immediate stakeholders in the subject of an inquiry, the inquiry

provides a forum for public expression of views, experiences, opinions

and analysis.

In April 2001, HREOC

called for expressions of interest in a collaborative project to evaluate

its National Inquiry into Rural and Remote Education. The National Inquiry

into Rural and Remote Education had the following objectives:

  • To gather information,

    from policy makers, education providers, education consumers, researchers

    and members of the public, about the provision of education in rural

    and remote Australia.

  • To inform education

    stakeholders about the child's human right to education and what education

    provision it requires.

  • To publicise

    the failures in provision and access to education - and the human rights

    violations involved - in rural and remote Australia.

  • More broadly to

    promote (i.e. publicise and provide information about) the rights of

    children, the role of the Commission, the relevance of human rights

    to the concerns of people in rural and remote areas and the availability

    of the Commission to address and promote those concerns.

  • To evaluate the

    information received within a human rights framework; specifically to

    evaluate the provision of education in rural and remote Australia against

    the benchmark of the child's right to education as set out in the Convention

    on the Rights of the Child and elaborated by the UN Committee on Economic,

    Social and Cultural Rights.

  • To make practical

    recommendations for reform and to communicate those effectively to policy

    makers and legislators.

The Commission's

Inquiry into Rural and Remote Education, like other HREOC inquiries, sought

to have an impact on human rights through the inquiry process itself and

its delivery of recommendations rather than through direct action, the

aim of the present project was to evaluate the process of the Inquiry

into Rural and Remote Education.

Evaluation Research Method

The evaluation task

required a multi-disciplinary approach to comprehensively capture the

major and critical issues in access to education for remote and rural

Australians. However, more importantly, it required a multi-faceted approach

to data collection. A total of 76 people who had participated in the 1999

Inquiry were interviewed about the process of the inquiry in November

and December 2001. The site visits were chosen in order to: (a) collect

observations and responses from a range of geographic areas where input

to the inquiry had been received; (b) to reflect on specific issues that

appeared to be geographically specific (on the basis of submissions to

the inquiry); (c) Alice Springs and Boggabilla were chosen because they

represented two areas where submissions had been made and where there

were strong community organisational structures but had not been visited

by the inquiry team.

Step One: Collection

of background material - HREOC made all existing information available

for the evaluation study. The evaluation team also collected new and retrospective

opinions of stakeholders and other people involved in carrying out the


Step Two: The conceptual

component of the inquiry - retracing the conceptual development of the

inquiry: in retrospect, was the inquiry process appropriately designed?

Step Three: The input

component of the inquiry - review of the information inputs to the inquiry

through individuals, documentary evidence and stakeholder submissions.

Step Four: The analysis

component of the inquiry - evaluating the interpretation of findings.

Step Five: The output

component of the inquiry - evaluation of whether the output was disseminated

effectively and appropriately.

Key Issues that Emerged

(1) The Conceptual


  • The objectives

    of the inquiry were ambitious, given the complexity of the topic and

    the limited time and resources available. It was necessary for some

    difficult operational decisions about how to best utilise the limited

    time and resources available.

  • HREOC was faced

    with the task of ensuring that the pervasive educational issues faced

    by Aborigines were adequately presented in the broader human rights

    context. On one hand there were pressures to focus the inquiry more

    specifically on Aboriginal issues, but on the other there was pressure

    to ensure that all target groups remained at the centre of focus. It

    appears that the Commission's approach worked reasonably well though

    some approaches in getting to the heart of Aboriginal concerns could

    have been improved.

  • It was clear that

    HREOC made considerable effort to articulate the view that their inquiry

    was an attempt to place educational issues in remote Australia in a

    human rights perspective. However, this particular feature of the inquiry

    was not widely appreciated throughout the communities visited by the

    evaluation team.

  • The inquiry was

    broad ranging in terms of the target groups identified and the issues

    involved. However, there was a challenge for HREOC to convey the message

    that they could not specifically act on behalf of the target groups

    - although they could raise the profile of these issues. HREOC appears

    to have been well aware of this challenge but should continue to make

    every effort to clarify its role. Perhaps in the future, posters or

    videos clips could be used to better convey the appropriate message.

  • The inquiry was

    generally welcomed and considered to be timely by all sectors. However,

    there were mixed experiences in terms of expectations of follow-up.

  • One group that

    appears to have had limited input to the inquiry are migrants from non-English

    speaking backgrounds. Disabled groups and parents made reasonable input

    but in the end felt that the inquiry was too broad to serve the needs

    of their children.

  • Although the Commission

    made considerable use of peak bodies (community and education) to disseminate

    information and solicit responses, it is clear that this approach needed

    to be complemented with a bottom-up grass-roots approach. It appears

    that attempts to draw responses from migrant communities simply through

    peak bodies and public advertisements was not very effective.

(2) The Input


  • The promotion

    of the inquiry was an important part of the process. While HREOC appears

    to have put considerable effort into promoting word of mouth information

    to encourage input from Aboriginal communities it appears that, in retrospect,

    more effort is needed to overcome perceived limited access to information

    among some Aboriginal communities.

  • The Issues Paper

    could perhaps have been more effective in stimulating input to the inquiry

    if it had been presented in poster format. While the HREOC team made

    a decision not to produce a glossy publication it does appear that the

    more low key but 'texty' publication did not attract a great deal of

    attention in the more remote Aboriginal communities.

  • Co-Commissioners

    had an exceptionally important and worthwhile role, which could be strengthened

    in future inquiries. Representativeness of Co-Commissioners was applauded

    by many respondents but questions were raised as to why there was no

    full-time Aboriginal Co-Commissioner appointed.

  • Some Co-Commissioners

    clearly felt they did not have sufficient opportunity to contribute

    in a fuller way to the process. Issues concerning their input included

    whether an initial meeting should have been held to clarify expectations

    of their role and whether they could have had more input into the analysis


  • Holding community

    meetings always brings up issues of who speaks, who is heard, whether

    the venue is accessible, whether the news of a meeting reaches the right

    people, if some people are invited, or not. This inquiry was no exception.

    Prior consultation with communities helps to identify idiosyncrasies

    of specific contexts. Where some communities see themselves as subaltern,

    even more care needs to be taken to ensure their representation.

  • Much of the evidence

    collected through hearings and meetings was set in a context of community

    politics and broader issues of social exclusion. Whatever the style

    of meetings they will inevitably provide an appropriate forum for discussion

    for some people, but a rather foreign forum for others. Inquiries need

    to remain sensitive to such differences and recognise their potential

    for reflecting community divisions rather than different perspectives

    on common issues.

  • HREOC anticipated

    the need to include a range of approaches to complement the information

    collected at hearings. However, the point to note is that participants

    in one forum are likely to perceive their experience as the only input

    and consequently feel generally concerned that it is not sufficient.

    This suggests the need to continually reinforce the range of inputs

    to the inquiry overall. No doubt the inquiry team endeavoured to do

    that, but it appears there is a strong need to reinforce the point that

    individuals and community groups have a range of options for providing

    additional input.

  • Providing the

    interests of all are adequately represented it is perhaps of less concern

    who actually makes the representation. The task for the inquiry is to

    ensure that all interests are represented. The obvious lesson is that

    public meetings are limited in what they can be expected to achieve,

    yet remain an important forum for raising and discussing issues - within

    the broader process.

  • The issues concerning

    the input component of the inquiry reflect the difficulties of obtaining

    representative views from heterogeneous communities. These are not unique

    to this inquiry. More attention needs to be paid to the communication

    difficulties in remote and rural communities, so that local networks

    and informal communication mechanisms can be used to greater effect.

    On the other hand, HREOC appears to have steered a reasonable pathway

    in dealing sensitively with what was seen to be a complex set of issues.

  • For future inquiries

    it is important to avoid the perception that these exercises are simply

    a matter of 'a white mob flying in and out' while everything remains

    the same. It also appears to have been a mistake not to have held some

    hearings or meetings in Central Australia. This is not to say that hearings

    should be held everywhere but simply to recognise the significance of

    Central Australia as an organisational base for many remote communities

    whose experiences are rather different from those at the 'Top End'.

(3) The Analysis Component

  • Some respondents

    expressed concern that there was not more 'stake-holder' involvement

    in the analytical process. However, this does not mean that conclusions

    were perceived as being inappropriate. Rather it is a matter of perceived


  • Co-Commissioners

    expressed the view that they could have been more actively involved

    in the drafting of recommendations.

(4) The Output


  • There were many

    positive responses to the inquiry reports referring to their usefulness

    as tools for teaching. The idea of presenting a number of small booklets

    rather than one large document appears to have been a good strategy.

    However, there was concern about the level of distribution of the complementary


  • Although respondents

    were generally pleased with the scope of the inquiry and the way in

    which the results were disseminated others maintained that highlighting

    a few issues in each topic area by State may have been much more effective

    as a means of influencing politicians.

Major Lessons

to be Learned

While there was general

support for the process adopted by the inquiry there are a number of lessons

that HREOC might take into account in future inquiries.

First, some sort

of scouting exercise to discuss issues, select appropriate locations and

prepare communities, and identify where interpreters would be needed should

have preceded the inquiry.

Second, in order

to expand participation in the future there is a need to 'go out to' participants

and visit them at their working locations.

Third, Co-Commissioners

could have been used more effectively to mobilise their networks to promote

interest in the inquiry.

Fourth, many people

made the point that it is necessary to have 'partner workers' on the ground

to facilitate input and planning, before, during and as a follow-up to

the inquiry process.

Fifth, the inquiry

could have been better publicised. Various suggestions emerged for a more

strategic approach that would have helped offset the very limited advertising



updated 30 August 2002.