By Tasha Wibawa, 360info
and Professor Jennifer Gore, University of Newcastle
The worst of the global pandemic may feel like it’s over for many, but for teachers, students and parents the disruption to children’s education systems has lingered as have concerns about learning loss.
In Australia, government data released last month found national school attendance has progressively declined since the pandemic. But the University of Newcastle has published a new report showing that while students around the world suffered from learning loss due to COVID-19, disadvantaged children in Australian schools bucked the trend.
A global study on the impact of COVID-19 on schools in 35 countries found students in Australia and Denmark avoided learning loss.
The World Bank survey found students in other countries suffered, on average, up to half a year’s learning loss. It also found students from disadvantaged schools were more likely to fall behind.
But in Australia, students at disadvantaged schools improved in certain areas of study. Researchers believe this was partly due to extra government funding and a keener focus on literacy in the wake of school closures.
This could be attributed to government-funded COVID-intensive learning support programs.
Positive academic results for Australian students during the pandemic could also be attributed to the strict focus on literacy and numeracy in primary schools when students returned after periods of remote learning.
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In one of the world’s first empirical studies on the impact of COVID-19 on student learning, researchers at the University of Newcastle found students at disadvantaged schools – with an Index of Community Socio-educational Advantage (ICSEA) value of less than 950 – achieved greater growth in mathematics and equivalent growth in reading in 2021 compared with similar students in 2019.
ICSEA is a measure of school-level advantage that accounts for school location, parent education and percentage of Indigenous students. An ICSEA of 950-1050 is considered mid-range, and an ICSEA above 1050 indicates relative advantage.
The soon-to-be-published research collected data from randomised controlled trials between 2019 and 2021.
The first year of the study measured the impact of COVID-19 on student learning between 2019 and 2020. Researchers found no significant differences between 2019 and 2020 cohorts for year 3 or year 4 students, between the ages of eight and ten, in maths or reading. However, when the data was analysed by school socio-economic status, children in disadvantaged schools achieved less growth in maths while those in mid-range schools achieved slightly more. In the total sample, these differences cancelled one another out to produce no difference overall.
In 2021, students in disadvantaged schools achieved three months of additional growth in maths and the same rate of growth in reading compared to their respective 2019 peers. Students in mid-range and advantaged schools maintained the same level of achievement growth in2021 as in 2019.
When the pandemic first forced lockdowns and much about the future was unknown, governments and education departments around Australia found hundreds of millions of dollars to put toward preventing students from falling behind. The NSW Department of Education’s tutoring scheme, launched in 2021, may have contributed to the positive academic results. Its COVID-intensive learning support program provided funding for schools to employ additional educators to deliver small group literacy and numeracy support for students identified as needing it most.
Funding was made available to extend the program until June 2023.
However, it has been criticised for not being well targeted. It was also difficult to implement amid a nationwide teacher shortage.
Hard-to-staff schools in disadvantaged, rural and remote areas, where tutoring is needed most, struggled to hire classroom teachers, let alone additional educators for the tutoring program. Positive academic results for Australian students during the pandemic could also be attributed to the strict focus on literacy and numeracy in primary schools when students returned after periods of remote learning. This “back to basics” focus to the exclusion of sports, assemblies, excursions and other extracurricular activities had detrimental effects on student and teacher wellbeing.