It took me about a month to realise that Riley (not his real name) couldn’t read.
He had sat silently in my Year 11 English class, never putting his hand up and not able to answer any of my direct questions.
When I looked at his previous report, I saw that he hadn’t passed English for years.
Sadly, there are far too many Rileys sitting in Australian classrooms. About two in five students do not meet the Australian national proficiency standard in reading by the time they are 15, according to the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).
The same is true for maths. Now a new nationwide survey of nearly 400 secondary teachers and school leaders, by the Australian Education Research Organisation, shows that secondary students who have difficulty with reading or maths are being left behind.
In the average secondary school classroom, about 20 per cent of students will need additional support to keep up with their classmates. In some classrooms, the proportion will be much higher.
Disadvantaged students are particularly at risk – in Year 9, students whose parents did not finish school are – on average – more than four years behind in reading and maths than students whose parents have a university degree.
Struggling students need additional support to catch-up. Evidence shows that if students are provided with intensive school tutoring over one or two terms, it can add an extra four months of learning over a year.
Yet the newly released survey found that across Australia, only about half of teachers and school leaders said their secondary school consistently provides additional support to students struggling with literacy and numeracy. More than two in five teachers and school leaders are not confident that the support they offer is effective. A third said that they find it difficult to identify which students should get support.
Teaching assistants are often given the task of providing this additional support, but only about a third are trained to do so.
These findings mean governments and parents cannot be confident that the children and young people who most need additional support at school are actually receiving it.
This has real-life impacts. Struggling students tend to fall further behind because they can’t keep up with the pace and content of in-class teaching.
How is a Year 9 student who struggles to read able to learn about World War I in History or Newton’s laws of motions in science? How are they meant to pass their driving test or write a job application?
Without a good educational foundation, these students have fewer options when they leave school and often struggle to stand on their own two feet as adults.
The good news for families in New South Wales and Victoria is that these states have invested $1.5 billion in small-group tuition between 2021 and 2023 in response to Covid.
Queensland should learn from this investment. They should embed the most effective approaches to small-group tuition, led by trained staff using evidence-based interventions, in all schools.
This is essential to ensure that the children and young people at risk of falling behind get the support they need, for as long as they need it.
All states and territories should get on board, enshrining a commitment to catch-up learning support in the next National Schools Reform Agreement between the federal, state, and territory governments, which will be finalised next year.
Seizing this opportunity will make a real difference to the lives of students like Riley.
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