After thirty years in education, and currently leading a school that tends to rank favourably in the WA school league tables, you could easily assume that an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) would be a big part of the school’s narrative. Surely ATAR is a key motivator to drive student outcomes, meet university aspirations, lift academic results, boost rankings, and attract future students to the school? Every school wants to rank well because this means that the school is a high-performing school and parents will be motivated to invest. Correct? I would argue no. There is so much more at play and so much more to consider when we delve into our students and our schools.
The reality is that schools have been trapped, for too long, in a rigid transition system from secondary to tertiary education, that has needed to change. At last, we are seeing glimpses of change and I commend universities for finally recognising that students are so much more than an ATAR.
We are now brave enough to talk about why some schools, students and parents continue to place a huge emphasis on ATAR when the tertiary education sector is using it less and less as a basis for admission. We are now brave enough to discuss league tables, openly and honestly, recognising that they provide us with very little relevant educational data and only serve to create competition and divide amongst independent, catholic and government schools. We are now brave enough to admit that the dominance of ATAR is costly. The pressure on students and staff to perform is all consuming. Finally, the narrative is shifting the conversation to what’s important.
It is important to remember that ATAR is not a measure of a student’s ability to learn, or an indicator of where someone will be in life in ten years’ time. Access to university courses is driven by supply and demand, so it’s not surprising that alternative pathways into higher education are now opening and changing constantly. There are no signs of universities reverting to pre-COVID enrolment guidelines. If anything, the admissions process will continue to merge more seamlessly for school leavers as they transition into ‘Year 13’ at a tertiary level.
Recent changes in tertiary entrance requirements across Australian universities now allow students wishing to access a course, several entry options. Most recently the University of Western Australia (UWA) launched an Experienced-Based Entry for Bachelor Degrees in Arts, Biomedical Science, Business, Commerce, Environmental Design and Science, recognising different types of students, acknowledging new pathways to learning, accrediting more than just a student’s academic achievements, valuing the necessity for fast-paced skill and information acquisition and providing for early engagement and stackable credentials to enable a lifelong learning journey.
Universities want to attract the right students to the right courses. Aptitude tests, interviews, portfolios, auditions, bridging courses, essays, and bonus point schemes to determine whether a candidate is a good fit for a course, are becoming more and more common in Australia and internationally.
When a student is presented with an opportunity to study in an area that they are passionate, interested, and enthusiastic about, they embrace that challenge and apply themselves. They are motivated to succeed, regardless of whether their ATAR was 80 or 85. A students’ attitude, application, and appetite to engage in their area of interest goes a long way, especially when they are 18!
UWA summed it up superbly at a recent presentation to school principals where they reminded us that ‘a lack of opportunity does not mean a lack of ability’. It is so pleasing to see that the potential and calibre of students is becoming increasingly important in tertiary admissions processes. A student’s portfolio, representing their achievements across many facets of their schooling years, is now being recognised. In addition to their academic achievements, they are now being seen through a broader lens of extra-curricular activities, community engagement, volunteering, life achievements, sport and music achievements, and work experience.
Early offers to universities have been a game changer for students from a wellbeing perspective. Some may argue that league table rankings may be impacted by Year 12 students taking their foot off the pedal and that might very well be the case, depending on the student. There is, however, no longitudinal data to support this argument, and I have seen no evidence of this in my students. However, it does raise the question of what’s more important. Is it a student’s entry into their desired course or the school’s ATAR ranking? Surely the answer is the student’s successful pathway into their desired course.
In NSW, The Daily Telegraph (Oct 2022) estimated that approximately 70% of the 67,300 Year 12 graduating students have been offered an early offer to university courses prior to completing their HSC this year. The trend of students gaining entry to university prior to achieving their ATAR is similar in WA. In my school, for example, over 85% of 2022 Year 12 graduates had a university place prior to receiving their ATAR.
Imagine the experience for Year 12 students across Australia, if they weren’t defined by a rank number after 13 years of schooling. Imagine the opportunities and advantages that would emerge from an education system if schools were not defined by league tables. Imagine the focus on learning that would replace a focus on rank. Imagine the improved wellbeing of Year 12 students who would be encouraged and motivated to continue to play sport, participate in music, pursue their passions, and contribute to the world around them through community service, truly embracing the holistic education that we want for our young adults. Imagine a cohort of students that look back on their senior years and remember it as a highlight of their schooling journey and one that provided them with a pathway to pursue their passions. Imagine how our Year 12 students would shine mentally, physically, emotionally, and socially.
There will be strong opinions on some, or all of the points I have raised in this opinion piece. When it comes to education, everyone is an expert. After all, haven’t we all been to school, so don’t we all know best? Diverse opinions create debate and debate raises awareness that drives change, and that’s a good thing. Ultimately, if this opinion piece changes conversations, especially amongst parents, and relieves the ATAR pressure from students and ranking pressures from schools, even just a little, then I believe it has served its purpose and it’s a Sunday afternoon of reflection well spent.