As students return to school, small-group tutoring can help those who are falling behind
More than four million students around Australia are heading back to school. While this will be a year of achievement and learning growth for many students, others will struggle to keep up.
A major Productivity Commission report earlier this month found too many Australian school students are behind in reading and maths. Each year tens of thousands of students fail to meet minimum literacy and numeracy standards, as measured in NAPLAN assessments.
But even this likely underestimates the proportion of struggling students, as NAPLAN’s minimum standards set a very low bar.
When children struggle to keep up with classroom learning, it can spark a vicious cycle. Lack of understanding can lead to frustration, and disengagement can set in, which makes further learning harder.
The good news is that the opportunity to boost learning and bridge
these gaps is in plain sight. As our new research finds, small-group tutoring is an effective way to help students catch up.
Australia has a significant underachievement problem
Many students in Australia fail to develop essential skills in literacy and numeracy. And once children fall behind, they often struggle to catch up. Successful academic learning involves layering new knowledge and skills on a solid foundation of learning.
Studies estimate about 20% of students need additional intensive learning support, on top of universal classroom instruction, to develop foundational literacy and numeracy skills.
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Grattan Institute analysis of 2022 NAPLAN data shows disadvantaged children tend to start school well behind their advantaged peers, and the gap only grows wider with every year of schooling.
The learning gap between disadvantaged and advantaged students more than doubles in reading and numeracy between year 3 and year 9.
In numeracy, for example, year 3 students whose parents did not finish school are one year and seven months behind students whose parents have a university degree. By year 9, this gap has grown to four years.
But small-group tutoring can help struggling students catch up, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
What is small-group tutoring?
This is where teachers or other educators work with just a few students at a time.
The sessions are short, lasting up to an hour each and held about three times a week over one or two school terms. Sessions are highly focused: for example, they may concentrate on helping students recognise particular spelling patterns, or working with fractions.
Small-group tuition tends to be conducted during school hours, and there is close collaboration between the teacher and tutor. This means the content is closely aligned to classroom content and monitored by the teacher.
This is a key point of difference to the tutoring that parents might organise for their children out of school hours.
Small-group tuition works
A 2021 review of international evidence by Australian-based organisation Evidence for Learning showed small-group tuition can boost student learning by as much as four months, on average, over the course of a year.
And a 2020 systematic review by the US National Bureau of Economic Research of 96 randomised controlled trials (the “gold standard” for evidence) found consistently large, positive results from catch-up tuition on maths and reading across grade levels.
Small-group tuition works because the tutor can focus exclusively on a small number of students, identify their precise learning needs, and work closely with them to get them back on track. A student’s personal relationship with their tutor can also boost their confidence and help them feel better about going to school.
But we need to do it well
The big challenge is to deliver high-quality small-group tuition in every school. It will take time and effort to get right.
We need to know more about which small-group tuition models are most cost-effective – because tutoring is moderately expensive.
We also need to ensure there are enough high-quality tutors, given concerns about teacher supply.
Tutors could be drawn from retired teachers and part-time teachers. Employing teaching assistants, trainee teachers and other university students as tutors should be considered.
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Evidence shows these groups can deliver good results if they are given the right support and training, including the use of a structured literacy or numeracy program.
There are still important gaps in the evidence about which program delivery methods work best, and for whom.
Schools also need to be able embed small-group tuition systematically. Schools should boost the quality of whole-class instruction to limit learning gaps in the first place, regularly screen students to identify gaps that do arise and then step in with tutoring to close gaps quickly.
What should governments do?
In response to COVID-19 school disruptions, Australian governments have invested about A$1.5 billion in catch-up learning programs in NSW and Victoria.
Governments should now do more to learn the lessons from these programs. The big challenge is to ensure high-quality small-group tuition is achieved not in a few schools, but every school.
Federal and state governments, along with Catholic and independent school sector leaders, should commit to a five-year plan to embed high-quality small-group tuition in every school. Five years will give governments time to test and refine the best ways to deliver small-group tuition cost-effectively, and put the right supports for schools in place.
Governments and the Catholic and independent school sectors should now take four steps to make this happen:
improve guidelines for schools on how to have high-quality small-group tuition, with a focus on the prevention and early identification of learning gaps.
review schools’ capacity to implement best-practice guidelines, and provide the support and training school leaders and tutors need.
invest $10 million across the country in rigorous trials to identify the best ways to deliver high-quality small-group tuition.
make sure there is a commitment to have small-group tuition in all schools in the next National Schools Reform Agreement (NSRA) due by December 2024. The NSRA is an agreement between the federal, state, and territory governments that sets out agreed strategic reforms in areas of national interest. The next version of the NSRA is currently under negotiation.
As quality and standards in Australian education once more make headlines, small-group tutoring offers us a clear, practical path to helping teachers and students alike.
Principals and teachers can refer to the Grattan Institute’s short guide to small-group tuition here