14 SES 02 A, Rural Schools and Communities: Contributions from Norway, Italy and Iceland
Previous international research on schools in rural areas have signified the importance of their existence for the communities (Åberg-Bengtsson, 2009; Jóhannsdóttir, 2017; Petrin, Schafft, & Meece, 2014). For example, Autti and Hyry-Beihammer (2014) emphasise that schools in the rural areas of Finland play a significant social role by impacting the well-being of a rural community and its human, cultural, and social capital. However, the common discourse on the rural areas as problematic, passive, deprived, and poor, often approached from urban perspectives and theories, have been problematised (Beach, Johansson, Öhrn, Rönnlund, & Rosvall, 2018; Åberg-Bengtsson, 2009). Moreover, the importance of rural schools in relation to mobility, in which schools serve the object of providing opportunities for students to leave their local community, has been questioned (e.g. Corbett, 2007). In that relation, Nordic researchers have argued for the importance of studying the ruralities from different perspectives, acknowledging i.e. different realities, contexts, and local value (Beach et al., 2018).
Recent studies within the Nordic context have indicated that students living in rural areas face far more economic challenges compared to students living in urban areas (Rosvall, Rönnlund, & Johansson, 2018). Regarding vocational and academic study paths, Rönnlund, Rosvall, and Johansson (2018) demonstrate complicated interactions between individual characteristics and external factors when students select study paths in rural areas. For example, the educational level and trends in the local labour market within the residential area impacted the educational choice of students. It seemed to be more common for students to choose vocational tracks in areas where education levels were low, compared to areas with higher educational levels. In addition, the students in their study who lived in rural areas had more limited educational opportunities close to their homes than their peers in urban areas. Studies have also shown an increased difference in the gender balance of attainment, achievement, and aspirations in the rural context (e.g. Corbett, 2007; Rönnlund, Rosvall, & Johansson, 2018). Studies on upper secondary education in rural areas in Iceland are limited. However, the country provides an interesting case for rural studies, as it is particularly sparsely populated.
Iceland is 103.000 km2 large and 350.000 people live on the island, thereof about two thirds in the Reykjavík capital city area. The rest of the population is scattered around the coastline. According to the Icelandic Regional Development Institute (2016), there were only 1.2 inhabitants per square km outside of the capital city area in 2009, compared to around 190 in the capital city area. The depopulation in rural areas in Iceland has been an ongoing development for the past decades. Upper secondary schools in rural areas have been important for the population living outside of the capital area. In 2019, there are 16 upper secondary schools operating outside of the capital city area (Directorate of Education, 2019). Some of them are in bigger towns but others in small villages. Some offer distance education and some are boarding schools. The smallest have around 100 students and the largest up to 1.500 students.
The aim of this study is to explore the local value and challenges faced by two upper secondary schools in rural areas. The study draws on the perspectives of school leaders, teachers, and students, providing us with different viewpoints and contexts on the issue.
The paper presents an analysis of semi-structured interviews with leaders, teachers, and students from two small rural schools in Iceland. The two schools participated in a larger research project named Upper Secondary School Practices (Óskarsdóttir, 2016), in which nine upper secondary schools were part of. The data from that study were collected in 2013–2015. The nine schools were randomly sampled from stratified groups of different school types and locations. The two schools presented here were the only schools in the sample that can be considered rural schools. They had less than 200 enrolled students and were in small villages in scarcely populated areas. The interviewees consist of the school leaders (n=4), teachers (n=4), and students (n=9). The school leaders were selected based on stratified sampling in relation to the hierarchical leadership structure of the school. The four teachers, who represented different subjects in each school, were randomly selected. One or two group interviews with students were conducted in each school. The interview frameworks were different depending on the group that was being interviewed. However, some common themes were discussed, such as the school ethos and identity, policy implementations, choice, and competition. The interviews were all about 60-90 minutes long and were transcribed verbatim before they were analysed. The analysis of the data followed Braun and Clarke’s (2013) steps of thematic analysis which involved reading the interviews carefully more than once, adding comments and writing familiarisation notes to each of them. Then the data set was coded by conducting focused coding, which involved reading the interviews a few more times while making exploratory comments and further developing them into codes, centring on patterns related to the rural challenges and local value. The patterns that were identified across the data eventually resulted in candidate themes.
Preliminary findings show evidence of the importance of upper secondary schools for rural education in Iceland, different and complex conditions of the two observed schools, and various and diverse challenges faced by them in the context of their ruralities. The demand for upper secondary education in rural areas turned out to be perceived by the school leaders as an important aspect of social justice. Rural school leaders sought to serve the nearest community, and rural societal actors fought for the existence of the upper secondary school in their community. By so doing, they increased the educational level in the rural setting, filled an age gap, counteracted rural depopulation, and attracted educated teachers and their families to live in the community. The teachers in both schools described how they positively valued the rurality and closeness to nature. In the students’ case, the access to schools in the local community was important, particularly for those without the means to choose another school in larger towns. The school leaders discussed the challenge regarding supply and demand in relation to market saturation of small communities. Saturation of the market affected the educational opportunities in rural schools and the school leaders deeded to adjust relatively quickly to attendance-drop and find new educational opportunities, based on the specific local needs in each case. Some of the students experienced this as challenge, resulting in lack of options when it came to the choice of programmes and subjects. Their options were limited, as other schools with more diverse educational options, outside of the community, were expensive and required them to locate away from home at a young age. That resulted in some of them not being able to choose programmes that they aspired, particularly if they were vocational.
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