Currently too many students, often with school encouragement, are opting out of more challenging ATAR courses, a fact that “ATAR as uni entry only” fails to recognise. The rigour associated with ATAR courses, if not pursued in years 11 and 12, limits students’ post-school options. Without an ATAR focus, outcomes in years seven-ten can suffer also. Why push for high maths attainment in year 7 when there is no ‘hard maths’ in years 11-12?

The recent release of the WA Department of Education’s “Strategic directions for public schools 2020-2024” by the minister and the director general identifies the first “improvement driver” as being to; “provide every student with a pathway to a successful future.” All states share similar aspirations for their students. However, very low participation in ATAR courses at many schools fails to provide any pathway to employment, training or university. For example, building apprentices are “failing to complete their courses because they lack basic skills in mathematics”; without an ATAR focus in years seven-ten, students may will be challenged to even do “basic maths.”

The percentage of students per school with an ATAR varies nationally from zero to 100 per cent . No “fairness” there for students close to zero and generally below 30 per cent, typically in low SES and regional, rural and remote schools. No high school should settle for less than 30 per cent of year 12s gaining an ATAR.

In WA, currently 60 of our 189 secondary schools fail to reach the 30 per cent target. This means that too many students are disadvantaged for work, training or university futures as a consequence of the school they attend. We are failing many talented low SES and RRR students by not actively supporting and challenging them to reach their potential. In doing so, we also fail their communities and regions. In 2020 in WA, ATAR participation rates are declining (only above Tasmania comparatively). The percentage of students studying STEM subjects is also declining, especially the “hard STEM subjects.” The gap between schools, between rich and poor, between privilege and disadvantage, is widening. Is this a fair Australia?

There is nothing magical about 30 per cent, indeed our aspiration should be higher, but schools need support, encouragement and visionary leadership right now for this to be even a medium-term target. What would that look like?

Academic attainment (and disadvantage) commences in the early years of schooling. High schools with little or no ATAR focus risk the danger of low attainment in years seven-ten; they fail to “unlock and fulfil their [students’] learning potential”. Schools must be encouraged – by state departments, universities, business and communities – to offer the most challenging courses possible. All high schools must have a coherent year seven-12 academic focus, with as many students as possible doing ATAR subjects. Completing one-three ATAR subjects will not get students an ATAR score but it will provide academic challenge and maximise learning potential. It will also ensure that schools have a critical mass of students undertaking challenging academic work so the talented year nine science teacher can attract students into year 11 chemistry. Crucially, it will support a fairer society; one in which lifelong learning must now be a practical reality for all.

We should support schools in low SES and RRR communities to grow academic attainment by nurturing high achieving and aspirational principals, teachers and professional, staff who welcome the challenge of enhancing educational outcomes. For some schools, with no or very low ATAR participation, this will require ten-year school development plans, delivered by stable and innovative leadership.

Universities have been complicit in lowering attainment levels. The federal minister should direct the 42 universities to invest in our challenged schools, not in marketing strategies, so that academic attainment is the focus of school engagement, not recruitment. If each university sponsored two-four high schools with a focus on improving academic performance over a five to seven year period, the number of eligible students academically prepared for university would grow. Too many students who are capable of completing one or more ATAR subjects in year 12 are gaining university entry with no ATAR subjects completed. A low ATAR is better than no ATAR and doing one or two ATAR courses is better than no ATAR courses! A useful message for universities to tell their feeder high schools.

While the ATAR score is not THE answer for all students, a strong ATAR cohort (or similar high attainment focus course like the International Baccalaureate) in all schools is essential if we are to ensure the quality of years seven-10 academic outcomes for all students and improve the educational attainment levels for students from low SES and RRR schools for widened participation in post-secondary education and training.

The ATAR may become an historic artefact but how are our young people going to be “well prepared to take the step beyond school into further education, training or work”? I suggest the ATAR should survive until each school is supported and encouraged to “own: student attainment over years seven-12 and beyond.

Emeritus Professor Andrew Taggart, Murdoch University [email protected]

Andrew currently serves on the School Board at Coodanup College in Mandurah, WA and is a TEQSA Expert.


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