Tanya Plibersek: Coronavirus Has Exposed Inequalities In Australia’s Education System

As Easter holidays begin, it is worth reflecting on this last month of schooling.

It’s been a crazy few weeks for us all.

On the upside, parents are more engaged in our children’s learning, and certainly more appreciative of teachers than ever.

Indeed, throughout these weeks of confusion and change, teachers and other school staff have been on the frontline of our response to the coronavirus, as important and brave as our other essential workers.

I know many have felt concerned about their own health at times, but have nevertheless focussed on making sure children face as little disruption as possible to their learning. It is a testament to their professionalism, and we should all be grateful for it.



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Still, it’s been a difficult transition -- and more difficult for some schools than others. Wealthier schools with existing digital platforms have been able to move quickly and smoothly to online learning. Schools with fewer resources have been forced to improvise.

While everyone is doing an amazing job with the resources they have, the pandemic has highlighted inequalities in Australia’s education system.

Differences in student outcomes, driven by family wealth, geography, and school resources, already plagued our system before this crisis. Even with the talent and enthusiasm of our teachers, the move to home learning has the potential to make these problems worse.

For one, many children lack access to technology and a fast Internet connection. Internet speeds in regional and rural communities lag behind those in the city. Worse still, children in 55,600 households don’t have access to the Internet at all. These students need this connection, which Labor is calling on the Government to guarantee for the next 12 months.

Schools are doing their best with photocopied work sheets, but that’s not the same as being able to see your teacher and classmates in an online lesson. It’s not the same as being able to access the rich trove of digital learning resources.

And most important, of course, is having an adult who’s able to help you out when you’re struggling. So too is having a quiet space at home to work -- a luxury not available to all Australian kids.

How are we supporting disadvantaged students during this crisis? (Image: Getty)

There are also inequalities when it comes to the most basic facilities. Before schools closed, teachers told me many lacked soap in school bathrooms at the very time soap was needed to stop the virus. Some toilet blocks were unsanitary and in need of desperate repair.

These problems weren’t caused by the pandemic, but the crisis is reinforcing something we already know: that too many Australian children are forced to struggle with unreliable technology and shabby facilities.

We need to ensure these new arrangements are not causing educational gaps to widen -- and we need to fix the existing gaps. This is particularly important at both ends of schooling.

We know that children who start school with disadvantages find it very difficult to catch up. Children who have fallen behind by age eight seldom recover to the same level as their peers. We need to have a laser-like focus on these students who should be building basic literacy and numeracy skills right now.



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And for our Year 12 students, whose schooling this year carries so much weight: governments across the country must ensure that no one is disadvantaged by these changes. It’s great that some states and universities are starting to explain how things will work for our Year 12s -- we need to see this clarity across the board.

While this strange and uncertain experiment in remote learning was not our choice, we need to learn what we can about how best to do it effectively. Australia cannot afford to let this time go to waste. Our sharpest focus will have to be on the children who were already struggling. The likelihood is they will fall further behind, and will need extra, dedicated time and resources to recover.

We should also be thinking about the difficulties facing children who have special learning needs, as well as their parents. The move to online learning will be particularly complicated for these families -- and they will need our help as they work through it.

It’s important to remember that schools do so much more than teach the basics. School is where children make friends, learn social skills, learn about the wider world, learn to love music, dance, drama or languages. For too many children, it’s the place they rely on for a healthy meal, and the place they feel safest. Almost twenty percent of notifications for children at risk come from teachers.

How are we supporting these children right now?

So as the term ends, and we prepare for term two after the holidays, let’s think about the best way to deliver remote learning, but let’s also think about equity in schooling. How do we deliver excellent learning to every child, in every family, in every part of Australia?

Let’s consider honestly how existing disparities in education disadvantage Australian children. Let’s commit to eliminating those disparities with targeted resources to help those who are struggling get the education every child deserves.