By Tanya Plibersek

07 October 2021



While the past eighteen months have placed an enormous stress on all of us, young people have experienced a unique loss in the pandemic years. They’ve been robbed of some of the greatest joys involved with growing up – the kind of fun times the rest of us look back on with fondness.

Under lockdown, there’s been no exuberant school formals. No up-all-night sleepovers. No interschool sports rivalries. No easy friendship over lunchtime.

Instead, kids have been forced into digital classrooms, without the face-to-face expertise of their teachers or the companionship of their mates. They’ve been stuck inside with their parents, never easy for any teenager, while the walls slowly close in. Teachers have had to become distance educators, while parents have had to become teacher’s assistants.

It’s no wonder so many are struggling with their mental health. Most of us have seen this anecdotally, but the evidence backs it up too. Just last month, researchers at the Australian National University released a report on youth mental health. They found that 71 per cent of parents had observed worsening mental conditions in their family. 

These pressures are affecting learning too. Some students are able to embrace self-direction like ducks to water, but others find it much more difficult. Kids with more resources and help at home are more likely to be OK, while kids without those supports may have slipped further behind. 

Some kids have parents who can help, a quiet place to work, their own computer. Others have stressed out parents, with brothers and sisters competing for mum’s phone to get their work done for the day. About 55,000 Australian households with kids under 16 have no internet connection at all.

Helping kids catch up on lost learning has to be an urgent priority for us all. If you didn’t learn last year’s lessons, next year’s lessons become that much harder. We can’t let the kids who have fallen behind get stuck there.

As Labor’s Shadow Education Minister, I’ve written to the federal Education Minister, Alan Tudge, about how we can help our kids catch up. Some state governments have pledged money towards individual tutoring for students, and this is a good start. But we need all levels of government to be pulling in the same direction.

For a start, Australia should be developing a national school catch up strategy. This should identify the students who have struggled over the past eighteen months – and it should direct extra resources to helping them. This needs to be on top of the Morrison Government’s Emerging Priorities Program, which pledged $25 million, but which has barely delivered any of its funding yet.    

We should also be giving our year twelve students some certainty about what comes next for them. I must admit: out of all our kids, I feel most sorry for the seniors. They’ve missed out on the most – the study, the school formals, schoolies, part-time jobs and parties.

Without options like travel or gap years, and with work harder to find, university applications have jumped since the pandemic began – without enough extra places to match the demand. The Federal Government should consider stepping in here and funding those extra places, so no one who worked hard and got the marks misses out. It should also think about more TAFE places and apprenticeships, so there’s work and training at the end of this tunnel.

We also need to provide targeted, sensitive and effective mental health support for young people. This isn’t an optional extra to education; it’s vital to ensuring our kids can learn and grow. Over the past decade, we’ve had an overdue revolution in our understanding of mental health. It’s time we backed that up with actual resources, including in our schools.

And of course, when age appropriate vaccines are available for younger children, we should make sure we buy enough doses and distribute them efficiently, including through school-based vaccination programs if possible.

It is often said that COVID is a more likely to be mild in children, but the effects of the pandemic have been very hard on young Australians. They have stayed home, largely to protect their parents and grandparents. It’s up to the rest of us to recognise that sacrifice – and to give them some much needed hope for the future.

This opinion piece was first published by the Daily Telegraph on Thursday, 7 October 2021.