Teachers throughout Australia are regularly judged on their students’ academic achievement. Yet the pressure faced by schools over the last three years to ensure kids aren’t ‘falling behind’ academically has often overshadowed trickier questions like “how are they coping?”

Since 2020, every student in every school in Australia has experienced unprecedented disruption to their schooling. On top of the disruptions and stress of COVID-19 lockdowns, isolation from their schools, their friends and extended families, tens of thousands of Australian families have also seen their communities ravaged by fires and floods.

Kids have had to spend lunchtimes indoors to avoid the smoky haze and ash falling on their playgrounds. They have been rescued from their rooftops by boat and helicopters. Lives have been lost and communities devastated.

Our research into post-crisis schooling and the impacts of COVID-19 found the disruptions to schooling had significant impacts on the wellbeing of both teachers and students, whereas academically the kids were continuing to achieve at around the same level as they had in 2019.

In our research, teachers and leaders reported that students were stressed, anxious, and engaging in unacceptable behaviour after returning to the classroom following lockdowns. These reports from primary schools signal potentially greater social and emotional effects on the wellbeing of high school students.

Every student deserves to have adults within the school gates who support their health and happiness as well as their learning. And that’s never been more important than now. There are solutions – but they will take coordinated and resolute action.

The interim report of the National School Reform Agreement, released by the Productivity Commission on Wednesday, reveals one in five young people aged 11-17 reported experiences of psychological distress in the most recent data from 2014. That was eight years ago so, shockingly, these numbers don’t even reflect the negative impacts of a global pandemic, repeated natural disasters, or teaching shortages that students have faced over the past three years.

The National School Reform Agreement sets out a series of strategic reforms that could make the biggest difference for improving student outcomes. This review acts like a report card and has made some concerning findings.

The commission found teachers are overworked and burnt out and need more time to spend on teaching, planning, and professional development instead of endless administration and low value tasks.

The commission also found that each year, between five and nine per cent of students aren’t meeting minimum literacy and numeracy standards – and that this is true for all students, not just those from equity groups.

Perhaps most worrying, the commission found many students face a crisis of wellbeing, which negatively impacts on their achievement in school. But there are no focused reforms to address these issues in the National School Reform Agreement.

Building strong relationships with teachers and school staff is vital for student wellbeing. I interviewed principals, teachers, and students for a study on school leadership in disadvantaged contexts. One principal reported that it is the school’s role to “make school the best six hours of [the students’] day”. When asked what he enjoyed most about school, a year 6 student responded: “I feel safe. No one is yelling at me or hitting me here.”

The NSRA is limited to what happens within the school gates, but wellbeing is a far more expansive issue. Ongoing national reforms need to look at strategies to support wellbeing for young people throughout the whole community.

We need to treat the wellbeing of our kids seriously.

We need more dedicated mental health supports in schools. In Australia, we have just one professionally trained school counsellor for every 750 students. Young people are waiting weeks or months to receive vital support for their wellbeing in schools. The wait for access to expensive mental health care outside the school can be even longer – particularly in regional areas. Schools and communities are desperate for this urgent and critical support.

We need to identify multidisciplinary strategies, with evidence to show that they are working to support student wellbeing and not just put the responsibility back on teachers. Teachers are already burnt out and exhausted and many don’t have the expertise or the time to effectively manage serious mental health concerns.

The main sources of stress for teachers – workloads, student behaviour, and expectations – are spiralling out of control as the pandemic continues to affect staffing. The need to cover additional classes has limited teachers’ time for planning, assessment and professional development, adding to their workloads and reducing their morale.

School leaders are struggling to find enough teachers to teach required classes. Our research has identified that as many as ten classes a day in secondary schools are relegated to the library or playground with minimal supervision. Classes in primary and secondary schools are regularly being combined with upwards of 40 students.

This situation makes it difficult for teachers to teach their students, much less identify those who are struggling with their wellbeing, their health and their happiness. If we are to make a positive difference to student achievement – the key goal of the National School Reform Agreement – then putting their wellbeing first is crucial.

Associate Professor Jess Harris is a chief investigator at the University of Newcastle’s Teachers and Teaching Research Centre.

This article was originally published in The Canberra Times on 19 September 2022