Schools might have reopened but disadvantaged students need more support to catch up

Year 11 student San Win Yee says she's stressed about catching up on schoolwork. Source: Maani Truu/SBS News

Most children in Australia will continue with in-person learning after the school holidays, but education experts have warned the damage to disadvantaged students during the coronavirus pandemic is already done.

Western Sydney teenager San Win Yee is a dedicated Year 11 student with dreams of studying midwifery at university.

But after her school moved to remote learning for seven weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic, she says she’s nervous about whether she will be able to catch up on her studies. 

A first-generation refugee from Thailand, the 16-year-old began the remote learning period sharing a computer with her brother, who is also preparing for his Higher School Certificate next year. With eight family members in the house, she said it was also difficult to find a quiet place to study.

“There’s nowhere to study because if I’m in my room, my sister is sharing it with me. If I go to the living room, it’s even noisier. It was so hard to focus on studying,” she told SBS News. 

“Whenever my brother was doing an assignment, I just had to wait until he was done. Which could sometimes be midnight or sometimes early in the morning.”


As state and territory governments around Australia moved to remote learning in March, experts warned the school closures would exacerbate existing educational disadvantage, especially for students who didn’t have access to a computer and reliable internet.

In April, Prime Minister Scott Morrison also acknowledged the disproportionate impact of the closures on lower-income families who “have to choose between teaching their children and putting food on the table”.

And while most states and territories have reopened their classrooms, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews this week warned that a second round of remote learning for some year groups in the state is "likely" when students return from winter holidays.

Australian think tank the Grattan Institute is now urging the federal government to fund a $1.25 billion tutoring package to help disadvantaged students like San Win Yee to catch-up. 

In a report published in June, the institute found the majority of teachers in low-socioeconomic schools believed students learnt between 25 and 50 per cent of what they usually would in class during the closures.

“We know that most students would have struggled with remote learning, but students from disadvantaged backgrounds will have learnt a lot less, and some will have learnt virtually nothing over that period,” said Grattan Institute school education fellow Julie Sonnemann, who authored the report.

Under the Grattan Institute plan, the funding - approximately $1,262 for each of the estimated one million disadvantaged students across Australia - would go directly to schools to implement a targeted “six-month tutoring blitz”.

Despite education falling under the state government’s remit, Dr Sonnemann said it was up to the federal government to support the scheme using some of the stimulus funding earmarked for the COVID-19 recovery.

This approach was a “win-win”, she said, as it would also put money in the hands of young tutors made unemployed by the crisis. 

But federal Education Minister Dan Tehan said the government was already providing a “record” $314 billion in funding to schools.

He also said the state governments' decisions to shut down in-person learning went against the advice of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, which has always maintained it is safe for schools to remain open.

“If extra support isn’t given to schools, it’s just going to be a bit of a pressure pot,” Dr Sonnemann said. “Particularly for those kids in disadvantaged communities, they’ll be struggling already with existing inequities and this is just going to make a hard situation much harder.”

Prior to the pandemic, students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds were already falling behind their peers in terms of educational outcomes. 

A 2018 international assessment of educational outcomes in 15-year-old students found that in Australia socio-economic advantaged students outperformed disadvantaged students in reading by 89 score points.

Socio-economic status was also a “strong predictor of performance in mathematics and science” in all participating countries, according to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report.

Part of the reason for that is likely due to the digital divide between low-socioeconomic students and their advantaged peers, which became even more of an issue when most learning moved online.

A teacher prepares take-home activity packs at a primary school in Brisbane.
A teacher prepares take-home activity packs at a primary school in Brisbane.

Children’s charity The Smith Family provided 1,000 students, including San Win Yee, with a laptop during the school closures to assist with remote learning, but there were many students who missed out.

At the beginning of the shutdown, the charity said 23 per cent of the 50,000 students on their Learning for Life program did not have access to a home computer with reliable internet access. 

Those students are now in desperate need of additional support, acting chief executive of The Smith Family, Judy Barraclough, said.

She described the coronavirus pandemic as the “biggest disruption to education we’ve ever experienced in Australia”.

“You can imagine, for families with more than one child, some of them were having to do their schooling on a mobile phone.”

“So as we come out of this period of remote learning and children return to school, that’s not the end of the problem. Children in disadvantage will continue to face challenges.”

For San Win Yee, any additional support cannot come fast enough.

“My parents would love to help me, but since they are from a refugee camp they can’t,” she said.

“So, I want tutoring, more teachers' help, and just a supportive system behind me going on.”

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits. If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, stay home and arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. News and information is available in 63 languages at  

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