The future of a $480 million tutoring program, touted by the state government as the best way to help students whose learning was hit by the pandemic, is uncertain amid a wave of staff shortages that has left some tutors filling in for absent teachers.
Announcing new funding for the 2022 tutor learning initiative in October last year, Education Minister James Merlino said the program – which has placed thousands of extra staff in Victorian classrooms – was “the most important and effective initiative this year in our schools”.
Tutor Wendy Martin with students Jasmine and Kokob at St Joseph’s Primary.Credit:Eddie Jim
But the program has been hampered by ongoing staff shortages caused by COVID-19 and influenza and the state government has yet to recommit funds for 2023 as it awaits a final report on the initiative by consultants Deloitte
The tutoring program, which puts 6400 retired teachers and final-year teaching students into every government and low-fee private school, is intended to help students who have fallen behind in their learning or who are at risk of disengaging from school altogether.
Andrew Dalgleish, president of the Victorian Principals Association, said some schools have had to use their tutors to take classes if they have been unable to find enough short-term replacement teachers
“This is often as a last resort due to the importance of the tutor learning initiative and wanting to get maximum impact for students.”
Tina King, president of the Victorian branch of the Australian Principals Federation, said the tutoring program had suffered at some schools as they redeployed their workforce to cover absences.
“This is indeed regrettable as we know the benefits targeted and customised programs, such as the tutor learning initiative, can contribute to student learning and growth,” King said.
The program, costing $480 million in 2021 and 2022, provides small-group tutoring for students who have been most disadvantaged by pandemic schools closures.
Students who struggled most during the pandemic included those with low levels of English, those already at risk of disengaging from school, or those with home environments not conducive to online learning, the government has said.
An earlier report by Deloitte found a “positive correlation between the tutor learning initiative and improved student outcomes”.
A government spokesperson said the program had been critical in getting students back on track and boosting their confidence as they returned from the past two challenging years.
To help schools deal with staff shortages, the Victorian government has established a pool of retired teachers, final-year teaching students, and Education Department staff to work in classrooms.
Rachel Smith, principal of St Joseph’s Primary in Collingwood, said tutor Wendy Martin had not only helped children with their school work but their social skills.
“Having that extra person really does help,” said Smith. “I think the byproduct of this [tutoring] coming back from COVID and the isolation is helping children learn to work in a group again, face to face.
“While that wasn’t a focus for the groups, that was a natural occurrence as we went along.”
Julie Sonnemann, who led the Grattan Institute research on COVID catch-up tutoring, said schools might incorporate small group tuition into their practices next year, whether or not the program continued.
“Following the big period of innovation in tutoring in 2021-22, an important next step is to identify and rigorously trial the most promising tutoring models for the Australian context,” she said.
“For example, trials can test which types of lesson materials and instructional approaches worked the best, or the conditions that best support trainee teachers to act as tutors, or whether online tutoring can work well for regional and remote students.”
Wendy Powson, principal of Lilydale High School in Melbourne’s outer east, said program had been hit by staffing gaps, and she was keen for it to continue next year.
“I’m aware that many schools have had to move tutors back into classrooms because of staff shortages. There are often positions that have been advertised three times with no applicants and a shortage of casual relief teachers,” she said.
“However, there is a redeployment of regional staff who can be contacted which has assisted with the CRT [casual relief teaching] situation.”