NAPLAN: Pandemic lockdowns have widened the wealth gap in Australian schools

Less intelligent students need more help to achieve so reducing that help has serious consequences.  Highly intelligent students by contrast do well in any system.  And intelligence is both hereditary and a major precursor to wealth.  So private schools on average have smarter kids with richer parents

A learning gap between rich and poor students is widening as literacy and numeracy tests reveal schools in disadvantaged suburbs have fallen behind during the ­pandemic lockdowns.

Educators have warned of higher dropout rates and social scarring without intervention to help students from poorer families catch up on their lost learning.

Fresh NAPLAN data, to be published on Wednesday, reveals patches of poor performance in suburbs blighted by high unemployment, poverty or large numbers of students whose parents don’t speak English.

Australian Education Union president Correna Haythorpe warned that many students from disadvantaged backgrounds were being “left behind’’.

“These deep-rooted education inequities have widened in recent years because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the Morrison government has done nothing to address them,’’ she said.

Across Australia, the average NAPLAN score for year 9 reading fell by 4.5 points to 577, while writing scores rose by 1.8 points to 551, between 2019 and 2021. Numeracy performance dropped by an average of 4.6 points to 588.

At Chifley College’s Mt Druitt campus in western Sydney, where three out of four students live in the poorest 25 per cent of households and half speak a foreign language, the year 9 writing results fell by 18 points, while writing scores dropped 35 points.

Bucking the trend is Sydney Adventist School in Auburn, in Sydney’s multicultural western suburbs, where old-school teaching methods have driven success.

Despite 80 per cent of children being from non-English speaking families, the school lifted the reading and writing scores for year 3 students in 2021. The school’s deputy principal, Jenny Hahnel, said the school expected high academic standards from students, whose migrant parents value education and respect teachers.

The school uses “explicit teaching’’, providing clear instruction until each student has mastered the content of a lesson.

Reading is based on phonics, and children learn their times ­tables, as well as hands-on learning such as measuring objects in the playground for maths. “Explicit teaching focuses on a lot of repetition,’’ Ms Hahnel said.

“Every day we start the lesson revisiting content we’ve already taught. We’re consistently checking for understanding during the lesson, and we focus on student engagement.

“You’ll never see a child sitting at a desk and not knowing what to do. Not one child went backwards during Covid.’’

The Smith Family, a charity that is helping 58,000 disadvantaged children attend school through its Learning for Life sponsorship program, warned that more children had fallen behind as a result of lockdowns.

Anton Leschen, the charity’s Victorian general manager, said he knew of a single parent home schooling seven children, using one smartphone with a cracked screen and limited data.

“Living in disadvantage is a matter of chaos and survival,’’ he said. “Access to digital resources is always a major issue.’’

Mr Leschen called for targeted learning support for children who had fallen behind at school. “Some of them are very bright and hardworking,’’ he said. “Others have arrived at school with low initial literacy and cognitive and social skills. They’re not write-offs, but targeted support and help to catch up is all the more necessary.’’

At Kurnai College in Morwell, in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley, reading scores dropped by 38 points, writing by 43 points and numeracy by 17 points. On the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, half the students attending Western Port Secondary College live in the poorest 25 per cent of households.

Year 9 students’ NAPLAN results dropped 15 points for reading, 56 points for writing and 15 points for numeracy.

Punchbowl Boys’ High School in NSW enrols 72 per cent of its students from the poorest households – virtually all from a non-English speaking background. Its results in year 9 fell by 19 points for reading and 23 points for numeracy, but rose six points for writing.

At Durack, one of Brisbane’s poorest suburbs, Glenala State High School’s year 9 students performed 10 points lower in 2021 than the crop of year 9s in 2019, before the start of the pandemic.

Writing scores fell 15 points and numeracy scores 19 points.

Australian Secondary Principals’ Association president Andrew Pierpoint said many poorer families could not afford computers or tablets for home schooling and online lessons.

“They might have a phone shared between siblings,’’ he said.

“The students have to read a document and type on a phone.’’

Mr Pierpoint said the pandemic had made the gap between poor and wealthy students “wider than we’ve ever seen before’’.

He called for more funding for the most disadvantaged schools. “Some schools need more money because life keeps running over the top of them, and it’s not the kids’ fault,’’ he said. “We need to address this as a nation.’’

Australian Primary Principals’ Association president Malcolm Elliott said many students had struggled when their parents could not help with home schooling, provide technology or pay for tutoring.

“Some of the maths that children get sent home with can look very complex for parents,’’ he said.

NSW Teachers’ Federation senior vice-president Amber Flohm said 3000 students had dropped out of school in 2020 and “never returned’.

“Students with disability or who are learning English are heavily reliant on face-to-face interaction,’’ she said. “English as an additional language is not something that lends itself to remote learning and teaching.’’

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