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The Impossibilities of Year 11 and 12: When Failure Feels Inevitable

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As a teacher, seeing students love learning, and their learning environment is very important to me. I spent years working in alternative education settings with kids who disengaged from mainstream schooling. They often carried deep insecurities about being a failure or a misfit within a system. However, I have discovered that this attitude isn’t exclusive to kids who have “dropped out”.  Many of our Year 11 and 12 students are going to school every day with the fear that no matter how hard they work, they won’t measure up. I’m seeing kids heavily burdened, unable to keep pace with an outdated, overburdened, and impossible curriculum.  We can’t be okay with them then burning out, breaking down or falling in a heap after they cross the finish line.

How our kids leave Year 12, tells me a lot about the relevance and health of the environment they have been in for the past twelve years. Many parents I speak to express distress over their kid’s senior school experience, with a “thank God that is over” attitude. Karen, the mother of 15-year-old Maurine, says, “I’m watching my daughter lose her soul. When do I say enough is enough?”  In talking to senior school students, the overall tone is one of disheartenment.  Discouraged and deflated are two other words that come to mind.  They feel like the output is not equivalent to the reward offered on the other side.  Jayden says, “Teachers ask you what you want to do when you leave school and if you don’t have the answer, you make something up. There is too much going on to even think about it.”

What Needs to Change?  

Systemic change usually happens slowly – frustratingly slowly!  Firstly, I want to state the obvious. Senior school isn’t an isolated experience. It is a conglomeration of the years leading up to it, starting from their first moments in prep, so it’s going to be impossible to view it in isolation. However, there are enough thought leaders currently pressing on the senior school curriculum’s limitations that I am hopeful we can move it forward. There has been so much research done in the past 20 years about the human brain (let alone the changes in society) that we have a different road map than we once did.

Below, I am going to offer some of my thoughts. Before I begin, I want to acknowledge that education is a complex system, meeting a vast range of needs, and there are no easy solutions to some issues. What remains important is providing education that empowers teachers to do their job, and students to grow and learn. Now is the perfect time to use your voice to help create the school experience you feel kids deserve. Please see the end of this article for an opportunity to have your say.

We Desperately Need to Cull    

I’m going to say it exactly how I see it – the workload in many subject areas is unnecessarily difficult and irrelevant to real-world jobs. Have you seen a Year 12 English assignment lately?  Seriously, I’d fail… and I’m a full-time author. The learning outcomes expected of students have got to be conquerable. For most, the current curriculum expectations are not. There is no joy in doing something that is unachievable. Sadly, kids like Anna, who have the people smarts and passion to really make a difference are drowning in subject requirements.  She says, “I want to be a psychologist, but there is a massive jump in the workload from essential to general (which is ATAR). I was getting A’s in “essential” and then I jumped up to “general” and now I am getting Cs. I don’t think I’ll keep up. My friends have tutors just to get through.”  

I would hate to see so many of our kids not pursue ongoing education or careers because the pathway there was too difficult. My concern is that our future business owners, teachers, lawyers, and health care workers won’t see their potential if it is veiled behind a cloud of unrealistic expectations. Our capable, dedicated kids will unnecessarily lose confidence if we don’t make changes. We collectively, as a society, will lose some of our best before they have even begun.

We Need to Consider Context

One of the big downfalls is that the current senior school curriculum does not fully consider the context of students’ lives outside of school.  Senior school students have a huge amount of out of school learning going on including getting their license, finding a part-time job, saving for a car, participating in extracurricular interests (which drop away as being the least important) and maintaining a social life.  We must accommodate, and advocate not only for their homework to be done but for the rest of their lives to flourish.

Those participating in ATAR, or heavily involved in arts or competitive sport, tell me that school demands don’t fit within a 40-hour week if you want to sleep or eat (I am told these are side requirements for periods of time when exam blocks are on which we wouldn’t tolerate as adults).  Daniella says, “There is so much to do. Most students have work, family and sporting commitments so it’s hard to balance them all. Whenever I had something extra on it is too much. It’s so stressful. Teachers all act like their subject is the only subject that matters. They expect you to do work over the holidays.”

Based on workload alone, if our senior school students had a union, there would be an uproar!  I hear about practical issues like assignments due at the same time, curriculum deadlines that clearly don’t fall in sync with the allocated teaching time and pressure to prioritise subjects that carry more ATAR weight. We can’t ask them to choose between a career and well-being. I’d like to suggest that less is more. With less to focus on, it’s possible that our kids will be able to be proud of what they do produce.

We Can’t Add-on Wellbeing   

The breakdown of mental health services nationally are leaving schools with a big load to pick up. We can’t ignore or sidestep the default position that schools have historically played in the well-being of our kids. Jayden says, “Some kids have pressure at school, but they also have pressure at home.  When they have pressure in both places it’s too much and some drop out.  But lots and lots of kids were using the counsellor as a way to get out of class. They would act like they are depressed and get out of classes.” 

Year 11 and 12 is typically a time when kids unravel. Teachers expect it. When I ask students to tell me why they take time off they say they are “stressed”. It’s a general response that subscribes a different meaning for different kids, but we must take it at face value. Stressed doesn’t depict a sense of joy and accomplishment. Well-being can’t be added “on top of” a cluttered curriculum. There is no time in senior school for well-being. It is assumed the Year 11 and 12 students should “know it by now”, which doesn’t realistically follow their developmental trajectory and what we know about brain development. 

I personally don’t believe that life skills can be effectively taught in the same way that Maths and English are in any year level. The skills our kids need for life must be embedded into the culture of our schools and communities and transferred through relationships and active learning experiences. Mentoring programs, small group workshops, work experiences and interactive programs must be considered as essential and not just one-off presentations that tick curriculum requirements.  

We Must Keep the Soul of Schools Alive

Teachers are the soul of any school.  Daniella explains, “I have moved schools three times. Each school has been so different. One of my schools babied you and gave you lots of help. My next school the teachers didn’t give us any help and we were expected to act like we were in university.  My third school is really caring, and we have homework club, and we can ask teachers for help anytime.”  Lisa, her mum adds, “In this school, teachers have been brilliant at keeping the momentum up.  When teachers care the kids are more like to make an effort.  When the kids have rewards for all their work, like excursions, sports, etc. it keeps them going.” 

When the curriculum is jam-packed, non-essentials are easily squeezed out or handled poorly, which is just as damaging.  Care is not non-essential. Teachers’ sanity is not non-essential. The ever-increasing regulations and workload within education have sucked the heart out of teachers.  When teachers feel like they don’t have the time to care for students, there is no job satisfaction for them.  We must be realistic about the time it takes to support students’ diverse needs, communicate with parents, deal with behaviour issues and make referrals. We must remember that teachers sit within a school culture, and then a school curriculum that either supports or hinders their work.  We mustn’t hinder the heart of teaching.

We Need to Work on Consistency  

How the curriculum is delivered (including the workload, difficulty of subjects and associated expectations) can differ greatly from school to school.  Students who move schools often report a big change in their grades, sometimes due to the actual difficulty of work, and other factors like the addition of homework clubs and teaching styles.  They also report big differences in the amount of homework or extra-curricular activities required of them. There seems to be a lot of inconsistency by the time students reach Year 11 and 12. May I suggest that if an existing curriculum isn’t working, schools will use common sense and adjust it to the degree they can. Choosing the right high school for your senior school student is a big deal because of these differences. Angela, mum of three high school kids, says, “Some schools only focus on ATAR and academics, while other schools have apprenticeships and sporting programs.” 

Overarching all schools should be the belief that education is for all. Just because a student doesn’t do ATAR doesn’t mean they don’t need to be challenged.  When did wanting to pursue a trade or non academic pathway become a slur?  The gap between how schools treat students participating in ATAR and those who don’t needs addressing.  We are often unapologetically and clearly setting students up to identify themselves as smart or dumb, winners or losers, thinkers or followers.  Amongst the diversity that schools must offer, every student deserves to be challenged, achieve their best, feel valued and see purpose in the school experience.

University entrance scores and requirements also differ greatly, and that is often hidden from kids. Some schools require students to take Maths and English, and others don’t. On a personal level, my son dropped English in Year 11 and still was able to get into engineering at QUT where it was not a prerequisite. That’s not an option for many ATAR students.  I love schools whose guidance officers are accessible, well-educated and offer students non-judgemental choices and carry the idea that there is more than one way to tackle life. 

Have Your Say

Over the years many people have advocated for better wellbeing, play and curriculum reforms, as they have slowly seen an unhelpful turn in education. Currently, Rebecca Sparrow and Madonna King have put together a website to collect your stories and experiences, so they can pass them on to each of the state assessment authorities who are responsible for your state’s senior school curriculum. Policymakers need to hear the voices of people on the ground level about what is working and what is not, so whether you are a parent, a student, P & F’s committee member, a teacher, a department head, a principal or a mental health professional, we want to hear from you. The more diverse responses the better, so share this with your communities. We need all hands-on deck to make a noise loud enough, and diverse enough to be useful.

I do not want to assume that your views reflect mine, but I would love to hear your views.  You can leave your feedback here: https://testingtimesatschool.com.au/submit

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