Opinion: Dreaming the impossible dream

Opinion: Dreaming the impossible dream

Newspaper headlines such as; The reason schools lock students out of the VCE, ‘I deserve another chance’: the student no school wants, and ‘They thought I’d become a tradie’: Why schools lock students out of VCE, paint an alarming picture of current secondary school practice in some schools.

What is driving this problematic trend in education? Back in the sixties as far as I can recollect headlines such as those appearing in our newspapers in recent times were non-existent.

It would appear that the practice of ‘dissuading’ students from sitting their VCE exams and encouraging them to seek the vocational alternative, the Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning (VCAL) is a more recent strategy. Then there’s the ‘option’ provided by some schools to have students opt for an unscored VCE.

That is, complete their VCE without receiving an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR), meaning that in effect they do not sit the end of year VCE examinations. Judging by the commentary, several possibilities would be at play in this trend.

Advocates for broadening the types of assessment options available to Year 12 students, vehemently dismiss claims that the intent of the exercise is to embellish schools VCE results.

Rather, they argue, it is aimed at ensuring that students, for whom a tertiary course at university is not a realistic option, stay at school longer, suffer less pointless stress in their final years of secondary schooling and undertake courses better suited to their talents and interests.

This makes eminent sense. After all, most jobs in the workforce do not require a university degree. There’s plenty of evidence indicating that early school leavers too often slip through the workforce gaps, remaining unemployed for far too long for anyone’s good.

It would seem that the ‘market forces’ approach which has gained momentum in our education system has much for which to answer. Central to the market approach to education is what is commonly termed the commodification of education. Put simply, this means that learning becomes a process where an economic value is attached to the outcomes.

That is – good marks for subjects studied, with the eventual pay dirt being a quality job. The better the marks the better the options for desirable courses at, of course, the more prestigious tertiary institutions; read our sandstone universities.

The free enterprise model of education explains this all very neatly. Schools with the best VCE results command the most clout for enrolments and, in the case of private schools, the highest fees.

Student segregation based on social and academic advantage logically follows. Little wonder then that the gap in educational performance between the students from our more affluent and poorer families is one of the highest of all OECD countries in international tests such as PISA.

It’s important to remember that not all learning is assigned an economic value. Indeed, it is the very measurable, tangible learning that is undertaken in our schools that is assigned such value.

Little wonder then that our NAPLAN tests, the international tests – Trends in International Mathematics & Science (TIMSS), Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and of course VCE with its attached ATAR scaled scores rule supreme. There should be more to education than that, and indeed there is.

One school, which has boldly come out and stated its case for requiring students to ‘opt in’ if they want an ATAR, is Templestowe College in Melbourne’s north-east. As was reported in The Age newspaper recently, the school has embarked on a revolutionary approach, one which its principal, Peter Hutton explains: “Finishing their schooling at Templestowe College without an ATAR would become the default option for students.”

In arguing this strategy, Hutton says: “If one of our aims is to encourage a love of learning, why would you make their final years of learning a hell?” He added, “We don’t want this to be a dirty little secret where kids are meant to feel ashamed. I want to bring it out into the light and present it as a really viable option.”

Maybe, just maybe, the move toward a broader basis for student engagement and success in senior secondary schools such as Templestowe College will be the dawn of a new era in our school system.

If it proves to be so, then that will be truly revolutionary and will rewrite the rules of engagement for all schools. If not, then tilting at windmills is no bad thing. If it were, there would be no place for Don Quixote and the Impossible Dream.


Berwick Lodge Primary School principal Henry Grossek hosts Viewpoints on Casey Radio 97.7FM on Fridays between 9.00am and 11.00pm