Sam faced challenges other kids didn’t have to overcome, and his ATAR reflected that. But his future, his career and his abilities proved what he was really capable of. No one is just a number.
Sam is 21, and was born very prematurely, a twin, at 28 weeks gestation. He was in hospital for three months after birth, was delayed developmentally for some years, and had a severe auditory processing disability, probably related to prematurity. He also – unluckily, and unrelated to the prematurity – developed a tumour in his left ear at 6 years of age, which destroyed his hearing in that ear.
These issues meant that for his entire schooling Sam didn’t hear as well as other students and didn’t process what he could hear as well as others his age. Obviously, even though Sam worked really hard and spent far more time than other students completing homework and assignments, these learning problems damaged his ability to succeed academically. And although by secondary school he was a gifted writer and artist (winning his school’s overall Art Prize in Year 11), he was slower to complete work than others so could not perform well in exams.
After a tussle with his school when he was in Year 10 (they wanted him to leave or move to a non-academic pathway because he would bring their overall ATAR ranking down), Sam completed Year 11 and 12.
Sam’s parents were always happy for him to investigate other schooling options. His mother operates driver psychology programs in secondary schools, working extensively with Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning (VCAL) students. These are teenagers who don’t intend to pursue university education like most students who complete Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) do, so they study subjects that help them gain apprenticeships and other similar jobs. Sam’s mum knew these students are fantastic learners – they just don’t generally fit an academic mould.
However, Sam wasn’t a practical learner and didn’t want to move to VCAL – his interests were in philosophy, writing, art, film and poetry. And he wanted to go to university to study these subjects at a higher level.
So his parents fought for him to stay at school, and – with difficulty – succeeded. Sam scraped through Year 12 with a low ATAR – technically a pass, but too low a score to get into any regular university. Yet an offshoot of Deakin University called the Melbourne Institute of Business and Technology (MIBT) accepted him to complete a one-year certificate arts course. They backed up this offer with other free assistance to help Sam – in his first year, for example, he was allocated a note-taker, received extra time to complete exams, and had his program overseen by Deakin’s disability department to make sure he was coping.
The best feature of MIBT was that if Sam was able to pass his first year at MIBT with above-average marks, he could automatically move straight into the second year of an equivalent Deakin University course.
He did, and did.
In 2015, he finished the second year of his degree in Professional and Creative Writing with three Distinctions. One of his lecturers told Sam his poetry and writing skills were the best he’d ever seen in any student. He loves university and is now flying, possibly even looking towards completing a Master’s Degree and beyond. He has grown enormously in confidence and has found where he belongs. All he needed was a leg-up and some extra time to mature, and the system in Victoria was able to offer this. If he had been judged purely on his ATAR score, Sam’s career options would have been very narrow, and not at all in tune with his intelligence or interests.
Sam has succeeded in his chosen field (so far) despite, not because of, his school and the pervasive opinion most people hold on the importance of the ATAR score. Schools push students to achieve high ATAR scores obsessively (although they say they don’t) because they have to maintain their My School rankings to attract more enrolments. Most parents push ATAR scores too (although they also say they don’t) because raising children who gain scores of 99 in Year 12 and rush off to be doctors and lawyers is seen in many circles as winning some sort of “Top Parenting” prize. For many students though, it only induces intolerable stress which can have serious life ramifications (although of course, this is never the parents’ fault).
Yet although many schools and parents worship at the altar of the ATAR, universities are (finally) starting – as reported recently – to realise the error of this. Which is that when they do, they miss out on so much talent. Young people like Sam slip through the cracks and their creativity and skills are lost. Such students are also at risk of developing mental health and addiction issues if their gifts aren’t recognised and celebrated.
So it’s great news that universities are now moving away from using ATAR scores as their primary means of measuring fitness for further study. Thank heavens we’re now entering an age where the ATAR is seen as a “very blunt and imperfect instrument”, and universities are increasingly using “interviews, portfolio work, special consideration and performance in exams” rather than relying just on Year 12 scores.
All I can say is – bring it on. It was never okay to judge students using this score as the primary measure.
You are not your ATAR score. You are not your ATAR score. Please, let’s do what we can to bury this hopelessly outdated and unfair schooling measurement.
Young people deserve it. Young people who have the courage to push through more difficulties to get to where they want to be – like my son Sam – deserve it even more.