The tiny Australian schools making a big impact on their local communities


In his research brief for Small schools for equity and inclusion, Professor Scott Eacott, Deputy Director of the Gonski Institute for Education at the School of Education at the University of New South Wales, found that there are 2,129 schools throughout Australia with an enrolment of 100 or fewer students. 

As an example, Mackenzie River State School is a tiny cluster of buildings located off a lonely stretch of Dingo Mount Flora Road, 240 km west of Rockhampton in central Queensland. In 2015 it recorded zero student enrolments after decreasing from 13 to 10 to three students in the years before that.

In total, these small schools represented 22.3 per cent of all schools and, although they are often considered synonymous with rural living, nearly 19 per cent of all small schools were in major cities, and only 6.5 per cent were in remote or very remote locations, proving that small schools are “not solely the result of geography”. 

“The ones in major cities tend to fall into the new schools or special purpose categories. There are of course random outliers. New Lambton Heights Infants School in Newcastle for example has plenty of nearby schools and yet it remains – possibly because of its demographic and familial resources if threatened.

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“Larger populations also enable specific purpose schools (e.g., the SSPs in NSW). Similarly, hospital schools. Not to mention the growth of alternative operators like Montessori, which often start small and take some time to grow,” Professor Eacott told The Bursar.

In regional Victoria, Ballarat’s Newlyn Primary School has previously recorded as few as seven students, making it one of the state’s smallest schools, as well as one of the oldest. 

Its longevity and survival is no mean feat, considering what Professor Eacott describes as the “constant threat of closure” faced by small schools, and the significant impact this has on staff, students, and the wider school community.

The challenges facing Australia’s small schools

Small schools must navigate a very particular set of hurdles to provide quality education. These include limited resources, recruitment and retention, and a lack of specialised services and options for extracurricular activities.

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“Small schools will always be attractive for students and families looking for more intimate provision. The challenge is the financial viability of small schools,” Professor Eacott said.

Fewer students means there’s less funding available, which means less money for textbooks, technology, and extracurricular activities. The knock-on effect sees small schools often struggling to offer a diverse range of subjects and programs due to these financial constraints.

Attracting, recruiting and retaining quality teachers can be a challenge for small schools competing with the lifestyle and career opportunities offered by larger institutions.

In his research brief Professor Eacott states, “The principalship of a small school was once considered a career stepping-stone, but this is less currently the case. In recent decades, there have been changes to the promotion and transfer systems – with principalships won through merit selection rather than service and inspection.

“As an explicit example, the New South Wales School Leadership Institute includes small school principals along with assistant and deputy principals in their flagship “Aspiring Principals Leadership Program” – so small school principals who complete the same administrative tasks as larger school principals and have the same legal responsibilities as site managers, albeit on a smaller scale, are considered the equivalent of a middle leader from a larger school.

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“This downplays the role of the teaching principal – even considering them as needing to complete an “aspiring principals” program when they have already won a principalship. Whether intended or not, this signals that small schools are considered less than larger ones.”

This perception can affect the number of potential candidates for teacher roles at small schools, which then impacts the range and quality of skills and expertise available to them.

Education NSW states that “participation in extracurricular activities is linked to positive academic outcomes, such as students’ grades and educational aspirations, improved attendance, pro-social behaviours and more positive development generally”.

“Participation in extracurricular activities at school can increase students’ social support networks and is linked to more outcomes later in life, including educational attainment and a reduction in delinquent and risky behaviour.”

But access to varied and engaging extracurricular activities is limited for small schools. For some, it’s based on their location in a rural or remote area. For others, it’s simply about the numbers. With fewer students, there may not be enough interest to justify or facilitate sports and clubs outside of the classroom – and for those students keen to engage in those interests, missing out can be disappointing.

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Despite these challenges, many small schools in Australia are resilient, resourceful, and striving to find creative solutions to provide quality education.

What drives Australia’s small school educators 

Professor Eacott found that Australia’s small schools served some of the nation’s most vulnerable and marginalised students. 76 per cent of students came from the bottom half of socio-educational advantage, there was a higher representation of First Nations students, and 89 per cent of all special schools were small schools.

These positives help them achieve the equity and inclusion goals of the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Declaration, and UNESCO’s Sustainable Development Goals, including Education 2030.

“Small schools are more likely to exhibit characteristics of quality education, such as smaller classes, differentiated programs, stronger teacher-students, and educator-community relations,” he says, telling The Bursar, “It’s important to think of schools that are small due to timing (new schools, with plans to grow), choice (those deliberately keeping provision small, to enable staff-student ratio or more intense modes of delivery), and those capped (e.g., special purpose schools). And the wildcard is the declining school (either due to market forces, or just declining populations).”

And when it comes to showcasing a community dynamic, small schools are often the heart of their town or region, holding space for the social interactions and recreational activities that connections and community cohesiveness are built on.

In terms of creative solutions to ‘make it work’ and create a well-rounded education experience for their students, small schools have become adept at integrating online learning and collaborating with neighbouring schools to share resources, teachers, and extracurricular activity opportunities. Engaging the local community can help raise funds and provide support for the school’s needs, while a focus on professional development can help retain teachers, as well as improve the skills of committed educators.

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Small in size big in heart

Here are some of Australian small schools playing a vital role in shaping the future of Australian students across the nation’s states.

New South Wales

The Small School

The Small School is a private, combined school in Murwillumbah, Tweed NSW with 25 students and a 1:8 student-to-teacher ratio.

It’s an independent, progressive and democratic kindergarten-Year eight school offering “a holistic, project-based learning program in a democratic, playful, non-competitive and family friendly educational environment”.

The Small School aims to “inspire children to be confident, happy and independent learners in a bighearted school community”.

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Mount Fox State School

This is a remote, one teacher school, approximately one hour’s drive from the town of Ingham. It has less than five students and is guided by its motto: Courage brings honour.

It first opened in 1938 but has had a history of closing and reopening over the decades since. It services a small but united community, with a core population of less than 100 people.

South Australia

Raukkan Aboriginal School

Just one primary class means teachers and support staff can provide intensive and indivdualised the 16 enrolled students.

It’s situated on the shores of Lake Alexandrina, on the traditional lands of the Ngarrindjeri and “provides a safe and secure environment for students to enjoy their learning”. 


Natone Primary School

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Less than 30 students attend this school in the state’s north-west.

It has fought to stay open to serve its community and is one of the state’s smallest schools.

The school has two classes – prep to Year two and Year three to Year six.


Newlyn Primary School

Newlyn Primary School is an inner-regional school in Victoria, with 32 students enrolled. The school describes itself as small and growing vibrant rural school located in the picturesque farming community of Newlyn”.

It offers quality education to primary-aged children in the local community and surrounding district and capitalises on the fact that such small student numbers allow teachers to “nurture every child as an individual,” with facilities that include open spaces, playground areas, a vegetable garden, oval and library.

Western Australia

Mount Manypeaks Primary School

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This small school – one of WA’s smallest – works hard to make its presence in it tight-knit community known.

Just one primary class means teachers and support staff can provide intensive and individualised support to the 16 enrolled students.

It’s situated on the shores of Lake Alexandrina, on the traditional lands of the Ngarrindjeri and “provides a safe and secure environment for students to enjoy their learning”.

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By Charlie
Charlie Writes is a Sydney based, London born, Caribbean writer, interviewer and poet. A colourful 27 year career has taken Charlie from typing poems on the spot on her 1970’s typerwiter named June, to donning a hard hat as a roving reporter in the construction industry. All while living out her favourite quote that the greatest adventures begin with a simple conversation.