The Higher School Certificate is an educational milestone. This Class of 2021 will complete their final two years of formal education while COVID is continuing to affect the community. Inconsistent and unclear messaging from the State and Federal governments has fed a growing cycle of distrust and confusion. Principals are left to distil then disseminate the latest announcements to teachers and students who are a facing an HSC period like none before.
The HSC timetable is well established and students have always had clear pathways onto tertiary study. However, this year, that clear path is jaded with misinformation, the combination of revolving and seemingly endless lockdowns, learning from home and the growing reliance on media outlets and social media to provide the latest health and education updates.
The 2021 HSC is exposing the greatest systemic weakness at the worst possible time for students. Disjointed government policy and poor systems planning is stark in affect, with some local government areas (LGAs) locked down for over 7 weeks. Across the country, some students are studying onsite, supported with face-to-face teaching and others have their study framed by the computer screen.
It would appear the Great Dividing Range will create a gulf between students who will benefit from face-to-face learning, living outside lockdown areas and those bound in masks and at home. The recent decision to have COVID vaccines diverted from the regions to Sydney spun another shroud over HSC students. This decision has not only frustrated many communities, but educators and students also. Many teachers have taken to social media to express their deep concern that prioritised vaccines have been given to Year 12 students, while the very teachers that are to support them are still waiting for their own.
Students and families feel trapped, recognising the preference of a return to school, however, being concerned about their health and safety. Balancing mental health concerns of the nation’s young people in this time is of grave concern. The exact toll on student’s mental health and well-being may not be known for some time, but the added pressure of a return to school and an aggressive vaccination schedule for a set of high stakes exams is adding to those concerns.
Students have begun to use social media to express ideas, frustration and to engage with peers stating their displeasure with their current plight and reminding many of their two years of COVID disruption leading up to this final education marker. Concerningly, some Year 12 students are organising not to attend the mass vaccination clinic to voice their concern about equity and access to the vaccine.
Student voice is also becoming loudest in the social, unmoderated communities of TikTok and other platforms. The increasing use of social media distorts and amplifies the anxiety and uncertainty of students, filling the void left by poor messaging.
It also seems that student HSC subject choice will extend additional challenges to some students. Practical and performing art subjects are in-person assessments. Zoom will convey a 2-dimensional image of a painting, useful to assess languages but cannot grasp the dramatic pause and atmosphere of a performance. The Education Department has announced HSC markers who previously travelled in teams to the regions, will not be doing so this year. Principals, teachers, and students have no idea of the how and when of these assessments.
The education minister has made clear that a comprehensive and flexible model of school will provide essential lessons and check-ins with teachers, yet there is no clarity or consistency across the state or nation. It is not clear how students in lockdown that complete the trial HSC at home will be disadvantaged as students that are not in the LGAs will have the physical exam experience.
The systemic failure of the health response to COVID has been compounded by competing stakeholders within education. Teacher Unions have staunchly advocated for teachers’ health and well-being. Independent and Catholic systems are working within the context of their school communities. This has further clouded the information stream to students and the community, with recent media reporting that private and public schools may have a different road map as they return to face-to-face teaching.
Perhaps it is time that NSW and other jurisdictions that still follow an old school high stakes testing model review their methods and benefits. The HSC has always been a ‘rite of passage’ and a transition from school into the world! The Class of 2021 are left to navigate a path thru all the systems that are failing them to this point, so now is as good a time as any.