Post-lockdown tutoring is a win for students — but one more step is needed

by Julie Sonnemann

Published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 16 December 2020

The parents of NSW school students should be pleased: our state education leaders have done a good thing. In 2021, $337 million in new funding will go to small-group tutoring to help disadvantaged students catch up on the learning they lost during the COVID-19 lockdowns of 2020.

The landmark scheme will give teachers extra resources to help struggling students at a time when they need it. And the need is great. Grattan Institute’s COVID catch-up report, published in June, estimated that the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and the rest widens three times more quickly during remote schooling. For vulnerable students who were already behind before COVID-19 struck, school will now be even harder.

Data released recently by the NSW Department of Education shows just how large the learning losses were in 2020. After two months of school closures, the average student was up to four months behind, with the greatest losses in reading among primary students. These are the losses for an “average” student; disadvantaged students will have been hit much harder.

State Education Minister Sarah Mitchell should be applauded for allocating serious money to helping our most vulnerable students. Up to 5500 additional tutors are now being recruited to help out in the classroom next year, from among the ranks of qualified teachers, teaching students, and university tutors.

Evidence from Britain and the US suggests this is a great idea. A good tutoring program can be established quickly across many schools, and provide students with four to five months of additional learning over one to two school terms.

But there’s one more step Australia should take to get this right. It may seem obvious, but evaluating the tutoring blitz will be critical.

Good evaluations of tutoring programs are hard to come by in Australia. The NSW program should be carefully assessed to help us understand which tutoring approaches work best in our classrooms.

The NSW government would have little to lose and much to gain from evaluating its new scheme. If an evaluation finds that the new tutoring efforts don’t work as well as expected, we need to know that and find out why. If the evaluation identifies tutoring methods that work better for certain students or schools, that’s a gold nugget for longer-term education reform.

It’s important that the evaluation goes beyond simply tracking tutoring hours or shifts in student performance. The devil will be in the detail. Different tutoring approaches will produce different results for different students in different contexts, so the evaluation should closely analyse what works for whom.

The success of the scheme will depend heavily on teachers’ skills in correctly identifying the students who need extra tutoring, and the specific help they need. We need to know how much help teachers might need to do this initial diagnosis well. Who is then selected to tutor, the training they receive, and the teaching methods they use, will also be important. For example, student teachers who specialise in maths may do a better job tutoring than a retired maths teacher.

These large, one-off tutoring cash injections offer opportunities for rigorous evaluations that are rarely possible under “business as usual” in schools. It is much easier to identify and evaluate the impact of education initiatives when there are big changes in funding at specific points in time.

The new tutoring programs have arisen in a crisis but, if they are a success, they should become part of the new normal in our schools. We can afford them. The extra cost isn’t that big in the context of the schools’ budget – new funding of $337 million in NSW is only 2 per cent of schools spending this financial year.

Intensive tutoring for disadvantaged students is an important post-lockdown initiative, and the NSW government has allocated serious money to the scheme. If our education leaders now commit to properly evaluating the program, then the parents and students of NSW will have further reason to hope for a brighter future.