Some education experts, such as NSW Primary Principals’ Association president Phil Seymour, are hopeful school may be able to return in the Spring, in time for term three. But the school year is already looking radically different.
Federal and state ministers have cancelled NAPLAN tests and while the Higher School Certificate and Victoria Certificate of Education are going ahead, there are still questions around when and if exams will be held and how final results will be calculated.
Dr Jim Watterston is a former teacher and dean of the Melbourne University Graduate School of Education. He said some private schools had successfully moved their teaching online and there are “great opportunities to progress in a different mode”. “There is capacity for kids to learn a lot,” he says.
But he is also concerned about what school closures will mean for kids with fewer resources and less support to learn at home. According to a 2020 Australian Council of Social Services/ University of News South Wales report, 774,000 Australian children under 15 live in poverty.
“My real worry is the equity in all this,” Dr Watterston said. “This always assumes people have online capacity.”
On Tuesday, Victorian Education Minister James Merlino told ABC radio the state government was talking to providers about accessing 4G SIM cards for families that don’t have internet access “as well as old-fashioned hard copy”. NSW schools are also working to provide hard copy materials.
While there is a lot of uncertainty ahead, the experts agree that a large number of students repeating the year is neither wise nor practical.
Craig Petersen, the NSW Secondary Principals’ Council acting president, said one of the main questions being asked by parents was the need for children to repeat the year.
“My answer to that is no, because we simply can’t. Some schools are bursting at the seems now,” he said. “We can’t stop kids who are in preschool coming to school next year … We need to find the solution this year for getting through the content as best we can, focussing on what’s really core.”
Grattan Institute school education fellow Julie Sonnemann said “the evidence shows repeating a year has negative effects” in usual circumstances.
Ms Sonnemann said all students will feel the impact of significant time away from the classroom, but there are particular vulnerabilities for children in the early years of school.
“The evidence says each stage has its own challenges. When you miss certain concepts in your learning trajectory, often it impedes your learning further on,” she said. “If your reading or times tables don’t get cemented early on, that creates a whole backlog of problems.”
Others, however, say the impact of school closures will be be felt more by older high school students. Mr Petersen said there is more flexibility with younger students, as any content missed can be made up in future years.
“If a child’s in year 11 and 12, we haven’t got the luxury of time.”
Dr Jennifer Rowley is an associate professor in music education at Sydney University as well as parent of a year 12 student.
She is concerned for the final year students who will experience the stress of coronavirus in an already stressful time of school, combined with the loss of being able to participate in important events like musicals, sport and leadership positions.
Ms Sonnemann said Australia should be thinking of targeted catch-up strategies to respond to the coronavirus, such as one-on-one or small group tutoring. She also points to US think tank, The Brookings Institution, which suggested summer school as a possible solution.
“Students who struggled to learn during the coronavirus school closure period could attend in the summer to catch back up,” non-resident senior fellow Douglas N Harris said. The approach would have another advantage – the extra pay for teachers would also be an economic stimulus.
If nothing else, 2021 will have to be approached differently.
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Judith Ireland is a political reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House