Why WA should embrace small-group tuition in schools
by Julie Sonnemann, Jordana Hunter
The poor performance of many Australian school children is back in the spotlight, with the Productivity Commission warning that recent education reforms have had little if any success in turning around school performance. And just this week, Federal Education Minister Jason Clare declared that one of his top priorities was to make sure that where children fall behind, they catch up.
When children struggle to keep up with classroom learning, it can spark a vicious cycle. Lack of understanding, frustration, and disengagement can set in, stymying future learning. Unless teachers intervene quickly to help children get back on track, what starts as a small crack in the foundation of learning can quickly widen, as academic demands increase.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Grattan Institute’s new report, Tackling Under-achievement, shows that high-quality small-group tuition, embedded in all Australian schools, could help close the learning gap between struggling and high-achieving students. The WA Government should get on board.
Between 14 to 19 per cent of WA Year 9 students performed either at or below Australia’s NAPLAN minimum standard in reading and numeracy in 2022, while the most recent OECD data suggests about two-in-five 15-year-olds fall short of Australia’s proficiency benchmark in reading and numeracy.
Grattan Institute analysis shows that the learning gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students more than doubles between Year 3 and Year 9. In reading, for example, Year 3 students in WA whose parents did not finish school are already more than two years behind students whose parents have a university degree. By Year 9, that gap grows to more than five years. In numeracy, the gap between the same groups of students grows from almost one and a half years in Year 3 to more than 3 years in Year 9. There are also big learning gaps for students from Indigenous backgrounds, and for students who live in remote areas, compared to their city peers.
The WA Government should do more to ensure that all students struggling with their academic schoolwork get the best chance to excel in class.
One of the most effective ways to help these students is small-group tutoring. Done well, it can add about four months of additional learning over a single year. Tutoring can also give students a boost of confidence, through a strong relationship with their tutor, which can help students feel better about going to school.
The economic benefits of tackling the learning gap are also significant: we calculate that if one-in-five students across Australia received high-quality small-group tuition in 2023, they could collectively earn an extra $6 billion across their lifetimes — about six times the annual cost of tutoring programs at the national level.
The big challenge will be to ensure small-group tuition is high-quality, cost-effective, and embedded in all schools as part of a systematic approach to achieving excellence in literacy and numeracy.
State and Territory governments should work together to conduct new research trials to examine what small-group tutoring models deliver the best results for students. The trials could help us answer practical questions: what training and supports do different tutors need? What literacy and numeracy catch-up programs work best for students? And what are the cheapest ways to deliver high-quality tutoring, so it can reach more students within a school budget?
Quality research trials like this should start now and continue for several years. They would be relatively cheap. Investing around $10 million nationally over three years would make a great start, so that in five years, governments could be confident that best-practice small-group tutoring is established in every school, at an affordable cost.
The next National School Reform Agreement, now being negotiated between the Federal, State, and Territory governments, provides a powerful opportunity to commit to a coordinated effort to tackle underachievement in Australian schools. Small-group tutoring is one of the most powerful tools in the tool-kit, and one that WA should embrace.
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