Schoolkids, to put it mildly, have had a tough year. Most have spent at least part of 2020 learning from home. Some far more than others.
Indeed, Victorian students in years 8-10 are still not back in the classroom. Some children have no doubt thrived in an environment of online catch-ups, uploading schoolwork and greater parental involvement. Others, sadly, have struggled without the same technology, workspace or parental supervision their peers have enjoyed.
This is not another argument about the merits or otherwise of the Victorian lockdown, which has been painful but undeniably successful in crushing the second wave. Nor is it about re-opening the heated debate from earlier this year about whether school closures were the right way to go.
It’s about the difficulty Australian kids have faced this year and whether enough support has been put in place to help them now.
Home learning may have been OK for some kids. Most schools did their best to make sure those who had no computer or internet were given a device, while those considered to be in particularly vulnerable situations were given the option of still attending school and doing their “remote” learning under at least some supervision.
There’s little data yet on how Australian kids fared (and in the case of Victoria, are still faring), but a recent British study of home schooling suggests what many feared: the pandemic has exacerbated educational inequality.
Aussie families under pressure
According to research from the UK’s Institute for Fiscal Studies, “during the lockdown, the richest third of primary school children spent about four and a half hours per week more on learning than the poorest third of primary school children”. That’s a staggering difference, suggesting the poorest kids did little or no learning at home.
The gap for secondary school children was nowhere near as pronounced: the richest children did one hour of learning a day more than the poorest, compared to the pre-lockdown gap of 45 minutes a day. Older kids need less supervision.
Fortunately, as most teachers agree, primary school-aged kids can catch up quickly. But those from disadvantaged backgrounds will be starting from even further behind, particularly when other financial pressures are mounting at home.
On Friday, the Australian Bureau of Statistics published new data on the employment status of families. The figures are from June, when overall unemployment was slightly higher than it is today.
Nonetheless, they reveal just how many families have been hit hard by this recession. According to the ABS, there were 1.5 million jobless families in June. In more than 21 per cent of all families, no-one had a job in June. For families with children under 15 specifically, more than 11 per cent of them had no work.
In other words, that’s more than one in 10 families of primary school-aged kids without any employment.
These same families are also facing a reduction in their JobSeeker support payments after Christmas. That sort of stress at home is hardly going to help those disadvantaged kids struggling to catch up in the classroom.
What about school-leavers?
For older students looking at life after school, the prospects of finding a job have rarely been so bleak.
Thursday’s jobs figures showed a 0.4 per cent increase in the youth unemployment rate last month to an alarming 14.5 per cent.
At least there’s some effort from the Government to help school-leavers and prevent a generation being locked out of the labour market: $4 billion is being put towards a youth wage subsidy and another $1.2 billion towards supporting apprenticeships. These may only be temporary supports, but they should at least help some.
University will be a more attractive option for many, particularly with the prospect of cheaper maths and engineering degrees under the government’s “Job Ready” funding changes aimed at steering more students into areas of higher demand.
It’s tough luck, though, for anyone planning on studying an arts or law degree, which will now cost up to 113 per cent more.
Unsurprisingly, many schools, both primary and secondary, are receiving parental enquiries about whether their children can and should repeat the year after such a disrupted 2020. There will be limits to what schools can cope with here.
Indeed, there may also be limits to how much can be done to help those kids from disadvantaged backgrounds who’ve had the toughest of years.
Federal and state governments owe it them, though, to ensure their progress is closely monitored and extra classroom support is provided.
The immediate focus on helping those leaving school this year is understandable, but the longer-term impact of younger kids being left behind can’t be ignored.
David Speers is the host of Insiders, which airs on ABC TV at 9am on Sunday or on iview.