'Now is the perfect time to axe the ATAR' – former principal

A report from the Mitchell Institute found that just 26% of Australian students enter an undergraduate degree based on their ATAR, leading many to ask the question: is this increasingly unpopular tertiary ranking really worth the stress it causes?

Currently, one in four Australian students experience a significant mental health issue, and a recent Guardian Essential poll found that 53% of people surveyed are now very concerned about the threat of COVID-19 – a 14-point increase in only a week.

Many educators and experts argue that the end-of-year exams will only serve to intensify this stress and anxiety, and make the ATAR, a system that ranks students against one another, even more unfair.

A petition to cancel the ATAR for 2020 was recently launched by Peter Hutton, current founder and director of the Future Schools Alliance, which represents 50 innovative schools across Australia and New Zealand.

A plea to Australia’s education ministers

Hutton, formerly the principal of Templestowe College in Melbourne, is proposing that senior students still demonstrate their competence in each subject, assessed by their teacher and authenticated by another qualified subject teacher.

“In some ways, the petition is one of alerting Ministers to the impact that ATAR is having on youth mental health,” Hutton told The Educator.

“Obviously, Ministers are aware at some level, but we don’t want our petition to be knocked back on the grounds that it’s not a workable solution”.

He says the consequences of not acting soon are serious.

“What we’re saying is, make the call early – not like in the UK where the students were preparing up until a month before the exams were held, and then they were cancelled,” Hutton said.

“They formulated their A-levels based on work completed so far. I would hate to see that situation where young people are working in a range of stressful environments”.

Hutton said that just as Australia is only starting to catch up to other parts of the world in terms of the coronavirus lockdown, it is in the same position when it comes to moving teaching and learning protocols and programs online.

“The reality is, we’re going to have more than four million students attempting to video conference once we’re all working from home and our universities go online, and it’s going to fall in a complete heap,” he said.

“For students enrolled in their final year of secondary school, that stress is going to be enormous. We’d be better off calling it and acknowledging that extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures”.

Hutton said that in addition to cancelling senior exams and the ATAR, a guarantee should be given to those who want to study at university that they will receive an offer.

“In the meantime, the adults in the room can sit down together and determine the best and most equitable way to do that,” he said.

Hutton said this would provide an ideal opportunity for teachers to “genuinely teach a love and interest in their subject, and for students to learn it that same way”.

“They could use that time to put together a learning portfolio demonstrating a keenness and desire to learn in that particular subject area and do their own research, rather than trying to prepare for an end-point assessment that regurgitates the material that students have already learnt,” he said.

Disadvantaged kids hit by triple whammy disasters

Hutton said it’s hard to ascertain how significantly that disadvantaged students have been impacted by the recent “bizarre and unfortunate” events to have hit Australia.

“We had the drought, then the fires, which were followed by the floods – and that was before COVID-19. So, many of those rural students who were traumatised and disadvantaged before the current crisis are going to come into this new online system and have a very tough time,” he said.

“Statistics show that 32% of disadvantaged students don’t have Internet access, so how are they going to fare? And what about the students who are doing outdoor education, equine studies or design and technology, and don’t have a laser-cutter at home?”

Hutton said the new paradigm is going to end up “inadvertently privileging” subjects that are the least impacted, but which also happen to be the most academic.

While the push to abolish the ATAR is growing, there’s little that principals can do in terms of taking a public stand, Hutton pointed out.

“School leaders are gagged from expressing their opinions, and this probably has a lot to do with the fact that more than 65% of them work for the Department,” he said.

“For a lot of those in private schools, they’re also somewhat restricted in what they can say because a lot of these schools market quite heavily on their ATAR”.

Hutton said a number of these schools are already looking to pivot away from the ATAR as a primary selling point and exploring what other value-add they can deliver.

“We need to move away from this single-number determinant and look at what can be done for the whole person,” he said.

Yes, an alternative to the ATAR exists

Fortunately, a blueprint for what might replace the ATAR already exists.

In October 2019, a revolutionary plan to rethink Australia’s secondary education and move beyond the ATAR was unveiled by leading educators, academics and policy experts.

The paper, titled: ‘Beyond ATAR: a proposal for change’, by the Australian Learning Lecture (ALL), report proposes use of a document known as a ‘learner profile’ to replace or supplement simple numerical results such as the ATAR, for all young Australian aged 15 to 19 years.

Hutton, who was part of the team that put the paper together, said Australia’s education system is at a uniquely opportune moment where replacing the ATAR is possible without too much disruption.

“I think we have the potential to draw an incredible positive from what is otherwise a quite disastrous situation if we were able to achieve in twelve months what that paper sought to do in five-to-ten years,” he said.

“Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, so I think we should be moving full-steam ahead with this move to the learning portfolio. It just seems like one of those perfect set of pre-conditions that happen to exist right now, where we can do things significantly different”.