Up to half of Australian children and young people stand to be adversely affected by the nation’s shift to remote learning, according to a series of reports commissioned by the Federal Education Department.
Conducted by five of the country’s leading universities and educational institutions, the reports aimed to measure the potential ramifications for vulnerable students – but one report indicated the impact may well extend beyond this.
Professor Natalie Brown, Director of the Peter Underwood Centre at the University of Tasmania, was the lead author on the paper that found 46 per cent of all children could suffer.
“We’re seeing an increase in families that are struggling in terms of being able to cover the basic needs – food and shelter and pay rent and all of those kind of things, so that covers quite a number of young Australians,” Professor Brown told the ABC.
Professor Brown said that while the initial research focused on traditionally vulnerable students, the cohort had expanded because of rapid job losses and limited home internet access – circumstances exacerbated by the rush to remote learning.
“[It includes] all of the complexities of being at home – so some people not having a home, some people in economic disadvantage at home, others trying to balance work, multiple children,” Professor Brown said.
The report found “nearly half [46 per cent] of Australian children and young people are at risk [of] adverse effects on their educational outcomes, nutrition, physical movement and emotional wellbeing by being physically disconnected from school”.
The degree of that impact came as a surprise to researchers.
“When we first started this we were thinking of the people that we’re normally concerned about in the education context … but as we started to peel things away we thought, ‘no there’s a whole lot of newly disadvantaged families’ ,” Professor Brown said.
As coronavirus infections reached their peak and schools closed, the extent of support and help required of teachers became apparent.
“I guess when you start to think about that, I guess it’s not at all surprising that so many families are really finding this a challenge,” Professor Brown said.
Another key report from the Mitchell Institute at the University of Victoria found vulnerable students could fall weeks behind in their schooling.
If online delivery lasts for two terms, vulnerable students could fall six weeks behind on numeracy and four weeks on reading, according to Professor Stephen Lamb’s report.
Professor Lamb based his report on NAPLAN data and US research comparing online learning to traditional classrooms.
“Our findings are that across one term there will be close to three and a half weeks of learning lost in numeracy for children from low [socio-economic] backgrounds, similar for Indigenous students and about half that from language backgrounds other than English,” Professor Lamb told the ABC.
Professor Lamb said the US model, whereby students can attend online-only schools, or traditional schools, provides a valuable working database.
“In numeracy, it’s about 13 weeks across a full school year of learning that will be lost basically … for literacy and reading skills it’s slightly lower but it’s still about nine to 10 weeks, that’s our estimate,” he said.
He also spoke of anecdotal evidence he discovered in the course of his research.
“There is a school I know of in Melbourne that deals with our low SES community where so far this term, 23 per cent of students have not logged in.
“Effectively for the first two or three weeks of this school term they haven’t taken advantage of online learning, so that’s a pretty troubling situation,” Professor Lamb said.
The reports come as the states remain unhappy with the Federal Government’s position on schools remaining open.
On Sunday, Victoria’s Education Minister James Merlino – the only state committed to remote learning for the entirety of term two – made it clear Federal intervention was unwelcome.
“Let me be very clear, particularly to the Federal Government who do not run any schools; we will only transition back to face-to-face teaching for all students when that is the advice of the Victorian Chief Health Officer. Not a moment before,” Mr Merlino said in a tweet.
In clarifying its position, Canberra has relied on advice from the peak body for health emergencies that it is safe to do so, as well as citing concerns for vulnerable students who may be endangered by staying at home.
The other reports submitted to the Federal Government are from the Australian Council for Educational Research, the Melbourne Graduate School of Education and Curtin University.