More than half of all regional and rural schools have recorded a slump in their VCE results over the past decade, triggering concerns about a widening achievement gap between city and country students.
The figures have prompted education experts, principals and students to call for more resources for country students, incentives for teachers to leave the city and greater support for country kids at university.
"It's of concern because we want all communities to be strong and to be able to regenerate," said Professor Stephen Lamb from Victoria University.
"That becomes harder when the population is not obtaining the same education and opportunities that are occurring in city areas."
At one Gippsland school, the median study score dropped from 29 to 23 between 2009 to 2018.
At another school in the Wimmera, the median study score fell from 32 to 24, while a school in north-east Victoria saw its score drop from 28 to 23.
The Age's analysis comes off the back of the latest NAPLAN results, which found that Year 9 regional students in Victoria lag an average 12 months behind their city peers in maths. They are 10 months behind in reading.
What does the data show?
While the Andrews government has pumped record amounts of funding into schools as part of its ambitious Education State agenda, the data highlights serious inequities between country and city students.
The VCE results of more than 60 per cent of state high schools in the country and regions and almost 50 per cent of non-government schools have deteriorated over the past decade.
Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority data for 100 state high schools outside Melbourne shows the average VCE performance of 61 schools had worsened, eight schools improved and the remaining 31 have maintained their results.
Among 53 non-government schools outside of Melbourne, 49 per cent had worsened, 16 per cent had improved and 36 per cent had maintained their results.
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Median study scores are regularly used as a measure of a school's academic performance, with schools striving to achieve the statewide average of 30 out of 50.
Small schools with incomplete data and schools that have opened or closed within the past five years have been excluded from The Age's analysis.
While state schools recorded an average drop of almost two study scores, non-government schools recorded a drop of about one study score. During this period, the performance of city schools remained stable.
How VCE performance in regional Victoria is worsening
But what is causing the decline? There's no simple answer, and we have sought the views of students, principals and education experts. Here are five of the major factors:
Australian Education Union Victorian branch president Meredith Peace said attracting teachers to the bush, and retaining them, was a major issue.
"I don't think there are enough incentives," she said.
She said the Education Department should be given powers to allocate staff to rural and regional schools, more staff should be moved onto ongoing contracts and the HECS debt of teaching graduates who work in rural schools should be waived.
One principal, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said rural schools had to accept teachers that other schools wouldn't accept because they were so desperate for staff.
"In my former school they advertised the same job three times in a row."
Out-of-field teaching - which involves teachers running classes outside their expertise - is also more common in rural locations.
Drought and changes to farming practices are making some rural areas less attractive to families and teachers.
"To make ends meet, farms have gotten bigger," explains Ms Peace, who hails from north-west Victoria. "Where there were three farms there are now one. Your schools get smaller, your community gets smaller and that impacts people's attractiveness to that community. Do you really want to go to a community that is declining?"
While Melbourne's population is booming, the population of around one quarter of Victorian rural areas is shrinking.
Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that the median age of residents in most rural areas is increasing as younger people seek opportunities elsewhere and the gap between average incomes in metropolitan and rural/regional areas has widened.
Peter Goss, the Grattan Institute's school education program director, said the achievement gap could be explained by country schools being more disadvantaged than city schools.
"The further you get away from the city the worse the level of achievement," he said.
"There are fewer professional jobs and higher unemployment. The education and employment backgrounds of the parents really impact the outcomes for students."
The cost of university
One principal, who did not want to be named, said his school's VCE results had plummeted because students couldn't afford to move away from home to attend university. This, he explained, killed their motivation to study.
"Parents know they can't afford it so they aren't pushing them. Why bother? There is no drive," he said.
He said bright kids were instead choosing to pursue apprenticeships and trades that were closer to home. The experienced principal called for more scholarships to help country students attend university.
"There has been an absolute lack of recognition that the country areas are struggling," he said.
While she speaks highly of the teachers at Myrtleford P-12 College, Year 11 student Bri Hines said she doesn't get the same opportunities as her city peers.
The 16-year-old said the six hour round trip to Melbourne made it difficult for her to attend VCE study seminars.
She said students from small schools such as hers were also unaware of the intense competition they faced in the VCE. This meant they were unaware of the work required to do well.
"We are all moseying along together," she said. "We are in a bit of a bubble."
The teenager is an executive student on the Victorian Student Representative Council, a student-led organisation that has made the issue of equity for rural schools one of its key priorities for 2019.
Bri said moving away from home to attend university was daunting for many students.
"The idea of moving three or four hours away from your family can seem very intimidating," she said.
"There's a mentality that the city is a big scary place. There's a feeling of inequity, that these city people have all their stuff together and country kids aren't good enough. They feel like their only option is to drop out."
Many rural students who spoke to The Age said they were unable to enrol in the VCE subjects of their choice because they were not offered at their schools. Others were unaware that certain subjects even existed.
Rose Vallance, who grew up in Ouyen in the state's north-west, said poor access to VCE subjects led to her choosing an unsuitable university degree.
Two years ago, Rose moved away from home and embarked on an arts degree, majoring in drama, at Deakin University.
But the 22-year-old discovered the course wasn't for her.
"I didn't get to try those subjects in my school because the subjects were not offered," she said.
"I couldn't get down to the open days. It was a massive leap of faith that it was going to work."
Associate Professor Philip Roberts of the University of Canberra said VCE students at rural schools were less likely to have the opportunity to take science and maths subjects, which in turn limits their choices for tertiary study.
Fewer than one third of state schools in the country offer specialist maths, compared with 64 per cent of city state schools.
Signs of hope
It was not possible for The Age's analysis to separate the results of regional, rural and remote schools because the Education Department does not group schools according to these categories.
However, University of Canberra researcher Margaret Simpson said remote state schools tend to outperform those in regional centres.
She found that half of the state schools offering the VCE in what she classified as remote areas obtained above average results, compared with 18 per cent of regional state schools.
Ms Simpson said that because parents in isolated areas could not easily send their children to a school further afield, the remoteness helped foster a strong sense of community.
"The town works as a team," she said. "The children work together rather than against each other. The teachers know all the students, and they've known them from prep right the way through to year 12."
The political response
Victorian Education Minister James Merlino said addressing disadvantage in rural and regional Victoria was a strong focus of his government.
"This is why students in regional and remote areas of Victoria receive double the increase of equity funding of metropolitan schools to support numeracy and literacy," he said.
He said the government's $21.5 million Greater Shepparton education plan, new minimum ATAR requirements for teaching course and the Navigator program for students at risk of disengaging were improving outcomes.
The Opposition's education spokeswoman Cindy McLeish said the figures were concerning and the state government should consider an inquiry into rural and regional education.
"You want kids in the country to do well but you also want them to stay in their towns and give back to the community," the former secondary school teacher said.
"They need to keep kids engaged in education. There are so many jobs in the country and they can't get doctors, speech therapists, chefs and welders."
Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan said his government was working to close the higher education attainment gap between regional and metropolitan students. He said Victoria would be able to better support these students if it signed up to his school funding deal.
He said the government was pumping an extra $400 million into regional higher education over five years, which included scholarship programs and five new regional study hubs.
Former premier Denis Napthine is leading a review of regional higher education and will report back to the federal government this month.