As we close schools and turn to online learning, we must have a plan in place that secures education for those without the luxury of technology.
According to education researcher Barbara Preston, in a report she prepared for the AEU in 2018, 150,000 Australian school students do not have access to the internet at home.
This group includes 17% of Indigenous students and 15% of the kids in public schools from the lowest income backgrounds. Her figures are sourced from the 2016 Census (adjusted for undercount) and given that overall poverty has become worse since then and looking at the snaking lines of desperate people waiting to get help from Centrelink over the last few days, it’s likely that figure has grown.
Preston is not alone in her concern for the poorest and most vulnerable children and their right to equal access to education. I have spoken to many teachers, particularly those working in schools with large numbers of kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, who are very worried about the kids who risk being left even further behind if – as is inevitable – we close schools and turn to online learning.
Why in the face of #COVID19Aus the easiest, safest and fairest thing we could do is simply bring the approaching school holidays forward. Anything else will further exacerbate privilege & underprivilege. My latest in @TheBigSmokeAU https://t.co/qkgmK13YcQ
— Jane Caro (@JaneCaro) March 17, 2020
Yes, education authorities are asking teachers to prepare hard packs of lessons for kids who can’t access the internet, but kids who come from disadvantaged backgrounds have something similar to what health authorities now call ‘co-morbidities’ – which basically means layers of other problems that increase your vulnerability to a bad outcome.
As I am sure almost everyone is now aware, such co-morbidities for COVID-19 include age, other health conditions – like heart disease, diabetes and chronic immune-suppressed disorders – smoking and gender. The educational co-morbidities for our poorest children include parents who are poorly educated themselves so less able to help with at-home learning, chaotic backgrounds that can include mental health problems, addiction issues, unstable housing and even insecure access to regular food.
We are also now discovering via neuroscience that poverty itself affects the development of children’s brains and that in turn affects their ability to learn. Just like those in our community who are particularly at risk from this virus, these kids need extra help and protection from the whole community. And hastily flung together hard packs won’t cut it.
One idea is that we allow the 150,000 data-less children to stay in school and learn alongside the children of essential workers. This strikes me as a simple and effective solution but it would have to be handled with sensitivity and great concern for the privacy of those children and their families.
Preston has a number of suggestions about what we as a community might do to help the kids who need their teachers most to keep up. Her first idea is a good one but, as she warns, it comes with inbuilt problems to do with the way we stigmatise poverty, even in children. Her idea is that we allow the 150,000 data-less children to stay in school and learn alongside the children of essential workers. This strikes me as a simple and effective solution but it would have to be handled with sensitivity and great concern for the privacy of those children and their families.
She also suggests that “substantial funds (and other resources) be immediately allocated towards providing good access to the internet to those currently without. It should not be just left up to charities like the Smith Family.” Indeed, no child should have to rely on charity to gain access to a decent education, and if this crisis has revealed anything it has shown that internet access is now an essential utility – like electricity and water.
Others have also made useful suggestions including Dr David Zyngier from Southern Cross University who has suggested on Twitter that the ABC consider a free to air channel dedicated to teachers presenting lessons. He used award-winning maths teacher Eddie Woo as an example of what could be done.
Also on The Big Smoke
My own feeling (and I do not claim to be an expert on teaching and learning, just someone who has spent decades advocating on behalf of our neediest students and the schools they attend) is that all three may be required if – as seems increasingly likely – our schools have to close for many months. However, as I have argued in a previous article for TBS, the first thing to do is bring the school holidays forward and take the pressure off everyone – parents, teachers and students – during this highly anxious time.
Victoria has already done that but, of course, they had the advantage of the school holidays being scheduled for the end of this week anyway. NSW and other states don’t start their holidays until Easter. But, frankly, who cares? Bring them forward and extend them. We did it in 2000 for the Sydney Olympics and the kids at school at that time (including my own) seem no worse off for the slightly shorter school year.
Even better, if we started – say – a 3 or 4-week break for every student across Australia from this Friday, in line with Victoria, we would give valuable breathing space for teachers to prepare their on and offline lessons and for schools to decide which ones would re-open, with what staff and for which students. It would give the ABC time to set up its education channel on TV and on radio and make some content. And it would give governments time to help every student have access to the internet and the hardware and software they need.
Australia already has an education system which is more divided according to class and income than many others. We already have the so-called ‘long-tail’ of students who underperform largely because of various disadvantages especially indigeneity, remote location and poverty. Please, let’s do everything we can not to make that worse.