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Rural Education –policy in place and place in policy

Anne Paterson

School of Education

Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences

Rural Scotland accounts for 98% of the land mass of Scotland and 17% of the population are resident there. The Scottish Government (2018) acknowledged that key areas of policy such as education can have a particular impact on rural communities and seek to reflect this in mainstream policy development. Current education policy in Scotland is focused on achieving excellence and equity. In Scotland, there is a high percentage of rurality and remote communities providing education.There has been very little research undertaken on these schools and rural education. There is a lack of current research material in Scotland. However, Australia, Canada and America have dedicated research centres for rural education. My current research work will support further development of policy in Scotland in rural education and meets the aims of Sustainable Development Goal 4 to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning.

The researcher has had a lifetime involvement in rural education and brings a rich knowledge and understanding of rural education and the issues of sustainability of small rural schools. The main aim of the research project is to interrogate the relationship between national education policy and how it is enacted in a rural place. The interaction is a complex one and Corbett (2015) states that rural schools are embedded in communities, potentially integrated within the community, and often the heart of rural communities. Each rural school develops a unique place in the community and the “thisness” of a school (Thompson 2000) and the dimensions of rural pedagogy display the interaction between the journey, the place and impact on practices.

A rural school in Scotland, set in a field with a tower on a sunny day
A rural school in Scotland

In the research, the definition of small rural schools is schools of under thirty pupils. Semi structured interviews with policy makers will establish how national policy is created and expected to be implemented in the rural education context. The data gathered from these sources will provide information to create an informed view of the current status of equity and excellence in rural schools and the relationship to national policy. During the investigation, the researcher will spend time in Primary School A to observe how the school functions on a daily basis and how this relates to the national policy. This will provide a case study of the normal daily life of a rural school. Semi structured interviews will also be carried out with pupils, staff, parents and community members to establish their views on what constitutes a rural school, the importance of the school to the place and a view of how the school provides equity and excellence. The researcher will also include an autoethnographic piece of work exploring her own memories and practice as a rural education policy maker.

The relationship between human beings and their environment (place) is important in trying to understand education policy in the rural place. When working with participants, it is necessary for the researcher to understand their interpretation of the world (interpretive). Ethnography is concerned with how people make sense of their everyday world, (Cohen et al 2007) and about exploring the shared culture of a group of people. It “is a method of inquiry that works from the actualities of peoples’ everyday lives and experiences to discover the social as it extends beyond experience” (Smith 2005:10) and takes a cultural lens to the study of people’s lives within their communities (Hammersley and Atkinson, 2007; Fetterman 2010). The roots of ethnography are situated in studies of social and cultural events within small communities. Van Maanen (2011) refers to the getting to know people as “part spy, part voyeur, part fan, part member”. Learning about peoples’ lives (or aspects of their lives) from their own perspective and from within the context of their own lived experience involves not only talking to them and asking questions (as we do in surveys and interviews) but also learning from them by observing them, participating in their lives, and asking questions that relate to their daily life experience, and this is central to the research. The researcher is aware that she is personally, emotionally, and politically involved in rural education and has personal entanglements which can be a strength for ethnographic methodology (Mills and Morton 2013). Thus, capturing this knowledge through autoethnography is important in this project.

A small rural school is defined as having 30 pupils or less

Ethnographic research thrives on the quality of insight developed during fieldwork which I intend to be collaborative and participatory (Mills and Morton 2013:131). The staff involved within the field sites should feel their contributions are participatory. This will involve a great deal of consideration to the responsibility for those who are participants within the study. Data collected will provide insight to the current development of national policy of excellence and equity in relation to:

  • Policy-explanation: the interrogation of texts to give rise to possibility and option.

  • Policy-framing: the location of wider frames for the possibilities for action; a consideration of Discourse as the provider of position calls.

  • Policy-forming: the ways in which positions are taken up or resisted at the local level in an attempt to ‘understand’ policy-explaining and discourse; this itself forms policy (Adams 2016).

It is important to establish and identify the ways in which policy is formed and the view regarding rural education. At this initial stage, however, it is important to understand how action at local level within rural schools' reforms policy. Policy cannot be simply said to be understood and applied. It is important to understand the effect of how professional conversation and professional activity themselves form policy. It is not enough to assume that the pronouncements are then translated into the professional space that is rural schools (Adams 2011).


Adams, P. (2011) From 'ritual' to 'mindfulness': policy and pedagogic positioning. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 32(1), 57 — 69

Adams, P. (2016) Education policy: explaining, framing and forming, Journal of Education Policy, 31(3), 290-307, DOI: 10.1080/02680939.2015.108438

Cohen, L., Manion,L. and Morrison,K.(2007). Research Methods in Education. Oxon: Routledge.

Corbett, M. (2015). Rural Education: Some Sociological Provocations for the Field. Australian & International Journal of Rural Education; 25(3), 9-25.

Fetterman DM (2010) Ethnography Step by Step (Third edition). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Hammersley M., Atkinson P. (2007). Ethnography: Principles in Practice (Third edition). London: Routledge. Mills, D. and Morton, M. (2013). Ethnography in Education. London: Sage Publications.

Smith, Dorothy E. (2005). Institutional Ethnography: A Sociology for People. Rowman and Littlefield: Toronto.

Scottish Government. (2018). Delivering for today investing in tomorrow. Available at

Thomson, P. (2000). “Like Schools”, Educational “Disadvantage” and Thisness". Australian Educational Research Volume 27.

Van Maanen, J.(2011). Ethnography as Work: Some Rules of Engagement, Journal of Management Studies, 48(1) January 2011.

Author retains copyright to text and images.

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