How best to help struggling students catch-up after COVID - Grattan Institute

Published in the Herald Sun, 21 April 2021

It’s no surprise to Victorian parents that learning for some school children stalled during the long COVID lockdowns of 2020. After all, we send our kids to school for good reason: studies show that students don’t learn as much when they aren’t in the classroom.

The state government’s new $250 million tutoring scheme, which is funding thousands of new tutors to help struggling students catch up on lost learning, was the right call.

Students in the early years are especially vulnerable if they don’t build the basic skills in reading, writing and maths that are essential for tackling harder topics in later years.

Small-group tutoring can help students catch-up fast. Done well, it can turbo-charge learning by an extra four months over one or two school terms. Students can make a lot of progress when tutors target teaching to their specific needs. And students can thrive when working closely with an adult they feel is in their corner.

But not all tutoring programs succeed. A 2020 Grattan Institute report identified what’s needed for them to work well.

First, teachers need to identify exactly why a student is struggling and what teaching will help them.

Second, intensive tutoring works best with short but regular sessions a couple of times each week.

Third, the quality of the teaching and therefore the selection of tutors is crucial. Structured literacy and numeracy programs – with clear training and guidance for tutors on teaching materials and approaches – are known to get good results.

As revealed in the Herald Sun yesterday, the extra money for tutoring is now being spent in schools across the state. The state government should be applauded for acting fast in a face of a crisis. But because the scheme was set up so quickly, we should be tolerant of some trial and error in schools as they establish the tutoring sessions.

To get the most out of the scheme, the state education department must provide as much high-quality guidance and support to schools as it can. Schools have a lot on their plate already this year. Pointing schools towards trusted teaching approaches and lesson materials will prevent a lot of headaches down the track – for teachers, students, and parents.

And the government should stand ready to give more support if things aren’t going as well they could.

The quest to ensure as many Victorian children as possible can regain their ‘lost year’ will be worth it.