The Fault In Our Schools (Part I)

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By Michael Nguyen-Kim

Hell hath no fury like a Year 12 scorned. This is what Ellen van Neerven, an award-winning twenty-something Yugambeh writer learned when, unbeknownst to her, her poem Mangoes was featured in Paper One of the 2017 English Advanced HSC examination. Within hours, she found herself the subject of a torrent of opprobrium as irate students vented their frustrations at the ambiguous nature of the poem. Facebook and Twitter lit up with memes poking fun at the poem’s “nonsensical” premise, while other posters more generally lamented the “worthless” and “shallow” nature of the exams they were currently taking.

Just another manifestation of teen angst?

Perhaps. Us high schoolers have always enjoyed finding fault with the education system, such attitudes being an integral part of an adolescent’s age-old need to rebel against authority. I am personally no exception, having previously dismissed my own misgivings about the Year 12 system as being clouded by emotions and peer pressure. On a closer look, however, it appears that there are deep and substantial issues with senior secondary education as it is run today.

Let’s start with the idea of the ATAR.

According to the University of Sydney, the ATAR is designed as a predictor of a student’s performance in the first year of university. It works by aggregating a student’s scores in all his/her Year 12 subjects into an overall score. Each student’s overall score is then ranked against all the other students’ scores to generate a final percentile, which is the reported ATAR. An ATAR of 99 means that a student’s overall score is better than that of 99 percent of the students in his/her age group, in his/her state.

This score is then used to determine university entry for the vast number of undergraduate university courses. The logic is that a student with a higher ATAR is more likely to perform better in the first year of university and is hence more deserving of a place than one with a lower ATAR.

It is clear that this system cannot possibly fulfill its stated aims.

This is for two reasons. The first of these is its agnosticism towards a student’s subject selection and degree choice.

Take, for example, Student A and Student B. Student A has achieved an ATAR of 98 and has applied to study engineering. His Year 12 subjects are English, Maths, Physics, Chemistry, and Engineering Studies.

Student B has also achieved an ATAR of 98 and has also applied to study engineering. His Year 12 subjects are English, Modern History, Economics, Visual Art, and Drama.

According to the ATAR system, both Students A and B (with identical ATARs), will be equally successful in their first year of university. But this is manifestly wrong! Student A has clearly taken more technical subjects than Student B, who has leaned heavily towards the humanities. To any reasonable observer, Student A’s prowess in these areas would set him up far better for the study of engineering than Student B. The ATAR system hence cannot act as a reliable indicator for performance in first year university given that the skills needed for ‘first year university’ are so dependent upon the particular degree and study pattern chosen.

The second reason that underpins the ATAR’s failure is its lack of national consistency. Despite in theory being adopted by all states and territories (except Queensland), the way in which one obtains an ATAR varies markedly between jurisdictions. Each state has different subject requirements, different syllabi, and different examination structures. This makes for a less than level playing field, and it is impossible to compare students on a standard scale when their assessments have not themselves been fully standardised.

The ATAR also does not account for differences between the Year 12 cohorts of different states. Recall that the ATAR is a percentile ranking of a student in his/her age group, in his/her state. So a 98 ATAR in NSW means that a student is better than 98% of students in NSW, whilst a 98 ATAR in Tasmania means that a student is better than 98% of students in Tasmania. If, hypothetically, the cohort in NSW is stronger than that of Tasmania, a 98 ATAR achieved in NSW would represent a higher level of achievement than one achieved in Tasmania. The ATAR system, however, has no way of accounting for this. The inferior Tasmanian student is regarded, for all intents and purposes, as equal to his NSW superior.

These distinctions are not merely academic. Data from sources such as NAPLAN and PISA show that there are substantial differences in educational attainment between jurisdictions; the wealthy east coast states of NSW and VIC typically outperform their smaller, poorer counterparts such as SA, NT, and TAS,. Hence, it should be acknowledged that it is more difficult for students in high-performing states to rank highly among their peers. The ATAR’s inability to account for these differences, combined with its aforementioned subject agnosticism, undermines its validity and cripples its ability to meet its stated aims.

My other misgiving with Year 12 is more cerebral. It lies in the fact that school for most students now serves two purposes: to educate, and to act as a selection mechanism for university courses. It is inevitable that these two aims will come into conflict.

A student who is stressed about scoring well in his exams to get into the university course of his choice will not pause to marvel in the beauty of the subject to which he is devoting his time. A student who is asked to write an essay on Shakespeare for his in-class assessment will not dare to explore daring and original arguments, for it is safer to give the examiners what they expect. A student who devotes himself to studying six hours per night to gain an edge on his peers will not indulge his passions of drama and debating, for they take up time, and time is precious in the Darwinian struggle that is Year 12.

It is this, above all else, that is the root of the angst and revulsion us students hold towards the education system in Australia; an arbitrary and ultimately meaningless ranking system that places learning in direct conflict with the prospect of higher education. Ellen van Neerven never asked to be the target of her contemporaries’ rightful rage. In good time, however, their fury will be directed to where it is most deserved: the system itself.


This is the first article in a three-part series. Part II will explore the structure of the educational systems in Australia’s English-speaking counterparts, the US and the UK, and how these better align with the economic and social priorities of their respective nations. Part III will use these insights in an attempt to paint a broad picture of what an ideal Australian secondary and tertiary education system could possibly look like.

Meet the author

Michael is a proud second-generation Australian who is passionate about learning and the opportunities it can offer. Born to Vietnamese migrants who left the country in the wake of its disastrous civil war, he is acutely aware of the impacts that governments can have on their citizens’ quality of life. He believes in adopting a critical approach towards our social systems, in particular identifying and correcting weaknesses that result in inefficient and inequitable outcomes.

Michael graduated from Canberra Grammar School in 2017 and will be commencing a dual degree in Law and Economics at the University of New South Wales. He has also won a place to study Law at Trinity College, Cambridge.