Fears of primary school drop-outs from pandemic's digital divide


VULNERABLE children across Ballarat are now at increased risk of not completing a primary school education, let alone secondary studies, a leading children's education charity warns.

The Smith Family's Victorian general manager Anton Leschen said the technology and home-support divide between disadvantaged children and their peers was exacerbated during the pandemic and the biggest hurdle facing schools was getting those children back in the classroom.

"For many it's exciting school is back. Are the most vulnerable going to return to school because many don't attend school as much as their peers - with time away there will be more who don't feel they belong," Mr Leschen said.

"We partner with 110 school across Australia, about eight to 10 in Ballarat, and their greatest concern was not only were the vulnerable likely to slip behind in learning but, if you think of a brick wall, it is like they lose blocks in their education."

For many it's exciting school is back but are the most vulnerable going to return to school?Anton Leschen, The Smith Family Victoria

The Smith Family released a national report on Monday into the stark impacts of COVID-19 on families in its Learning for Life program.

Mr Leschen said some motivated, supported children had really flourished and could return to school ahead of their peers. For many in a cycle of disadvantage, they were already behind their peers and this time would make it even harder to catch up.

The Smith Family found 24 per cent of its families had no data or technology support at home, for example children sharing devices for school work or relying solely on mobile phones for learning.

Mr Leschen said this could put an overwhelmed parent or guardian under further increased pressure and, with unemployment and underemployment on the rise, there were more families realising such pressures.

He said this was exacerbated for families where there was not a strong and positive relationship with the school particularly, for example, if schools were emailing out online learning or return to school details.

Mr Leschen said The Smith Family was confident getting children to school allowed teachers a chance to help bridge the gap in learning.

A new seperate report from the Centre from Independent Studies models normal schools to online schools and NAPLAN testing results from years five and nine students - all who have a further two weeks' at-home classes ahead.

The Smith Family report found families were grappling with complex issues in isolation, from worries over rising bills, anxiety on being split from extended family and stress on getting help they needed. While many families were doing their best to survive the crisis, many felt overwhelmed and concerned for their child's well-being.

Mr Leschen said hidden, long-term poverty was an issue across Ballarat and not confined to pockets or neighbourhoods. He said evidence highlighted how education could break the poverty cycle.