Do we cancel HSC exams this year?

Do we cancel HSC exams this year?

I’m not surprised there’s a call to end Year 12 exams - and not only exams but ATAR scores as well. Some are suggesting that COVID has made the cancelling of Year 12 exams necessary.

The impact of COVID is a useful catalyst but not a useful reason.

Have our Year 12s not been able to learn? Yes and no. COVID has impacted on all Year 12s - so there is no unfairness because all have suffered the COVID disruption. Or have they? Educational resource disparity exists. Lockdown stringency has been mottled. Quality online teaching has not been a constant. There has been unfairness.

However, the tragedy is that this has always been the case – perhaps not so stark – but it has always been true that some of our Year 12s are better prepared for exams than others. Despite the best efforts of Gonski and needs-based funding models, the quality of the schooling experience differs across our land. Cancelling Year 12 exams will not remove resource disparity. A more equitable distribution of educational resources will – and that deserves more space than is here to explore.

Let’s return to the stress issue. Are our Year 12 students under more stress than usual? Yes – but it is not just Year 12. Since 2019, there has been a 162% increase in emergency admission to hospitals by teenagers because of mental health issues. Year 12 contribute only a proportion – albeit a not insignificant portion, of this number.

Cancelling exams is not the magic wand. Opening our schools would have a bigger impact on wellbeing. Our students are designed for connection, community and companionship. Time now to take the padlocks off our school gates.

Full disclosure. I was in favour of putting locks on school gates at the height of the pandemic. But not now. Our lock-out “cure” may be doing more harm than good. In Victoria alone, 340 teens a week are being admitted to hospital for mental health emergencies. If we multiply this by four, we might begin to get close to the national number. This is obscene, and suggests that:

  • All our teachers must be vaccinated – and students too.
  • All our teachers, not just the 10% or so at present, should be trained in student mental health.
  • All our teachers need a tangible reminder of their worth. Think mega care package.

We need to open our schools and we need to follow through with our Year 12 exams – at least for the moment.

What do we put in the place of Year 12 exams if they were to be removed? Year 11 grades? School-based portfolios? A detailed testimonial? All could work - and even more so because the main reason for exams is the ATAR, and the main reason for ATARs is tertiary and job selection. However, most tertiary institutions and most employers are awarding places and jobs based on interview rather than marks these days.

New skill sets are wanted - not just memorisation and literacy skills (which accounts for over 80% of current exam content). These new skills include creativity, IT skills, ability to work in a team, EQ skills, problem-solving skills and so on.

It’s all a bit late now to change anything other than to push back the Year 12 exam dates a bit. So, I’d tell my students to do the exams - but not to sweat about them. The exams are nothing like the big deal they used to be. Not many are the slightest bit interested in your HSC or VCE score after you leave your teen years.


Dr Timothy Francis Hawkes OAM is a former headmaster of The King's School, Parramatta, stepping down from the post in 2017 after serving in the role for almost 20 years