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‘National disgrace’: Call for tutoring fix as disadvantaged students fall years behind

Disadvantaged year 9 students are five years behind in reading ability and four years behind in maths compared with their advantaged peers, more than double the gap found in year 3.

A new report by the Grattan Institute says small-group tutoring should be rolled out in all Australian schools to help close this learning gap, which grows wider with every year of schooling.

The Grattan Institute says tutors working with small groups of students over one or two terms would boost literacy and numeracy.Credit:iStock

Co-author Julie Sonnemann, principal adviser of education at Grattan, said the gap was a disgrace.

“Education is supposed to be an equaliser, but the gap widens when children get to school,” she said.

“The doubling of the gap is, quite frankly, a national disgrace.

“This is about children not developing basic skills in English and maths. It is functional literacy they need for work and later on in life. We are letting kids fall behind, and continue to fall behind.”

The Grattan Institute’s report draws on new analysis of 2022 NAPLAN data. Disadvantaged students are defined as those whose parents did not finish high school.

The think tank said tutors working with groups of three students over one or two terms would boost literacy and numeracy. Sessions should be held at least three times a week, last up to an hour and cover all year levels.

“Studies estimate that typically about 20 per cent of students will need additional learning support, on top of universal classroom instruction, to develop foundational literacy and numeracy skills,” Grattan’s report said.

Rolling out tutoring in all government, Catholic and independent primary and secondary schools would cost about $1 billion a year, but the report said the sessions would pay for themselves.

“If one in five students received high-quality small-group tuition in 2023, they would collectively earn an extra $6 billion over their lifetimes,” it said.

“The change we are calling for is to integrate small-group tutoring in schools over the longer term. It’s not a Band-Aid solution but part of a more systematic approach that focuses on prevention, so any problems are identified early.”

The strong link between socioeconomic status and educational achievement in Australia is highlighted in the world’s largest test of 15-year-olds, called PISA. The latest PISA test showed two in five Australian students do not meet national proficiency standards in reading and maths.

Australian disadvantaged students were behind those in Canada, Britain and South Korea, and on par with those in the US, the PISA test found.

The tutoring push has won the support of Professor Geoff Masters, chief executive of the Australian Council for Educational Research.

“The world’s top-performing school systems do not expect teachers alone to address the diversity of students’ needs. Instead, they have system-wide strategies for better targeting teaching on individuals and their progress,” he said.

“Systematic small-group tutoring is one such strategy that no doubt contributes to world-class performance in Estonia, Finland and a number of East Asian countries.”

Federal Education Minister Jason Clare said: “Small-group tutoring is already used by some states and this report contains ideas about the sort of reforms the panel [for the next National School Reform Agreement] could look at to boost student outcomes – particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

Victoria has spent $738 million on tutoring programs since 2021 to help students catch up after the state’s lengthy COVID-19 lockdowns. Close to 100,000 students – about one in 10 – were tutored at government, Catholic and low-fee independent schools last year.

A Victorian government spokesman said future funding for the program will be considered during the next state budget process.

Rachelle Cole, a teacher and literacy expert at Elevation Secondary College in the northern Melbourne suburb of Craigieburn, said students were arriving to secondary school without foundational skills.

She said the school’s literacy and numeracy tutoring sessions had shown early signs of success, including increased student confidence and engagement in class.

Teacher Rachelle Cole says the tutoring program at Elevation Secondary College in Craigieburn has been successful.Credit:Scott McNaughton

Cole said she would like to see the program continue beyond this year if data showed it was successful.

“That gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students isn’t going away, so we really need to be doing something about that.”

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