Why Australia needs a $1b, six-month tutoring blitz for disadvantaged students

by Peter Goss and Julie Sonnemann

Published at The Canberra Times, 18 June 2020

Many students will recover without too much trouble. But disadvantaged students will need extra help to regain the learning lost due to COVID-19, even with the best efforts of their teachers. We believe Australia should launch a $1 billion, six-month tutoring blitz to give 1 million disadvantaged students an extra boost.

Our new report, COVID catch-up: helping disadvantaged students close the equity gap, uses a rigorous new analysis to examine the “gap” – the difference in achievement between disadvantaged students and their more advantaged peers. We find that the equity gap widened three times as quickly during the COVID-19 shutdown compared to during regular classes. Disadvantaged students lost a month or more of learning in a two-month period. Some will even have gone backwards, forgetting some of what they had previously learnt.

Of course, not all advantaged students will have coped well during COVID-19, and some disadvantaged students will have flourished. But there are three good reasons to focus on disadvantaged students, especially those whose parents didn’t complete year 12, are unemployed or are in low-paying jobs.

First, disadvantaged students have done it tougher during COVID-19. They are less likely to have good internet access, a computer for their schoolwork, or a desk or quiet place to study. On average, they have lower levels of perseverance – a major challenge when online learning requires more self-discipline and motivation than regular schooling.

Second, economic downturns disproportionately harm disadvantaged students and their families. Disadvantaged families already faced greater financial stresses before COVID-19, and student learning suffers further when a parent loses a job.

Third, disadvantaged students were already behind in their learning – on average a year behind their peers by year 3, and three years behind by year 9. Indeed, the existing achievement gap is at least 10 times larger than the learning losses caused by COVID-19.

Governments should therefore adopt a highly targeted strategy to help disadvantaged students catch up across Australia. The best way to deliver this extra support is with a massive one-off tutoring blitz between now and Christmas. Done well, these sessions could boost student learning by five months between now and the end of the year – not just recovering the learning lost due to COVID-19 but closing some of the pre-existing gap.

COVID catch-up calls on governments to fund a battalion of 100,000 tutors to do intensive small-group sessions on reading and maths. About one in four students should attend these tutoring sessions three-to-four times a week, in groups of about three, either during regular school hours or before or after school.

Where will Australia get such a battalion? Three main sources. Tens of thousands of casual relief teachers, part-time teachers, and teacher aides might welcome the extra work. There are also about 30,000 pre-service teachers, many of whom will have missed out on vital practicum training because of COVID-19. And hundreds of thousands of young university graduates have been hit hard by coronavirus-related job and income losses

We recommend young people be encouraged to take up positions as tutors where possible, given they would probably spend this extra income quickly, helping stimulate the economy as Australia battles recession. Most tutors would earn up to $6300 between now and Christmas – a thousand dollars a month.

And disadvantaged students who gained extra learning would earn more over their lifetime, boosting the economy in years to come.

Our plan for a tutoring blitz is a win-win-win: the tutors get extra income, the economy gets extra stimulus and, most importantly, our disadvantaged students get the chance for a better life.