Educational Anxiety - Is The HSC really worth the stress?

As hundreds of thousands of students across Australia prepare to do Year 12 exams, stress levels across the country are soaring for both students and parents.

Students are focused on, even obsessed about, one thing — their ATAR, or Australian Tertiary Admission Rank, which ranks them in relation to their peers.

"The last couple of years of your schooling boil down to just this one number," NSW HSC candidate Millie Coulthart told 7.30.

"It seems like getting a good ATAR is the only thing that can safeguard your future that you envision for yourself."

But is all that stress necessary?

Many people are now questioning whether the current system is outdated, with too much testing putting too much pressure on teenagers.

"It is such a strange thing when you are 17 or 18-years-old to be confronted with that, that a number might determine whether or not you can fulfil that dream that you've always had," Ms Coulthart said.

Greg Whitby, director of the Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta, is convinced that Australia's education system is outdated and too focused on testing.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," he told 7.30.

"Now I would argue that perhaps there are different ways to look at kids' performance that are beyond narrow and sometimes simplistic judgments.

"The ATAR has finished, it is dead and it won't fall over.

Former NSW education minister Adrian Piccoli, who heads the newly-created Institute for Education at the University of NSW, sees the Year 12 exams as an opportunity.

"No test is without some element of stress but for parents it's a teachable moment for your children as well, teaching children to handle stress, to be more resilient," he told 7.30.

He also believes that the ATAR has never been less important.

"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]," Mr Piccoli said.

"So that should decrease the pressure, but for some reason the pressure and stress levels are much higher and sometimes … parents do add to that stress.

Sharna Clemmett knows that a successful Year 12 with a high ATAR is not the only way to a successful future.

A talented student, she planned to study fine arts, but her final year of high school was difficult.

She moved out of home and dropped out of school halfway through Year 12.

"I just felt like I'd failed," she told 7.30.

"I contemplated suicide after I left school and really the only thing that kept me here was understanding what that would do to my parents."

Fast-forward to today, and it is a very different story.

Six years after leaving school, Ms Clemmett began her tertiary education as a mature-age student.

Now she is a barrister.

"It's an interesting combination of paths; high school dropout and barrister, but that's where I am now," she said.

She has a message for today's students.

"Try not to worry too much about getting that mark, because there will be other opportunities and just take every opportunity that comes up," she said.

Mr Whitby believes education no longer works as a one-size fits all model.

"We've got to personalise, individualise learning," he said.

"The most powerful learning is driven by inquiry, the focus needs to be on the individual."

That is exactly what is happening at Templestowe College in Victoria.

Students need to opt in if they want an ATAR, and are offered different ways to achieve their goals.

"I think there would be widespread support for the dropping of the ATAR system," principal Peter Hutton told 7.30.

"We've developed a senior program that looks at alternative ways that students can get into university and can complete their senior qualifications without the level of pressure that conventional exams introduce."

Student Liam Evangelista changed his subjects to work on projects he is passionate about, including developing a motorised skateboard.

"When I dropped all the subjects and was just doing what I love, in the first two weeks I had so much energy and was getting so much done," he told 7.30.

"At a normal school I would have probably dropped out in Year 10 to be honest.

"Now I am excited to get up every single morning and come to school."

Macquarie University clinical psychologist 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.

"For those students who are most struggling we have problems with self harm, even suicide, but we want to keep it in context that the vast majority of students will be stressed but they will also learn how to manage their stress."

She has some advice for students still aiming for that ATAR.

"Trying to study 12 hours a day, every day, in the lead-up to exams is not going to work," she said.

"We know students can suffer burnout where they just can't take on any more information.

"We know the key is really a balance.

"It's really important that students stop studying and they go and do some stuff that's fun, 'cause fun reduces stress."


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