By CELA on 29 Jun, 2021

By Felicity Dunn, CELA Policy and Research Consultant

2020 was one of the education sector’s most challenging years. From early learning to tertiary level, educators had to ride a wave of uncertainty and constant changes, as well as learning how to deliver engaging programs online for the first time.

For families, too, the challenges and daily changes to life were considerable. Studies found that while only 7% of families always worked from home before the pandemic, this increased dramatically to 60% during COVID-19[1], while the number of families using parent-only care more than doubled from 30% to 64%.[2]

43% reported that they or their partner had lost a job, or experienced reduced hours or reduced wages as a result of the pandemic.

In the context of such upheaval, there has been great concern about the implications for children’s learning, particularly those whose learning was already behind prior to COVID and who are experiencing disadvantage.

While the COVID situation evolved (and continues to evolve) so quickly, there is a scarcity of research on the impact of the pandemic on children’s learning achievements in Australia. The Paul Ramsay Foundation has looked to address this knowledge gap by partnering with the University of Queensland’s Institute for Social Science Research to conduct a project called “Learning though COVID-19”.

About the Learning though COVID-19 project

The Learning Through COVID-19 project is ‘an intensive study designed to understand what happened during the pandemic for students already at risk of educational disadvantage, to identify the needs that have arisen for them, and to propose evidence-based solutions for the consideration of governments, funders, non-profits and schools’ (Paul Ramsay Foundation).

The study focuses on the experiences of three cohorts of school students, all of whom entered the pandemic at greater risk of educational disadvantage:

  • students in the early years of primary school who started school developmentally vulnerable,
  • students in the last three years of secondary school who were at risk of disengaging from formal schooling,
  • students who have had contact with the child protection system.

The study included examining national and international literature on what would likely happen as a result of the pandemic (with the limitation that this research was based on past evidence and not actual data from the pandemic); then student achievement and attitudinal data from 2019-2020 and finally a review of possible policy interventions to support positive outcomes for children.

While the research has focused on school age children – being those in the first few years of school, those at risk of disengaging in the later stages of secondary and those known to child protection, there are some interesting clues which may be worth pondering for the early childhood sector.

What can work to support children’s learning during lock-downs

Amongst other things, the research identified four priority action areas around what can work to support children’s learning, particularly in the context of lock-downs. These were:

  1. Focus on student mental health, wellbeing and hope
    If services can provide mental health programs for students, and build parent and teacher capacity to support mental health through training and resources, this can help support students to manage anxiety and support well-being.
  2. Additional roles for teachers, parents and communities to support achievement
    Measures such as provision of flexible learning models, high dose tutoring, engaging parents/carers more in education and providing free meals at school can help support student achievement.
  3. Digital equity through better access and connectivity
    High digital literacy among older students, parents and teachers and access to digital devices and connectivity can reduce gaps in achievement.
  4. Targeted support and protections for vulnerable students
    If services can provide targeted student and family support (whether themselves or via allied health services connected to the service, this can provide support networks for children at risk.

Other findings relating to educational achievement

The project also reported that the gap in engagement and achievement in education did not widen for these cohorts of children, although further analysis over time is needed, particularly as the analysis does not show what happened for Victorian students, who experienced long periods of lock-downs in 2020.

The gap in educational achievement in Australia is unfortunately very much influenced by social economic status. 67.7% of low SES children start school developmentally ‘on track’, compared to 85.3% of high SES children. Over time, the gap in achievement widens, with 50.6% of low SES children achieving the national minimum standard in literacy and numeracy in the middle years, compared with 91.3%.
For early years educators working with children from low SES backgrounds, every effort made to support children and their families can make a difference to work against these statistics, including providing guidance to support at-home learning

What you’ve told us about learning during lock-down

We are proud of the many CELA members who provided innovative programs and at-home learning packs to help families. For families, this provided insight into the kinds of activities early childhood educators implement in order to support children’s learning. While many parents enjoyed the opportunity to engage, many others were simply too busy managing work and other home and care responsibilities to be involved. Critically, many children who were isolated at home missed out on developing their social skills – this was played back to us by members who last year indicated that many children returned to the classroom after lock-down with lower emotional maturity, decreased capacity to engage in large groups and cope with saying good-bye to care-givers.

Only time (and research) will tell how the pandemic has impacted children’s learning over the long term – and possibly, what aspects from educators’ innovations in response to the pandemic should be kept to support better educational outcomes for all children, regardless of socio-economic status.

[1] Australian Institute of Family Studies, Kelly Hand, Jennifer Baxter, Megan Carroll, Mikayla Budinski , “Families in Australia Survey: Life During COVID19 Report No1

[2] Australian Institute of Family Studies,  Kelly Hand, Jennifer Baxter, Megan Carroll, Mikayla Budinski , “Families in Australia Survey: Life During COVID19 Report No1

[3] “Learning Through COVID19 Project”, University of Queensland and Paul Ramsay Foundation,

About CELA

Community Early Learning Australia is a not for profit organisation with a focus on amplifying the value of early learning for every child across Australia - representing our members and uniting our sector as a force for quality education and care.

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