Lessons learned from many months of interrupted schooling

On Monday Education Minister James Merlino announced $230 million for a second round of intensive tutoring in Victorian schools in 2022. This comes off the back of the tutoring investment in 2021 to help disadvantaged students catch-up on learning missed during lockdowns.

More funding for more tutoring is welcome. By the end of this year, Melbourne students will have endured about 14 weeks of remote schooling, on top of the 20 weeks racked up in 2020. That’s more than three terms of remote schooling over two years.

Victorian students have done more than three terms of remote learning in the last two years.

But announcements are easy. Implementation is the hard part. And there is a lot riding on Victoria’s second round of intensive tutoring.

Not all students “lose” learning during lockdowns, but some students struggle significantly and will have fallen well behind their peers. We still don’t know the full impact of disrupted schooling on disadvantaged students, but evidence is mounting overseas that remote schooling has especially harmed learning for students who were already behind when the pandemic hit. Tutoring is the best shot we have to help these children catch up.

Here are three things the Victorian government needs to do next to ensure the 2022 tutoring program is properly implemented.

First, the Government should learn the lessons of the 2021 program and adopt a new and improved “Version 2.0” for 2022. This year’s tutoring model recruited more than 6400 tutors to work in every school to help about 200,000 students. Children identified by their teachers as needing the most help attended small-group sessions with tutors, several times a week for up to 20 weeks. Some innovative schemes sprung up, such as a successful pilot run by the Smith Family and supported by the Origin Energy Foundation which delivered one-on-one online tutoring in students’ homes.

There will be many lessons learned in the past 12 months. For example, the flexibility that exists in the current tutoring program may be more beneficial for high-performing schools than others. Some schools need more support to design and deliver the tutoring initiative effectively – supporting these schools is essential to ensure equitable outcomes for students.

Tutoring should also be better directed at the schools and students who need it most, including schools in poorer parts of our communities, students in secondary school who are at risk of disengaging, and students in the early primary years – prep and grades 1 and 2 – who may have found it especially hard to engage with online learning.

Second, the government should require schools that sign up for additional tutoring funds to participate in rigorous common assessments of students before tutoring commences and at the end of the program. This would equip teachers and tutors with the best possible information to identify the right students to tutor and ensure the program best suit their needs.

Third, the government should set up a more rigorous evaluation of the tutoring program in 2022. The government has the time and opportunity to design a more rigorous evaluation, including more systematic assessment of the types of tutoring approaches that work best in different contexts. This would give government rich insights into how to help disadvantaged students who fall behind in the years to come.

Importantly, the new investments in tutoring in 2022 must not come at the expense of other new investments designed to improve student well-being and mental health. Several studies have confirmed that lockdowns have exacerbated mental health problems for many children, especially teenagers.

The new and improved “Version 2.0” catch-up tutoring program for 2022 could be a real win for Victorian students, who have had to sacrifice so much in the fight against COVID and now deserve all the support we can give them in return.

Julie Sonnemann is the deputy director of the education program at the Grattan Institute and lead author of COVID catch-up (Grattan, 2020). Jordana Hunter is the education program director.

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