Kids are back at school, but some have fallen well behind

Jun 18, 2020

The Grattan Institute wants help for disadvantaged students left stranded by the switch to remote learning during the pandemic. Around $1 billion would fund the small-group tutoring needed. Is it going to happen? 

What will ‘catch-up’ support do for the disadvantaged who were falling behind well before the pandemic hit?

As the pandemic began I wrote that a mixture of learning at school and online from home might be a solution to the ‘open or shut’ debate about schools. I flagged the equity implications of some families not having the technology to make it work – and noted that we would certainly discover the limitations of online learning, not a bad lesson to learn. But I underestimated the adverse impact of physical separation of students from their schools.

A report out of the University of Tasmania said 46 per cent of Australian children and young people were likely to be at risk of adverse effects on their education, nutrition and emotional wellbeing. The Grattan report estimated that, over two months of remote learning, the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and others will have widened by 7 per cent, or an additional six weeks. The chalk face implications of this are well illustrated in the ABC report on the children of Cabbage Tree Island Public School and their wonderful principal, Dyonne Anderson.

The Grattan Institute proposes that disadvantaged students receive additional regular short sessions in reading and maths over a 12-week period. This tuition, it says, can increase student learning by an additional five months over one or two terms of schooling. It also wants to expand successful literacy and numeracy programs, especially for students in the early years – and proposes trials of ‘targeted teaching’ and extra student well-being support. Significantly, it says evaluating what works should inform longer-term efforts to close the bigger existing equity gap between disadvantaged students and the rest.

If implemented, such a program and its funding should target student need and be sector and location blind – no special deals, please. The evaluation is critical: what aspects of such interventions work, for which groups of students and, equally important, for how long? Then, over time, what impact might it have on a school system where structural underpinnings create very obvious achievement gaps.

Despite the warnings of the Gonski Review we have continued to increase the concentration of strugglers in our more disadvantaged schools. Our concentration of advantage and disadvantage at either SES end of schooling in Australia is well researched, including by the OECD. It does nothing for achievement. My School data consistently shows that it is the socio-educational status of students, even ahead of the work of schools, which is having an increasing impact on student achievement. Family background has a tenacious grip on school outcomes. The inevitable reality is that, as Grattan’s Peter Goss has indicated, there is a whole raft of interventions needed to close the gaps and raise achievement. What contribution can catch-up interventions make in the absence of structural changes to the way we provide and resource schools?

With light at the end of the pandemic tunnel everyone wants to get back to normal. The voices seeking something better in the form of sustainable reforms across our economy and society are already struggling to be heard. For school education, normal is hardly something to which we should aspire – especially our recent ‘normal’ which looks like regression on steroids. The Grattan Institute’s current proposal should be welcomed and implemented urgently and equitably. But it is just the beginning.

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