Informing key influencers
of low SES regional, rural and remote students’ education and career pathway choices: A whole community approach
Prof. Sue Kilpatrick1, Dr. Sarah Fischer1, Dr. Subhash Koirala1, Dr. Jessica Woodroffe1, Dr. Nicoli Barnes1, Dr. Olivia Groves2, Dr. Robin Katersky Barnes1, Dr. Kylie Austin2
Education and career pathway decision making in rural, regional and remote (RRR) areas is crucial for building strong societies and economies across RRR Australia, a point made by recent reviews of RRR education (Napthine et al., 2019; Halsey, 2018). Rather than targeting school students in their education and career pathway decision making, this project developed and piloted a model focussed on working alongside communities to build community capacity to support education and career pathway decisions of school students and adults. Schools currently have limited support from outside the education sector in providing career information and education. There is a need to embed knowledge within communities about careers of today and the future, and the pathways to them, so that this knowledge is readily accessible to those making pathway decisions. This project aimed to establish a model to fill gaps in community knowledge and give confidence to the community members who are key influencers of young people’s and others’ career and education pathway decisions. The project adopted a placed-based, whole of RRR community approach to targeting and building the capacity of these key influencers.
A community based participatory research (CBPR) approach was used, establishing communities as the central focus of the research, with community members working alongside researchers. Running parallel to the implementation of the project described above was an additional layer of research. Three case study communities in two states presented three different examples of the implementation of the model and provided the basis for an exploration of the factors that impede and promote key influencers’ acquiring the information and confidence they need to support the education and career pathway decisions of others; opportunities for interventions to prepare key influencers for this role; and factors that influence the effectiveness of interventions in building the capacity of RRR community key influencers. It should be noted that while the case study communities were low socioeconomic status (SES), a whole-of-community approach meant that people of any SES may have participated. Similarly, it is not possible to foresee who will participate in higher education; this project aimed to expose the full range of education and career pathway options, so that students could be supported in selecting pathways most appropriate for them.
The project addressed the key question:
- How can a whole of community approach best equip key influencers to inform and support low SES RRR student higher education participation?
There were two sub-questions:
- How might a whole of community approach work effectively?
- How can key influencers in RRR areas best be informed and supported?
In addressing these questions, it became apparent that local context, particularly the nature of community culture and community members’ skills and willingness to work with the researchers, made a difference. Culture is used in its broadest sense to mean attitudes and behaviour characteristic of a particular social group or society. Superior outcomes were associated with a strong community culture, which manifested in maturity in working together and with external agents, and an external versus internal community orientation, where community orientation is the extent of future planning and focus on what is happening outside the community.
CBPR values and prioritises local input into the design and evaluation of programs and resources, while also providing external expert knowledge that can be applied and adapted for local context. The result is flexible, accessible and authentic programs that are likely to engage RRR key influencers. Findings demonstrate that CBPR is an effective methodology to underpin research and develop community partnerships. While some RRR communities have an orientation and community culture that makes CBPR easier to apply than others, CBPR can help build the capacity of RRR communities to engage in productive partnerships such as those in this project.
The project findings indicate that whole of RRR community approaches must be cognisant of local context, draw on local expertise and foster community ownership to be successful. The project revealed contextual characteristics that should be taken into account in the design of a sustainable whole of RRR community approach to education and career pathway education. Partnerships must be cognisant of the pragmatic elements of program or resource delivery (timing, location, delivery mode, place-based learning) which will affect engagement and impact. Pragmatic elements should involve good practice in program design but are better driven by the community who are experts in community preferences and ‘how things get done’, not driven by researchers. Likewise, community are best placed to advise on the authenticity and relevance of interventions for their own context, and what is likely to engage key influencers.
Overall, the findings suggest that while there were a number of factors that influence how a whole of community approach can best equip key influencers to support pathway choices of both young people and adults, the overarching factor is understanding community context and matching program design to context. Generic programs that are not tailored to the nuances of individual communities will not be as effective as flexible programs that understand and take account of individual community need, capability and context.
Our findings focus on:
- Community ownership, engagement and inclusion. Inclusion and engagement of community members who had credibility, visibility, and were well-integrated in their community were critical to successful CBPR and design and implementation of interventions which engaged and built capacity of key influencers.
- Community pathway working parties. Community pathway working parties acted as incubators and activators by creating a supportive environment for development of new ideas and promoting connections with other community programs. The working parties assisted in testing ideas, translated secondary data into the local context, shared observations of their lived experience, provided insight and input into findings and progress and, most importantly, identified local contextual factors that might enhance or hinder understanding of education and career pathways in their community and how ideas could be translated into programs and participation.
- Local pathway brokers as boundary crossers, bringing the community together. The employment of a locally based pathway broker(s) in each community was critical in connecting community institutions and subgroups within the communities and connecting the researchers with the communities; they were key to the partnership as well as a whole of community approach.
- Flexibility, accessibility, authenticity and sustainability. Finding ways in which this project could continue and adapt to changed external contexts but also be responsive to the local context while remaining authentic and relevant, was essential in the context of COVID-19. Three principles, flexibility, accessibility, and authenticity, emerged as central to success of the project. These three principles contribute to sustainability.
- Community culture. Community orientation (external/internal) and community maturity in working together and with those from outside the community (the researchers) influenced the implementation and effectiveness of the project in each community. Understanding how orientation and maturity as elements of community culture can be influenced by the qualities and actions of boundary crossers, and responding to that understanding through the CBPR process is key to successful implementation and project sustainability.
Recommendations 1-14 collectively constitute a model for communities wanting to work internally and partner with external agents to build community capacity to support the education and career pathway decisions of school students and adults.
- Involve key local stakeholders early. Include schools and other locally based education providers, e.g. neighbourhood houses, trade training centres (TTCs). Consider including regional education systems, e.g. universities, tertiary and further education (TAFE) providers, and state departments of education.
- Set up a working party or similar oversight arrangement with the key internal and external stakeholders as members. Draw in and include diverse members from local industry/employers, local government, families, equity groups, sports clubs, non-government organisations and community groups with an interest in young people, education and/or skill development. Ensure the working party has wide-reaching networks into all sectors, subgroups and layers of the community. The working party should be engaged at key stages of any program to: (1) identify the community’s needs in terms of education and career pathways knowledge; (2) identify the key influencer groups best placed to address these needs; and (3) select interventions most appropriate to improve the knowledge and confidence of key influencers.
- Think about shared ownership of the program. Do you need to gradually move ownership from external to internal parties?
- Appoint a dedicated local human resource to drive the program (a pathway broker in this project). Have that resource employed by a trusted and credible local institution. The broker and/or institution should act as a driver and activator in the program, and make sure that external and internal interventions and programs are coordinated.
- Consider community needs based on statistical data, local knowledge about changes to the internal and external environment and, crucially, local understanding of contextual factors that act as constraints and enhancers to local people’s education and career pathway choices (see Appendix, Template B).
- Does your community have a shared understanding regarding education and career pathways? If not, think about how your pathway broker and others in the community can act as boundary crossers to help develop shared understandings of community needs and goals in the education and career pathways area.
- Consider who are key influencers in the community, which key influencers should be targeted to meet your goal, and the types of interventions that may work for your community (see Appendix, Template A).
- Draw on skills, resources and networks of external and internal working party members and other relevant people/organisations inside and outside the community in selecting, designing, or adapting programs from elsewhere. Consider the skills of people who may have recently moved in as well as longer established residents. Ensure programs are translated to the local context (see Appendix, Template C).
- Interventions should be accessible to community members – time, place, delivery format. They should be approachable, welcoming and translated to happen organically in the local context. Ensure opportunities for community members to ask questions, engage in feedback mechanisms as part of interventions. Online resources that are accessible beyond the intervention leave a legacy for community use and should be part of any community’s diverse suite of interventions.
- Interventions must be authentic and ideally place-based, and delivered by people who are part of the community, have come from the community or understand the community, e.g. are closely aligned with the community or similar communities.
- Any program must be flexible and responsive to internal or external change.
- How interventions and programs are promoted matters. Word of mouth is particularly effective. Use the networks of the working party – make sure all sections of the community are covered through the diversity of formal and informal communication channels.
- Monitor and evaluate the interventions and your overall progress. Involve the working party. Make changes according to evaluation results.
- A sustainable model has community ownership, is a partnership between community and relevant external parties, is driven from within the community, resourced on an ongoing basis, and monitored to anticipate future needs and external changes.
The second set of recommendations (15-18) apply more generally to education and career pathway research in RRR communities.
- When designing RRR education and careers pathway information or advice programs, rural regions centred on rural service centres appear to be an appropriate scale, rather than small communities or large regions with several major service centres.
- There should be a focus on education and careers pathway information programs for key influencers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student pathway choice which are culturally appropriately designed for RRR settings in partnership with local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
- CBPR should be a methodology of choice to engage RRR communities in education and career pathway research.
- Universities should partner with RRR communities to deliver interventions which focus on education and career pathways and use placed based learning principles.
1University of Tasmania
2University of Wollongong