From the Head Master

In considering what to write about this week, I have made a conscious decision to look away from the pandemic. As our State emerges from restrictions, as students and teachers prepare to return to schools and, in particular, as our Year 12 students draw near to their final examinations, I would like to raise a different issue; namely, the fundamental problem with our senior secondary education system.

The fundamental problem is that the manner in which the Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR) is perceived and promoted is distorting the educational value of senior secondary education and the essential purposes of education.

I have been prompted to reflect on this topic by a recent session with Professor Peter Shergold, who is the former Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, the current Chancellor of the University of Western Sydney, and the Chair of the NSW Educational Standards Authority (NESA). He recently conducted a review of senior secondary education that can be found here. It is a longer read, but it may be of interest.

The ATAR is an administratively convenient tool for the purposes for which it was designed; that is, to assist universities to select students for admission to tertiary studies. It is far simpler, and cheaper, for the universities than the myriad of other ways that universities around the world manage admissions.

However, even within the purposes it was designed for, it is a blunt instrument with reference to predicting how students will fare once admitted to university. According to Shergold, students with an ATAR over 90 will be fine at university, those with an ATAR under 65 will struggle, but the ATAR provides almost no predictive quality for the mass of students between 65 and 90. For these students, we only know how they will go at university once they actually go!

In addition, Shergold observed that the ATAR is becoming less and less significant for university entry, with only around 40% of Australian university students gaining admission on the basis of ATAR alone. The pandemic, and its implications for educational assessment, has accelerated the rise of a more diverse set of approaches to university admissions, including early entry, portfolios, specific exams, adjustments for various circumstances and achievements, and the like.

Perversely, as the ATAR is becoming less significant, the focus on the ATAR by parents, students, schools and the media is becoming more and more prominent. There is a vicious cycle at play in which all stakeholders are caught up. Students have learned to believe that the ATAR is the determinant of their future, parents have learned to believe that ATAR results are the measure of school quality, schools have learned to trumpet their ATAR successes, and media reporting and public commentary pour fuel on the fire.

This focus on the ATAR diminishes the purpose of education and the purpose of teaching. In focusing on the ATAR, we lose sight of the fact that the purpose of education is to prepare young people for future life, broadly understood. Education prepares young people to be active and engaged citizens, to have a rich internal life, to form pro-social character traits, and to develop the 21st century labour market skills they will need. Perhaps most importantly, education prepares people to be life-long learners, so that they are equipped to thrive in the changing circumstances of their future lives. In the context of our particular School, the commendation of the Christian faith as a sure foundation and invaluable orientation to life is central to our educational vision. The ATAR number reflects none of these purposes.

In addition, the quest for a better ATAR leads students (and parents) to make decisions about credentials or subjects to study that are not in the student’s best interests, being chosen not for interest, ability or suitability, but for the perceived benefit to maximising an ATAR. The vicious cycle is evident in this dynamic too, as successive cohorts of students flock to some patterns of study for perceived benefit. Another associated unhelpful issue has to do with the perception that every assessment mark is of inestimably high-stakes, with the consequent pressure on students sometimes overflowing into conflict with the School.

The wider purposes of education are better reflected in constructs such as the International Baccalaureate Learner Profile, which sets out ten attributes that are valued and cultivated at all levels of our School’s educational offering. A Learner Profile, or the Motivation and Engagement Wheel, which informs our School’s assessment and feedback regarding student engagement, attempt to broaden our focus away from the ATAR-centric tendency that continues to rise in our collective thinking. Many other schools, like Trinity, have developed their own ways of pointing back to the wider purposes of education; however, I know that attempting to shift this discourse can feel like shouting into the wind.

I feel confident to be able to write on this topic for a number of reasons. The first is that we do so from a position of strength; Trinity is a school whose students do very well, as measured by ATAR, so my comments ought not be read as an expression of sour grapes or a defensive communications strategy. The second is that this focus on the broad purpose of education is a long-established and entrenched aspect of our School’s ethos. I am not making a new point or flagging a new direction. The third is that I know that many in our community are entirely aligned to the point that I am making; parents know that the benefits of a Trinity education are not primarily seen in the four digit number distributed as the ATAR.

Nonetheless, it is no bad thing to nail our colours to the mast, particularly as we come into the examination season for Year 12. Let’s ensure that our understandable and legitimate ambition for our boys to do well in the final examinations does not distort into a harmful misapprehension as to what their education is all about.

Detur gloria soli Deo.

Tim Bowden | Head Master

Head Master’s Weekly Address

The Head Master, the Head of the Middle School, the Head of the Senior School and one of the Chaplains presents a piece to camera each week during Remote Learning. They are in lieu of the Head Master’s weekly address to the Quad Assembly, the Middle School and Senior School Assemblies and Chapel. View this week’s address from the Head Master below.


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