A perspective on rural education

A perspective on rural education – the importance, challenges, and solutions.

Education is a priority

Education was a key concern of rural communities throughout our engagement in 2016. In fact, 11% accessible and remote rural respondents specifically had concerns about education and it was the top survey issue for island residents. Why?

  • It is a right – Article 2, First protocol, Human Rights Act.
  • It is a day-to-day concern, because accessing it is a daily concern. This makes it very visible, as well as save our school campaigns bringing it to greater attention.
  • Rural populations in some areas are declining, or becoming older, and a failing school or difficult access to education, makes a community an undesirable place to live for parents and young people. It is seen as a key reason for young people leaving the area after school.
  • The rural economy (and life) relies on small businesses, sole traders and entrepreneurs. If our young people can not access the appropriate training for jobs in rural communities then they can not live there.
  • Rural communities are being relied on to do more for themselves; yet access to lifelong learning, and continued professional development is limited without travel to the population centres. Young people are seen as the future of those initiatives.

Educational attainment

Table 1: Destination of school leavers from publicly funded secondary schools by geographic area, 2012-2013, Key facts on rural Scotland 2015, Scottish Government

In terms of outcomes, rural Scotland does well. The key difference is between the number of young people who go into further education – fewer in rural areas (22% vs 28%) – and the number of young people who go into work – more in rural areas (31% vs 20%).

The obvious implication is that the less academic young people in rural areas – those who are not going away to University – enter immediately into employment rather than going onto further education. Why? Because FE is hardest to access for young people. This has obvious implications in terms of skills and education levels in rural areas, and the quality of employment young people are entering into.

Manifesto for rural Scotland, 2016

To retain young and talented people in our rural communities and the essential services and entrepreneurship they bring to our communities, we need to provide good quality opportunities for education, training and professional development.

Our Manifesto for rural Scotland outlines the key outcome that rural communities want to see in terms of education in rural Scotland.

We call for:

  • Education choices to be appropriate for the community they service in content, structure and delivery approaches.
  • A comprehensive, multi-agency task-force should be set-up to investigate the causes of, and to identify and implement solutions to, the challenges in attracting and retaining educational staff in rural parts of Scotland.
  • Better links between education and local business to be forged in order to improve the quality of education and tailor education better to the needs of local rural businesses.
  • Distant learning options should continue to be developed, and superfast broadband schemes rolled-out to support this option.

Barriers: Transport

Transport is a key barrier and solution to the problem of access to education for rural communities.

The graph above shows how the percentage of people within a drive time of 15 minutes to the stated location; there is a very sharp difference in the number of people who can access secondary school within a 15 minute drive between urban and rural Scotland. Although it is not shown on this graph, the drive time is significantly higher for Further Education.

Because their school is further away, children are less likely to cycle or walk to school. When you consider that rural communities have much poorer access to public transport, and 13% of rural households don’t have a vehicle, it starts to become clear how much of a barrier this is. For comparison, drive time to a secondary school was the worst on this list including GP, post office, shopping centre, petrol station – all of things are more accessible than a secondary school. Specifically, in regards to further education, young people face journeys involving multiple bus changes, can take several hours, and becomes expensive. Solutions?

  • Smart ticketing would be beneficial.
  • Connected timetabling.
  • More frequent buses.
  • Free travel for young people in education or first years of employment would provide us with skilled and educated young adults who are the future of our economy.
  • Allowing young people to be educated at the school nearest to them and most convenient by public transport, not within their local authority area and not by judging as the crow flies.

Barriers: Staffing

There are serious problems in attracting and retaining teaching staff in rural Scotland, and we need to address this. In some areas, schools are struggling to stay open, and in others they can’t teach essential subjects, making the schools much less desirable places for young people to attend. There has been lots of work focused on health staff recently, with some success, but not as much on teaching staff.

Emma Cooper


Emma joined SRA in 2014 and was our Chief Executive until February 2019. She is going to be touring in a mega motorhome so might be out of touch with us for a while.

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