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Rural Education

International Context

Rural education is always considered in comparison to urban education. There are other dichotomies, including government versus private or mission schools; access to the first year of schooling for male versus female pupils; the standard of facilities and resources; the education and experience of teachers; and the quality of education offered and the language of instruction (the national language is often a foreign tongue to people in rural areas).

The Challenges of Rural Education

When outside teachers who do not speak the local language staff rural schools, cultural conflict occurs. Often they feel superior to the local people and refuse to take the time to learn about the culture of their host community. Teachers posted to rural schools usually apply for transfers and if denied them simply "run away." Even when "at post," they often teach only a portion of their load, as they find excuses to leave–to collect their pay, to go to the health center, to attend funerals, and so on. Teacher absenteeism is a major problem in rural areas.

In the Majority World (or Third World, the South, where the majority of the peoples of the world live) there exists a range of possibilities that are encompassed by rural. Population densities vary but are usually small and scattered. The environment is also diverse, ranging from plains and deserts to mountain areas with deep valleys and flowing rivers, to places with small islands scattered across large areas of open sea. "Remote" and "isolated" are other categories of rural. Schools in rural areas tend to lack amenities. Electricity is either not available or limited. Where education systems rely on interactive radio and television to deliver primary school classes, the isolated schools are left out. Even if they have batteries for radios, the signal either does not reach them or is too weak to be understood. If the community must construct the classrooms and teachers' houses, they are often built out of local or temporary materials, which are perceived as inferior by outsiders. School supplies may never arrive, so teachers fall back on teaching from their kit from their training college days and rely more on rote learning.

Rural schools tend to harbor untrained or unqualified teachers. School inspectors do not like walking or riding in canoes for a number of days, so remote schools rarely get visited. Where population densities are small, rural schools tend to need only one or two teachers. This requires either staggered intakes–a class every two or three years–or multigrade teaching (as in the old one-room, one-teacher schoolhouses in rural America that went from kindergarten to grade twelve, which are now museums as they have been replaced by busing and regional schools).

The solution to this problem in the Majority World has been boarding schools or primary schools with hostels for students from remote communities. Most secondary schools still rely on boarding students from far away.

Some countries, such as Jamaica, Papua New Guinea, and Tanzania, have experimented with "quotas" to control the transition from primary to secondary school so that a fair proportion of those pupils in rural schools are able to continue their education (or to ensure that females are represented at the next level). Selection systems employing quotas have lasted for only a few years because urban elites, who make the decisions, find rural children taking places in schools where their children might have gone.

Where rural schools are inferior in facilities and the quality of teachers (for example, the majority of South African farm schools, which enroll 40 percent of the primary pupils), the consequence is that students tend not to get selected for the next level of schooling. The examinations–the item banks written by educators who live in cities–contain clear urban biases and favor the progression of urban children. "First-past-the-post" examination systems in rural areas have tended to favor the children of outsiders (such as health professionals, police officers, extension officers, and teachers) over local children.

It has been found, when intelligence tests have been administered, that bright rural children do not get admitted into secondary schools, whereas duller urban children do. This is because first-past-the-post selection systems based on formal primary-school-leaving examinations favor children from urban areas where there are better facilities, equipment, and teachers, and more diverse experiences. All of this contributes to the vicious cycle of rural poverty and neglect. The policy debates are never ending. Where successful, the best students who excel on examinations generally leave their communities, never to return. This results in a leadership vacuum in rural areas. Even youth who have been barred from further studies often migrate to gain experience or seek employment in unskilled jobs that are not available at home.

Changing Strategies

Some policymakers believe that in order to keep young people in rural areas, rural education should be different from urban education. It is claimed that if schooling is more relevant to local conditions and designed to contribute to rural development, the youth may not want to migrate. They also assume, usually fallaciously, that teachers can become community development workers and assist in the transformation of rural areas. The change in name from primary to community schools, which has occurred in many countries, reflects this bias. Planners often ignore the aspirations that rural parents have for their children–to become educated, obtain a job in a city, and send remittances home to their aging parents.

Ways of adapting primary education to local conditions, while maintaining standards and permitting the quality of learning and supporting upward mobility for the brighter children, are being explored in many countries. An example is integrating school gardens with agricultural and nutrition education and school lunch programs. Another is new programs in minority education that address local needs without undermining quality or equality of opportunity.

Urban elites may clamor for "vocationalization," but for other people's children, not their own. Generally there has been a rejection of vocationalization of primary schooling. Rural education must not become "unequal" education. The conviction remains that primary schooling must be a firm foundation for further education, while being terminal for those who are unable to continue to the next level. This was the key message in the 1967 book Education for Self-Reliance, written by Julius Nyerere, president of Tanzania. The challenge of how to achieve both objectives at once continues to exist in the early twenty-first century.

The distribution of school supplies and materials remains a critical issue. Urban schools tend to get supplied first and rural and remote schools last. This syndrome is found in the delivery of most government services and prompted Richard Chambers, a leading rural sociologist, to call in 1997 for "the last first" as fundamental policy to support rural development. It is perhaps unlikely that central ministries of education, either nationally or in regions or districts, will provide isolated schools with computers, solar power, and communication dishes before they have provided the new panacea of information technology or e-learning to their urban schools. The gap between the poor and undereducated in rural areas and their urban counterparts is bound to increase.

Other strategies that have been employed with varying degrees of success include the Book Flood in Fiji, in which schools were given large numbers of storybooks, intended to attract students' attention and to expose them to a wide variety of subjects. The Book Flood was endorsed by the World Bank and has spread to other countries (reading enhances learning, no matter what is read). Inducement allowances have been used to attract and hold qualified teachers in isolated schools. In some countries a "bridging" or extra year of schooling is provided to help children from remote communities catch up. Indonesia has relied on nonformal education centers. In New Zealand and Papua New Guinea vernacular preschools, where reading and writing is taught before grade one, has enhanced the capacity of rural pupils to comprehend formal schooling and to excel in school. In some places, particularly in Central and South America, missionaries run private schools that are of a better quality than those provided by the government. More than 160 countries are struggling with issues related to developing rural education. Rarely do the policymakers strive for a comparative perspective or try to learn from each other. Therefore the policies employed are very diverse.


CHAMBERS, ROBERT. 1983. Rural Development: Putting the Last First. London: Longman.

CHAMBERS, ROBERT. 1997. Whose Reality Counts? Putting the First Last. London: Intermediate Technology Publications.

COLCLOUGH, CHRISTOPHER, and LEWIN, KEITH. 1993. Educating All the Children: Strategies for Primary Schooling in the South. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

EDUCATION FOUNDATION. 2001. Education Atlas of South Africa. Johannesburg, South Africa: Education Foundation.

GIBSON, MARGARET, and WEEKS, SHELDON G. 1990. Improving Education in the Western Province. Waigani, Papua New Guinea: National Research Institute, Division of Educational Research.

LE ROUX, WILLEMIEN. 2000. Torn Apart: San Children as Change Agents in a Process of Acculturation. Shakawe, Botswana: Kuru Development Trust; Windhoek, Namibia: Working Group for Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa.

LEVIN, HENRY M., and LOCKHEED, MARLAINE E. 1993. Effective Schools in Developing Countries. London: Falmer Press.

NYERERE, JULIUS. 1967. Education for Self-Reliance. Dar es Salaam, Tanzania: Government Printers.

REPUBLIC OF ZAMBIA. MINISTRY OF EDUCATION. 1996. Educating Our Future: National Policy on Education. Lusaka, Zambia: Zambia Educational Publishing.


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