COVID-19 led to largest learning disruption in history

The loss of face-to-face lessons during the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing interuptions led to “one of the largest disruptions to learning in history”, say Oxford University education researchers.

Their study, published in Nature Human Behaviour, found children lost the equivalent of 35% of a school year – more than a term of learning – due to COVID-19 school closures, remote learning, and disruptions throughout 2020 – 22. And the learning deficit was higher in mathematics than reading.

The findings are based on a systematic review of research from 15 high- and middle-income countries, including Australia. Low-income countries were not included due to a lack of evidence.

Some 95% of the global student population was affected by school closures during the pandemic, the study estimates.

In Australia, students’ experience varied wildly between states. Some, like South Australia, experienced a couple of weeks of remote learning, whereas others, like Victoria, lost as much as 35 weeks of face-to-face instruction. A standard school year is about 40 weeks.

Lead author Dr Bastian Betthäuser tells Cosmos, the Australian research analysed in the study by Gore and colleagues focuses on state of New South Wales, where schools were closed for at least eight weeks.

“For this state, the data show a significant slowdown of learning progress during the pandemic. However, this learning deficit appears somewhat smaller than, for instance, learning deficits in the UK or the US.” 

The Oxford paper reveals learning progress slowed substantially during the pandemic, inequality worsened, with no evidence of variation across year levels.

“The effect of limited face-to-face instruction is compounded by the pandemic’s consequences for children’s out-of-school learning environment, as well as their mental and physical health. Lockdowns have restricted children’s movement and their ability to play, meet other children and engage in extra-curricular activities,” the study notes.

The paper calls for policy initiatives to recover the significant learning deficit.

“Our research focusses on the magnitude of learning deficits. However, it is concerning that during the period that we observe, there is no trend of children recovering learning deficits. This means that it is critical to monitor the learning progress of the cohort of children affected by the pandemic and to continue to support them in recovering learning deficits that arose in the early phase of the pandemic,” Betthäuser says.

A Grattan Institute report this week proposes a possible solution to help students catch up. The report advocates for small-group tuition to be embedded across all Australian schools to help boost learning and bridge the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children.

Julie Sonnemann, Principal Adviser, School Education, tells Cosmos, “what we’re talking about is an integrated way of helping students catch up when they fall behind.”

“This is about making small-group tuition, part of an early intervention, preventative approach to kids falling behind, so that you stop learning issues from opening up down the track.”

If done well the approach can help children catch up an extra four months of learning over the year, the report says.

While the Grattan Institute report is about improving education generally rather than responding specifically to the impact of COVID-19 restrictions, she says, “obviously the disruptions to schooling were a lot bigger in some states than others.”

Read more: The impact of COVID-19 on mothers and young people revealed

New South Wales and Victoria have rolled out small-group tutoring as part of their response to COVID-19 disruptions to schooling.

The benefit of small group tuition is it allows tutors to work closely with students on specific issues, providing more precise and individual attention, Sonnemann says. Students can also sometimes feel safer in that kind of small group tutoring, she adds.

Grattan’s report says governments can support small-group tuition with clear best-practice guidelines, instructional materials, and training, and undertake trials and evaluations on the best approach.

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