Should the ATAR stay or go? How challenging traditional methods of reporting will open real industry pathways for students.

I commenced my teaching career in 2000, at the beginning of the century (that sounds both momentous and frightening simultaneously). This time not only marked the beginning of my career but also a time of change in the world, where the students I taught learnt the meaning of the word terrorism through world events and not just fictional texts. With any kind of change it brings about new conversation around what we value and what skills are necessary to create the world we need; and these musings inevitably trickle down to the Australian education system.

This time saw the emergence of the term ‘21st century skills’; a term that I loathe. 21st century skills are those such as creative thinking, collaboration, academic empathy, and decision making. I love the skills themselves, but the idea that these skills have risen in importance with the dawn of the new century, I do not. These skills have always been necessary skills. Skills that set great leaders, great thinkers, and great students apart from others. Collaboration and analytical thinking are not in fact new skills at all, but the measurement of these subjective skills in education rose in importance to sit alongside their objective counterparts such as mathematical and literacy ability.

Since that time, we have seen an increased emphasis in schools to develop these skills in their young learners, to monitor and track them over time, and to build on them through experiential learning and co-curricular pursuits. Many schools have introduced learner portfolios that allow students to showcase their development in a range of robust skills that may add more meaning to the world than their ATAR score alone. Unfortunately, though, I continue to be frustrated when I see headlines and leaders advocate for the abolishment of the ATAR in favour of these portfolios.

Whilst I admire the sentiment shared in these articles, and do agree that the mental health benefits for students would be significant, the argument fails to join the dots. The argument should not focus on abolishing the ATAR (a true bottom-up solution), instead it should focus on universities demanding the measurement of these skills. Better yet, encouraging industry to connect with schools to develop cadet programs and shape these skills in students in the way they desire would benefit not only the young applicants but also corporate Australia. Imagine that. Amazon comes into schools to work with students to develop these skills through exposure to real world problems, NAB working with Senior School students to develop competencies in collaboration and communication skills or Downer exposing students to multi-tasking and managing competing demands in the workplace. Imagine they then offered students jobs straight out of school, no need for ATARs or generic portfolio’s, but armed with targeted, developed real world skills taught by the people who understand what is required the best. This is what we do at my school. This is what we do at Toorak College.

This begins in Year 7 through a subject called Agile Learning where we teach design thinking and then use our corporate partners (some are listed above) to challenge our students' use of this model. It further strengthens each year through hands-on projects, recently partnering with Mine Rehabilitation, we engage students in the social, political and economic influences that need to be considered when deciding what to do with Victoria’s now empty mine sites. These programs are embedded within the curriculum, and then beyond our gates, at Toorak College. Our teaching and experiences therefore are creating meaningful learning for our students and we are shifting the VCE game by getting the world to come to our students, not the other way.

Schools need to turn their attention to the pathway much further beyond the point of university entry. The VCE game won't change until we can create robust and meaningful pathways to the 'real world' beyond school. Establishing corporate partnerships with schools, cadet programs in organisations, mentoring and work shadowing are the way we authentically change the VCE game. Having these established pathways is even more so important for our young women who prioritise security and safety when making choices about the next step they make.

If we abolish the ATAR and nothing else changes, we have brought our students to a dead end. The focus often falls on schools to do more or do better, but we need to advocate for a bigger picture plan beyond bundling our students off with a neat university selection package to make their processes easier. It’s time for schools to lift their expectation of others to take action if we really want to see change.

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