How teachers can help keep the ATAR in perspective

UTS College Dean of Studies, Tim Laurence says there is life after the HSC.
Tim Laurence
Dec 9, 2020
Fear of ATAR isn't necessary

With the HSC period closing in, this year’s cohort will be anticipating the release of their ATAR on Friday, 18 December 2020.

Even in less fraught times, many students worry over their ATAR and the perceived consequences. Last year, a national survey of 420 Australian senior high school students[i] revealed 57 per cent of students believed it was ‘extremely important’ to achieve a certain ATAR. More than half of the participants had a specific score in mind. Fifty-five per cent were aiming for an ATAR of at least 90 – even though more than half of the group considered such an ATAR to be ‘impossible’. Disturbingly, over 80 per cent of the students in the survey went as far as to say that a low score would be ‘detrimental to their life’. Keeping in mind, these were the concerns of students who had experienced a “normal” HSC year.

As we know, 2020 has been anything but normal. The disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have imposed a unique set of challenges on our Year 12 students. The sudden change to a remote classroom and the general sense of upheaval and uncertainty have undermined the confidence of many students. The HSC COVID-19 Impact Report[ii] released earlier this year analysed the effect of the pandemic restrictions on HSC students across public and selective, private and independent and Catholic school sectors. It revealed that four in five students surveyed felt disadvantaged for the HSC due to COVID-19 restrictions. Some worried that their ATAR would be compromised, that the degrees they were aiming for would no longer be attainable or even feared they would somehow be ‘locked out’ of their desired career as a result.

ATAR fears are unfounded
When students don’t achieve the ATAR they were hoping for, there are many ways to achieve their study and career goals. As an educator, I believe we have a duty to encourage young people to keep the ATAR in perspective, especially during a year when they are feeling so vulnerable. The reality is, even before COVID-19 only around one quarter of students entered Australian universities based on their ATAR.[iii] The system is more flexible than many students or their parents realise. There are numerous options, such as interviews, preparation tests, portfolios, recognition of knowledge from paid or voluntary work or completing a pathway course to gain credit for university entry. Some students choose to take a break from study and gain valuable life experiences by the detours they take along the way.

When we see young people placing unrealistic pressure on themselves, we have a duty to remind them that there is much more to them than their ATAR. It is merely a number based on select data and in not the only measure of their potential or worth. It cannot convey their full school experience, nor their unique set of skills or overall abilities and it will not determine their future.

Determined students will find their way
As the trusted pathway provider to UTS, at UTS College, formerly known as UTS Insearch, we see students every day who are transitioning from high school to tertiary education. In fact, many of our teachers are helping their own children through these challenges. We see first-hand the stress caused by this misguided ‘all-or-nothing’ view of their HSC results. Over the years, we have seen many times that a determined student will find their way to university if that is their goal. As a pathway provider, we have helped thousands of students enter their preferred university course and pursue the career they desire. ATAR is never the end of the road. It’s more accurate to say it’s where the journey begins for a lot of students.

Taking a more nuanced view of results, we often find that students who didn’t achieve a high ATAR will still have strong results and genuine aptitude in certain subjects. That’s one of the reasons we prefer to admit students to our pathway Diplomas based on an average mark, calculated on their results for English plus their best 3 board developed subjects. This way, they may still have a chance to enrol in a diploma in science, engineering, communication, business, IT, or design and architecture as a pathway to their preferred degree. As a result, I have seen many talented students fulfil their potential and go on to achieve great success at university and beyond after completing a pathway course. It often seems that pathway graduates bring a little something extra to their degree. They enter university with more confidence, having received extra support and individual attention.

Hard work, focus and passion
I believe we can serve our students far better by focusing on the characteristics that will help them succeed long after their ATAR. The key to achieve academic success is tenacity, hard work and pursing study in a field you have genuine passion for. Qualities such as resilience, adaptability and determination will help students reach their potential. With that in mind, I would suggest that the ‘class of 2020’ may well be ready to shine, having already distinguished themselves when it comes to these characteristics. Over the past year, they have cultivated the independent learning skills that are essential for higher education. They have persisted despite extraordinary obstacles. They have rapidly adapted to a new way of learning. Given that it’s also likely that when universities return to on-campus learning, elements of online or perhaps blended learning will remain, this cohort will be ahead of the curve, well-prepared for such a model.

It’s perhaps a silver lining for educators that we will come back from COVID-19 with an increased understanding of how digital tools can complement face-to-face learning. Classroom time may eventually be reserved for discussion, debate, and guided practice. A more flexible, blended mode of learning will also prepare graduates for an evolving and unpredictable world beyond university.

Above all, I would encourage teachers to take every opportunity to foster optimism in our young people. If I could pass on one piece of advice to HSC graduates, it is that even if their ATAR doesn’t meet their expectations, they should never lose sight of their study and career goals. There is always a way.

Pathway providers are always at hand to help students develop the knowledge, skills and experience they need to succeed at university and beyond. It’s a transition that works and one of many roads to a successful university career.

Tim Laurence is the Dean of Studies at UTS College. UTS College, formerly known as UTS Insearch is the pathway provider to UTS, Australia’s number one young university in the 2021 QS Top 50 under 50. UTS is ranked 133 in the world overall – reflecting its strength in employability, research, teaching and internationalisation.