I recently spoke with a principal in Melbourne’s northern suburbs. During the first lockdown, her school worked tirelessly to support students through remote learning. But now, months later, the threat of "lost learning" isn’t her chief concern. Instead, what keeps this principal up at night is the prospect that some of her students – as young as primary school children – "may never even return to school".
The Smith Family’s Victorian general manager Anton Leschen.
This is as extreme as it sounds – we’re talking about primary school-aged kids never returning to school. But this isn’t Dickensian London; this is Victoria in 2020 – and for a country as wealthy as ours, it’s a prospect I find unacceptable.
When Victoria’s lockdown was extended, my thoughts went to a great mother who’s been doing it tough all her life. I’ll call her Sue. She's a single parent living in Bendigo, and not in paid employment.
Faced with the task of co-ordinating the home schooling of her four children, Sue struggled with just one computer and limited data access, somehow also juggling the responsibility of caring for her elderly mother. Despite the brave face, it was increasingly difficult to keep her children engaged with school.
Sue didn’t finish high school and is the first to admit she isn’t much help to the older two with their schooling. She works hard to create a home and save for her family. Cupboards and bookshelves are dragged across bedrooms to create makeshift walls and private study areas. Sue’s trying, but getting her kids educated has gone from really hard to almost impossible.
This may not be considered the "standard profile" of a family living in this country, but for Australian children living in poverty, it’s real.
And for thousands of Victorian families like Sue’s, lockdown 2.0 isn’t just a tough time to be endured, it has come to represent a compounding moment when thousands of young people stand at a critical crossroads.
Before our second lockdown, the Grattan Institute estimated students from disadvantaged backgrounds may be learning less than 50 per cent of what they would in the classroom, due to school closures.
That was in June. Since then, the majority of Victorian students continued with home learning, and the challenges, especially for vulnerable students, have been exacerbated. And students living in poverty were behind in their learning even before COVID-19.
Financial hardship is just the surface issue; other problems include a lack of learning resources, support networks and opportunities to aspire to a different way of life. Challenges mount and without the right support at the right time, young people can easily disengage from school.
We need targeted interventions to combat this risk. Students experiencing disadvantage need learning devices, affordable internet and long-term tailored support to re-engage with their learning and catch up to peers. By identifying students most in need of "catch-up" tutoring, making it available at no cost and ensuring quality delivery over a sustained period, we can limit the impact of COVID-19 on children like Sue’s.
Anton Leschen is the general manager, Victoria, at children’s education charity The Smith Family.
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