Inequalities in the education system

There’s no one way to define the student experience during COVID-19.

A graphic illustration of a large figure sitting on piles of money looking down at three small figures in distress.

This piece first appeared in the printed edition of The Age, 1st June 2020.

There’s no one way to define the student experience during COVID-19.

With the news that school will be returning within the next few weeks, I imagine many are beyond excited to return to classes as they were in a distant, pre-COVID world. It’s been a long few weeks for all students across the state, and we’ve faced unique challenges along the way. What is so often a relatively similar experience for all was abruptly transformed as every school across the state took on what online learning should look like. Some of us have had our classes brought, as they were, online, while others were given emails and assignments in the place of human interaction in the classroom. What further differentiates us though, is how we, as individuals, are equipped to manage such a sudden and drastic change.

As many of us are painfully aware, much of this has not been a smooth transition. While online learning is an interesting concept to explore, excelling at home learning comes with the nuance of privilege. Sure, this model of school is going to work for some people. Better, even, for some of us. This is not the reality for everyone, and at this stage we haven’t had a single say in directing the future of our learning.

When the biggest commonality among students is suddenly ripped out from under us, it exacerbates the pre-existing inequalities in the education system. Suddenly the students with poor internet connections aren’t just struggling to get work done at home, they can barely attend class. Those of us who need a routine beyond walking three steps to our desks every day to keep our mental health in check have been thrown into turmoil. While much of the conversation is focussed on ensuring top performing students are getting what they need to succeed, it seems that those already on the edge of disengagement are being further alienated from the school system.

While I commend efforts by various parties to alleviate these issues, it’s not enough. There aren’t enough internet dongles or free study guides in this state to get us all where we were headed when we arrived at our first day of school this year. As schools begin to facilitate students moving back to physical classes, much of our focus will be on shifting back to how things were as quickly and seamlessly as possible, and hopefully ensuring that all students are supported. I cannot stress enough the importance of schools engaging with their students on this, as the people most directly impact by the numerous schooling changes.

However, do we really have to go back to how things were before? As we make the move back to physical classes, it brings into question how our education can and should look. In all honestly, some components of this are really working for some of us. If nothing else, this is a really fantastic time to reimagine how the educational experience functionally is, which is something long overdue. Hundreds of years of schooling across the world have left us still learning in a way that is, at its core, almost identical to how it has been. For many, this has been evidence that sitting through one-hundred minute classes from 9am until 3pm everyday isn’t the only way to make schooling work, and it may not even be anywhere near the best. If learning from videos in the comfort of our own homes works for some of us, why isn’t it more commonplace for us to do that? Is attending school six periods a day, five days a week, really that necessary?

Education is not restricted to one method or pathway, nor should we do ourselves the disservice of pretending it is. There’s no singular, static model of schooling that will allow every student to truly flourish. As restrictions loosen, many of us are more than ready to see our friends and teachers, resume many parts of our pre-COVID lives and enjoy what will be our last year of high school as we had planned. Direct collaboration between schools and students will be essential in allowing students to have ownership over their education, much of which has been lost since quarantine began. Let’s take what we’ve learnt, the good and the bad, and move forwards instead of stepping back.

About the author

Bri VicSRC Executive Committee 2017-20