Having worked in clinical mental health with a specialisation in children and adolescents, as well as counselling young people using a strength-based model and having worked in school environments as a counsellor and teacher and obtaining my Doctorate in understanding people's behaviours, I felt it was appropriate to talk about what is, and has been, occurring with our young people, more specifically high school students.
Our governments, state and federal, appear to be somewhat removed from the coal face. People such as myself who have devoted careers to understanding and supporting our youth and who have worked in the 'trenches' are seldom asked our professional opinions on how we as a society can better engage and understand the needs of youth who try and traverse their way through a playing field of obstacles in obtaining their high school certificates.
As a school counsellor, I have had to continually support many students over the years in ensuring their mental health levels, related to anxiety, panic attacks, stress, and low-level depression, are kept in check. Why? Mainly as directly related to the pressures applied to them through somewhat antiquated HSC systems.
Like replenishing our river systems through water diversion from parts of the country that has abundant amounts of annual rainfall to combat the effects of drought, those in high level authority positions in education just seem to not listen to what people like myself have to say that could dramatically change the landscape of our educational systems instead, simply continuing the status quo.
In other words, if it isn't working then why keep doing the same things over and over, the ones that lose out are our children. Isn't it time we listen to and ask our students what they feel about the current system they are being educated in?
Nationally, there is concern that the number of youth suicides and self-harm rates continue to rise. Politicians and those in the allied health industry seem to scratch their heads as to the reasons why, when it is obvious one key element to this increase has to do with the way youth engage or should I say the way we engage with youth through education, specifically during their high school years and even more specifically during years 11 and 12, in NSW - this is called the HSC.
There are many scholars nationally and globally who through targeted research know this all too well but who is listening? And, who is brave enough to enact educational reform based on this evidence.
Currently, only 29 per cent of high school students go onto university here in Australia. Whereas in the USA according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics 2016, 70 per cent were enrolled in university. A study has found a quarter of Australian school students are not finishing year 12, and that completion rates are much worse in remote and economically disadvantaged communities.
In Australia, 26 per cent of children drop out of school with many sighting stress, anxiety and mental illness.
Author and journalist Lucy Clark, wrote in her book, Beautiful Failures: How the Quest for Success is Harming Our Kids, that her daughter was one of them, struggling, often failing, with every day during the two years of her Higher School Certificate, to attend classes, hand in assignments and show up for exams.
"By all the standard markers my daughter graduated from high school a failure," stated Clark.
Clark further wrote, "This drive to achieve a number at the end of 12 years of schooling has become a kind of mania".
When kids report that school pressure is one of the main reasons for their anxiety, we have to join the dots. Most experts in the field have already done this.
Researchers at Melbourne's Mitchell Institute also warn Australia now has a less equitable education system than many other Western nations.
In Victoria, fewer public school students are completing senior school, new data reveals. Overall, the retention rate of year 11 and 12 state school students last year fell to its lowest since 2013, according to figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Additionally, 28 per cent of Australian year seven students are not meeting international standards in reading alone.
Former Mitchell Institute director Dr Sara Glover stated that the high number of students not finishing year 12 was a "real cause for alarm as this is the future workforce of Australia. If we are not equipping them well enough for that, this is a quarter of young talent wasted. For our economy, and for our future, we can't afford to do that."
In total, there is a growing rate of male and female year 12 students who are going to work instead of pursuing further study or training, with 22 per cent going into part-time or full-time jobs. This is an increase of nearly five per cent from 2015.
As of 2017, 27 per cent of the population held a qualification of a bachelor degree level or above. The total number of those pursuing a bachelor's degree, vocational course, apprenticeship or traineeship has dropped five per cent from the previous year.
Greg Whitby, executive director of the Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta, who appeared on the ABC's 7:30 report, is convinced that Australia's education system is outdated and too focused on testing.
"After 13 years of schooling, you are tested over a period of a couple of weeks in three-hour chunks using paper and pencil.
"In NSW only about 20 per cent of kids use the ATAR to access university."
In the USA more and more colleges and universities are de-emphasising SAT scores as part of a prospective students application with test-optional and test-flexible policies and even elimination of SAT scores completely. Scholastic Assessment Test is typically taken by high school juniors and seniors. The USA College Board states that the SAT measures literacy, numeracy and writing skills that are needed for academic success in college.
Former NSW education minister Adrian Piccoli, who heads the newly-created Institute for Education at the University of NSW, stated that the "ATAR is being used by universities and training providers less than it's ever been used because they are looking at other ways of assessing (students).
So that should decrease the pressure but for some reason, the pressure and stress levels are much higher.
There is Australian and international evidence that shows standardised testing and 'league' tables can present a narrow view of school performance. They are also open to misinterpretation, can distort pedagogical practice and can adversely affect student wellbeing.
Other national research shows that:
- 10 per cent of Australian students start behind at school, do not obtain a year 12 certificate or secure work in adulthood.
- One in six year seven students who perform above benchmark standards fail to complete year 12 or an equivalent by age 19.
- 43 per cent of students in very remote areas complete year 12 compared with 78 per cent of students in major cities.
- 44 per cent of Indigenous students complete year 12 compared with 75 per cent of non-indigenous students.
- Nearly a quarter of 24-year-old Australians are not engaged in full-time education, training or work.
Victorian Council of Social Services CEO Emma King said failure to support vulnerable students, particularly in the early phase of their schooling, could severely limit their opportunities in adulthood.
"Many of these people go on to suffer financial hardship, alcohol and substance abuse, homelessness and a higher probability of ending up in the justice system." Dr Glover further made note that her team of researchers found just 60 per cent of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds finish school, compared to 90 per cent of those who are wealthy.
Macquarie University clinical psychologist Dr Viviana Wuthrich said almost all students will experience some level of anxiety in Year 12, and almost a third show high levels of stress.
"The more they feel there is pressure on them from parents or from teachers or schools to succeed, that really increases student stress levels," she said. 'We certainly know it impacts on sleep, they have upset tummies, feel nauseous, and they feel constant fatigue and mental fatigue."
A survey by the American Psychological Association found that nearly half of all teens, 45 per cent, said they were stressed by school pressures. Homework was a leading cause of stress, with 24 per cent of parents saying it's an issue.
Finnish educator, Pasi Stahlberg, warns against over-emphasising competition, standardisation, school choice and test-based accountability. Rather, he stresses the importance of 'collaboration, individualised teaching, equity and a trust-based, well-educated [teaching] profession'.
Maurie Mulheron, President of the NSW Teachers Federation said in 2013, in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, "(NAPLAN) has become a high-stakes test for sure. That's why we have seen these absurd behaviours where teachers feel the need to drill their students in NAPLAN testing and parents are enrolling them in cramming clinics and coaching schools. As soon as you publish the results on a website and allow immediate access to them, it turns into an adult spectator sport".
Professor John Munro, Faculty of Education and Arts, Australian Catholic University adds that as educators, many of us object to how and why it is used beyond the teaching-learning context and the preference and priority it is given over other forms of assessment. To ensure that it benefits optimally the learning outcomes of our students, we may need to both broaden our narrative about it and take whatever steps we can to minimise its negative influences.
"Standardised tests can't measure initiative, creativity, imagination, conceptual thinking, curiosity, effort, irony, judgment, commitment, nuance, goodwill, ethical reflection, or a host of other valuable dispositions and attributes. What they can measure and count are isolated skills, specific facts and function, content knowledge, the least interesting and least significant aspects of learning" per education theorist, Bill Ayers.
Colleen Ricci (2014), wrote an article that appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald; Education online: time and place for standardised testing stating, Critics say ''one-size-fits-all'' testing measures only a fraction of what makes education meaningful and that focusing on tests ''narrows the curriculum''.
They argue that too much time is spent on monotonous test preparation at the expense of the broader curriculum or creative, engaging activities. Many say that standardised tests value rote learning over deeper understanding; merely teach students to jump through test hoops; create an assembly line mentality, and in the case of high-stakes testing, encourage cheating. They say children should not be judged on the results of narrow tests that value certain competencies while ignoring others.
Ricci further said, others are concerned by the stress and anxiety many students feel about testing and argue that we should find alternative evaluation methods. They cite countries such as Finland, a nation that consistently rates highly in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) despite no mandated standardised testing.
If there are so many academics and educators out there who believe we are failing our children in either pursuing or advancing their higher educational interests, in part through the stress of standardised testing process, maybe we also need to look at how we provide transitioning avenues of high school students into tertiary study.
The Australian education system is often compared to the USA system. Many politicians will use the media to tell us that the US system, for higher education, is expensive and burdened with many pitfalls. However, the two systems are in actual fact apples and oranges and as such there should be limited comparisons made. If we do want to look at the two then we first must look at the model that works exceptionally well is in the USA and is in effect, in a limited scope, to some degree here in Australia. Just to preference again, 70 per cent of students were enrolled in higher education in the USA compared to 29 per cent here in Australia.
USA Community Colleges - are much like our TAFEs, students of all ages attend a local Community College where they can gain qualifications at various levels with the highest certificate being an Associate Degree, which is a two-year qualification. Many students will then go on to a full 4-year degree giving College or University and finish their study by obtaining a Bachelor's Degree, which typically takes another two years of FT study. Community Colleges are inexpensive and provide students with significant learning tools that give them a greater opportunity to succeed in their higher educational studies as they mature.
USA Colleges and Universities - are roughly the same, however, many Colleges typically do not offer degrees past a full 4-year Bachelor's degree however there are exceptions to that rule with more colleges offering Masters Degrees. It should be noted traditional College and University undergraduate degrees are 4 years in length with many incorporating some form of 'independent study/research component depending on the degree program. Universities are also typically aligned to research and offer higher-level degrees, Masters and PhDs. This is not steadfast but most will fall into these categories.
If Australia were to take up the USA model it could look something this:
TAFE (USA Community College) - continue to offer the quality teaching most do with qualifications up to an Associate Degree. TAFEs are also teaching-focused and provide exceptional means of alternative educational/career pathways for students of all ages.
Australian Regional Universities (USA Colleges) -If we change the focus of regional universities to 'teaching colleges' and keep some focus on niche or specific research the main focus would be on attracting students who only wish to be engaged with academics who have greater industry knowledge, preferably Australian, and where teaching is their first priority.
Universities - status quo for the most part. The Sandstone Universities would continue on as usual, offering a combination of research/teaching attracting those students who either wish to follow research paths, higher level degrees, or are attending for prestige etc...With other capital city universities, deciding where they feel they can be best positioned, being a University that focuses on teaching with a niche research component or remain status quo.
Also for clarification, Australian academics are required to spend between 40 and 70 per cent of their time dedicated to research, 10 to 20 per cent on administrative tasks leaving the remainder to dedicated teaching time. Experts say there is a skills shortage of Doctoral level academics, not true, instead there are many PhDs not teaching due to their limited research output. Therefore, many Australian universities are hiring international academics who appear on paper to have greater research output, made up of conferences attended, the number of international journal articles (preferably high ranking), and the research they are currently undertaking. Nowhere is there scope for teaching performance. In fact, in an interview teaching performance rarely is part of the conversation. Many university academics are under great stress to produce research material and in fact, many have KPIs to that regard.
The upshots to an altered higher education system would squarely benefit students who will then know what tertiary institutions are focused on teaching and learning as a full-time vocation versus those who place greater emphasis on research output. This USA-based model would certainly see more students enrolling in education knowing they will have alternatives to learning other than the current model where academics have a major percentage of their time devoted to non-teaching activities thereby losing focus of student centred learning outcomes.
Over the years, the education system has been dissected that many times, as this article presents, with a vast sea of experts thoughts and opinions.
So where does the student fit into all this? Well Isn't It Time We Ask Students how they feel about standardised testing, the stress/anxiety of their HSC, the tertiary pathways available to them, attending a research-focused university with a majority of international lecturers, or a teaching focus university with more local lecturers who have a better understanding of the local landscape. Who in the end are the most important people in the equation?
As a footnote, there is one glaring element to all this, which should be noted. According to The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics 2018 figures, international tertiary students inject $32 billion into the Australian economy. There are approximately 550,000 international students, which is the nation's third-largest export. This is a 22 per cent increase since 2016. Therefore, maybe there is a reason those of us in the trenches are not added to the decision equation? Maybe the current standardised testing HSC system is there for that reason?
If the system were to change so too would the economic outlook change and what government wants to be responsible for that? Even though it would mean more domestic students would have greater educational pathways to follow, optimally with less stress and anxiety.