Election 2013 Western Australia March 9

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Education Matters

Country Education and Population Loss - A youth perspective

by Nick Warland

I want to preface this article by noting a couple of aspects of rural life and statistics which impact the way in which this issue is reported, and indeed the view from which I personally perceive this issue. Firstly, the numbers that I use are only estimates. I have spent time trawling through my memory bank and Facebook friends to find out exactly who has left the Kojonup district for the purpose of education. I would say that the number I have worked out is slightly lower than the actual figure itself. There are a lot of people who have moved that I am either unaware of, or didn’t know about. I should also note that the figure I will be using is an estimate of how many people have left Kojonup for educational purposes who were most likely present on Census night in 2006, but not present in Kojonup at the time of the 2011 census.

With that out of the way, it would pay to provide a bit of a background of myself, the demographic issue and Kojonup itself. Firstly, I am a 17 year old, who is ironically, moving to Melbourne to study politics, international relations and economics at Melbourne University. I have lived in Kojonup all my life. I’ve seen businesses open and close, people come and go and obviously, seen a lot of change, particularly in the past 10 years. My Dad operates a local business and this year will mark his 23rd year in the district. Mum also works in the town and surrounding areas, and both parents are in the health sector. I was privileged to attend a private boarding school in Perth.

Ultimately, boarding schools, rural education and the trend of decline in rural Australia are all key components on the issue of Kojonup’s population decline. This issue has cropped up following a discussion on ABC South Coast & Great Southern last week, of Kojonup having the highest rate of population decline in Western Australia, as documented at the 2011 Census. Here are the key statistics census wise from the ABS:

  • Population of Kojonup Shire declined from 2,153 people to 1,981 between 06 and 11.

  • This is highest decline in West Australian LGAs with more than 1,500 people in it

  • Equates to an annual population decline of 1.7%

I didn’t hear the initial discussion on the radio, as it was early in the morning. Having spoken to people who both heard and contributed to that discussion, it seems the problem has become unnecessarily divisive both on the radio and within the community. Many people hypothesised about the reason as to why Kojonup’s population declined. The usual reasons were raised, like the mining boom and difficulty within agriculture. Here is the ABC article which followed the radio report that kick started the debate: www.abc.net.au/news/2013-01-28/dwindling-numbers-cause-for-concern-in-south-west/4484634

Before I discuss the problems with this discussion, I want to stress that my reasoning for this decline is purely opinion based. In my opinion, there are three reasons for this population. They are mentioned within the article, but I don’t believe they’re properly discussed or looked into. The Census data shows there was 172 people less in Kojonup shire at the last census in comparison to the numbers in 2006. Of that 172, I can count at least 80 kids who have left Kojonup for education purposes- being both government and private boarding schools mainly in Perth, Albany and Bunbury. That doesn’t include students who have left for vocational training or university studies. In addition to this, several families both of teaching staff and students have left over the 2006-2011 period for education reasons.

Obviously teaching staff are in some ways residually employed, when the demographics in the town’s two schools don’t support excess staff, those jobs are lost, and those teachers and families if they have any, leave the town for educational employment opportunities. From this, you can add a minimum of 16 people to the 80 kids who have left for educational purposes. Some of those people are single, and there aren’t many families included there. What all of this data suggest to me is that of the 172 people less in the shire of Kojonup, at least 96 of them have left for education related reasons. As mentioned, this figure is only people that I know of who were present at 06’ census but weren’t at the 2011 census. So I would expect that there are greater numbers linked to education than I have listed here.

That means that roughly 55.8% of the population loss is somewhat linked to education. Of the remaining population loss, sadly a lot of elderly people have passed away and roughly a dozen couples have retired to the coast. And naturally, there have been people who have left for various other employment and other reasons. Kojonup does have an elderly persons home which, as I understand, attracts elderly people from quite a vast area outside of the Kojonup region.

With all the main, expected reasons out of the way, I would like to analyse the education reason. I feel there is a need to do this because it’s not, I stress, because of the quality of the education available in Kojonup. It is purely the choice of parents sending their kids away, many of whom believe there are greater (quantity rather than quality) opportunities outside of Kojonup for their children. In my year in Kojonup alone, more than half of the class left for boarding school in Year 8. This reduction of numbers in the school leads to further reductions in staffing and associated support staff, infrastructure and resources within the school and community. There were 3 years in a row, mine included (2007) where there were major leakages of Kojonup Year 7’s to other schools outside of the Kojonup area. This severely dented the numbers of Year 8 entries into the local high school.

A key issue within this discussion that needs to be acknowledged is that a lot of the students who have moved still live in the Kojonup community, both in towns and on farms. They were simply counted in the population of the place where they go to High School. These people still very much live in Kojonup and many of them will return to Kojonup after school for work and to live.

As a small-medium country town, clearly there aren’t any tertiary institutions in the town where people can study. That extends to no TAFE facilities – the nearest TAFE is 40 kilometres to the east in Katanning, which is a town whose population is growing due to the Wammco Abbatoir. It is a very multicultural community, and it was great to see 15 Katanning residents becoming new Australian citizens on Australia Day. Having digressed, this shows that people like myself who want to take up tertiary studies, have no choice but to move out of town to pursue our dreams and potential.

This has been happening in a lot of country towns for a very long time. That’s not a new concept or trend. It is quite reassuring to know that many people are actually moving to Kojonup, to retire or for other life and business opportunities. It’s not as bad as it seems.

Whilst I’m not qualified to make any absolute, certain observations on why Kojonup has the highest population rate decline in Western Australia, it is clear to me that from the number of students moving to new schools, universities, TAFE and the like, that a lot of the population decline is education related. Not because the education in Kojonup is bad, but because parents are exercising their right to choose where they send their children. A lot of people that have ‘left’ Kojonup still actually live here, its purely the dynamics and ways in which the Census works that exaggerate these population issues. No one is denying that rural Australian populations has been in decline- it’s happening almost everywhere and has been for quite some time. If this issue tells us anything, it’s that allowing rural schools to be adequately resourced in a way which enables rural education to compete with city education needs to be a priority.

If rural schools could offer the same opportunities that other city schools could, then these type of temporary population declines won’t occur. I realise that it’s easier said and done, but with Royalties for Regions, maybe the government could focus on services, rather than improving the aesthetics of rural town main streets. I don’t believe Kojonup has anything to worry about until the students don’t return to Kojonup, and people moving to Kojonup can’t cover this loss.

Ultimately, I think it’s inevitable.


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