As states gear up to reopen and working parents in lockdown count the days until children are back at school, we turn our minds once again to the impact of lost learning.
In May last year as schools were closing around the country due to the pandemic, the Grattan Institute was warning of lost learning.
Fast forward nearly 18 months and concerns are mounting as learning losses compound.
However, new research released by The Smith Family points to a possible breakthrough in addressing educational under performance.
We know too well the devastating effects of lost learning and its impact on employment prospects, particularly for those who do not complete high school.
Luckily, Grattan not only measured the impact of disrupted learning on disadvantaged children, it suggested a solution - tutoring.
Having funded the Grattan work, we then funded a pilot catch-up learning program conducted by The Smith Family to see how effective tutoring was.
The Catch-up Learning program involved children participating in one-on-one tutoring online, with a qualified teacher, up to three times a week, for 20 weeks.
The tutoring occurred in the child's home. The students were in Years 4, 5, 7 or 8.
New research released by The Smith Family points to a possible breakthrough in addressing educational under performance.
One in five are of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds and two in five experience a health and disability issue.
Students were assessed prior to the program starting and at the end.
At the beginning all students were found to be struggling in both literacy and numeracy. After 20 weeks, 86 per cent of students made above expected progress in either literacy or numeracy.
Two in five achieved above expected progress in both subjects. Six in 10 students completed the program having attained literacy levels equivalent to or stronger than their year level peers.
The results were promising and, in some cases, exceeded expectations.
The improvements in literacy and numeracy are particularly important since these remain essential competencies: All students should leave school with sufficient proficiency in English and mathematics to allow them to fully participate in the labour market and the community.
Given The Smith Family's reputation for rigorous evidence-based work, these results bode well for the massive investments that have been made in tutoring by Victoria and NSW.
Post the Grattan Institute recommendation, Victoria committed $250 million, NSW $337 million, and South Australia $3.6 million to catch-up learning using tutoring.
These initiatives will target almost half-a-million disadvantaged pupils.
We know that there is a correlation between education and employment. A child who leaves at year 12 has a 75 per cent chance of employment, while a Year 10 leaver has a 55 per cent chance.
The Grattan Institute report Covid Catch Up analysed the economic benefits of tutoring. In the short term it provides employment to tutors. In the long-term people who do well at school earn more, and pay more taxes.
Australian studies estimate that for each additional year of school a person completes, their future income rises by about 9-10 per cent.
Projections about extra income generated if disadvantaged students catch-up the learning losses from the pandemic result in lifetime earnings of about $3 billion in today's dollars. And that is why the results of this catch-up learning are so important.
Yes, tutoring can help bridge the gap caused by pandemic-induced disruptions to education, but it can also address the latent under performance in the system highlighted by Australia's performance in international league tables.
Some of the children in The Smith Family Catch-up Learning program were up to three years behind in maths. That was not a result of the pandemic; that was a pre-existing symptom. The pandemic disruptions only made it worse, as it is doing now.
The achievement gaps suffered by disadvantaged students are unfair, costly, and widening.
The results of The Smith Family work, and adoption of tutoring by Victoria and NSW, validates the work of the Grattan Institute which first suggested adoption of tutoring for catch-up learning.
Australia should now seize the opportunity to build on this work and help disadvantaged students with tutoring in the longer term. Tutoring as the new norm could help young people, and build a stronger community and economy.
- Sean Barrett is head of the Origin Energy Foundation whose philanthropic focus is education. It funded the Grattan Institute, and The Smith Family's work into catch-up learning.