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Small group tutoring in NSW – why the need and how will it work?

8 Dec 2020, by Amy Sarcevic

Next year, students in New South Wales (NSW) will have access to free tutoring for the first time, thanks to a $337 million program as part of the state’s 2020-21 Budget.

Under the scheme, an additional 5,500 staff will be employed to deliver small group teaching sessions to all eligible students throughout the state.

The Department of Education will help schools identify students that will benefit most from this support and work with them to tailor the program to their requirements.

The package will include $306 million for every NSW Government school, including primary, secondary and Schools for Specific Purposes (SSPs). Additionally, $31 million will be allocated to non-government schools with the greatest levels of need. The program will begin in Term 1, 2021 and run throughout the school year.

Julie Sonnemann Acting School Education Program Director at the Grattan Institute is behind the research which led to the scheme. She says the need for small group tutoring has become increasingly evident throughout 2020.

A growing need

“The drop in student performance resulting from widespread school closures has proven worse than thought,” said Ms. Sonnemann ahead of The Sydney Morning Herald School Summit. 

“NSW students have fallen on average three to four months behind in their literacy and numeracy during COVID-19 – and this is likely to be more pronounced among disadvantaged students.

“Remote learning has worked well for students from high socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds. But for low SES students it is possible that little learning may have happened while at home,” she added.

This year there were six-to-nine weeks of school closures in NSW, Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania, and the ACT. With 92.1 percent of couple families having at least one employed parent, and 64.2 percent having both parents employed, remote learning was a challenge for many during this time.

Although students did not undertake NAPLAN tests in May, similar assessments showed that attainment has dropped significantly. Reading and maths scores for years five and nine students in NSW were two to three months behind last year’s cohort, and year three students were four months behind. Other states are yet to measure the impact of remote learning, but are expected to show similar results.

Pre-empting a drop in scores earlier this year, Ms. Sonnemann recommended that around 1 million disadvantaged students attend tutoring sessions three-to-five times a week for up to three months.

“Many students will get back up to speed naturally, whilst others may need a boost. I believe small group tutoring is the best way to support students that need help in regaining their reading and numeracy skills. It’s an evidence based- approach that has been shown to work quickly and at scale,” she said.

“The groups should consist of around three students max, either during regular school hours or before or after school. Done well, these sessions could boost their learning by five months.”

Treasurer Dominic Perrottet said the program would also help boost employment for university tutors, casual and part-time teachers – many of whom have been badly hit by the COVID-19 crisis.

“This program will not only support our students in their education but will also provide unprecedented employment opportunities for qualified teachers and university tutors who may be short on work,” Mr Perrottet said in a statement.

Making it work

Studies show that small-group tutoring can help problem-solving  and targeted skill-building, with students that receive it often outperforming their peers. But although tutoring may be a tried and tested model, Ms. Sonnemann says various success factors will need to be considered for a wider spread rollout.

“Firstly, the success of the scheme will depend on the judgement and involvement of teachers. Teachers will need to guide tutors, work closely with them, and anticipate what the student needs next,” she said.

“Secondly, tutors will need really strong training on their roles, with a focus on how to interact and engage with disadvantaged students. A one-size-fits-all teaching approach won’t be enough.

“Thirdly, there will need to be a stringent hiring and selection process. There might be a tendency to go with whichever staff are available, because it’s quicker. But I think there needs to be a really accurate assessment of students learning needs and an emphasis on matching those students with the best available candidates. Finding the right tutors for the right students may take some time, but I think it’s really important.”

Managing challenges

Some work will also need to be done to manage student attitudes towards the scheme, Ms. Sonnemann argued.

“We need to counter stigma. If only some kids are getting extra support, we need to make sure they aren’t labelled. This will involve some really clear messaging and perhaps some tricky conversations at a school level. It will be a challenge, but it’s important we manage student perceptions. All students must see it as a positive thing,” she said.

A further challenge will be managing the existing workloads of teachers.

“It is safe to say that teachers are already pretty stretched. Throw in additional responsibilities, like managing other staff, and some may become at risk of burnout. To counter this, principles will need to give teachers extra bandwidth during this time to make it work,” she said.

Recruiting adequate numbers of suitably skilled staff may also be difficult in some rural areas. As such, Minister for Education and Early Childhood Learning, Sarah Mitchell is calling for educators across the state to get involved including casual and retired teachers, final year teaching students, and university tutors including PhD candidates who are already teaching undergraduate classes at university.

“We will […] make sure our rural and remote school leaders can access the expert additional staff members they need to implement the program successfully,” Ms Mitchell said in a statement.

With the scheme set to commence in early 2021, conversations about how the scheme will take shape are starting to happen.

Julie Sonneman and Minister Mitchell will continue the discussion on small group tutoring at this year’s The Sydney Morning Herald School Summit – held at the ICC and delivered virtually on 17 February 2021.

Joining them at the Summit are Secretary of the NSW Department of Education, Mark Scott, CEO of Catholic Schools NSW, Dallas McInerney and CEO of the Association of Independent Schools NSW, Geoff Newcombe.

Learn more and register. 

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