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Should this year’s HSC be scrapped in NSW?

With the announcement that the NSW lockdown has been extended for four more weeks and continually rising COVID-19 cases in the greater Sydney area, this years' HSC has been thrown further into chaos.

Alongside the lockdown announcement, Premier Gladys Berejiklian said that year 12 students would be back in the classroom for face to face learning by August 16 and that there would be a push to get those year 12s in the 8 Sydney LGAs of concern vaccinated before that date. 

Teachers and the unions are concerned that the move is not in keeping with the government's own health advice and were angered by the apparent lack of consultation with teachers and lack of concern for their safety.

"Just the logistics of what has been announced today in relation to Year 12 students and the rapid testing proposal, opens up as you can imagine a flood of inquiries from our members and those inquiries are quite legitimate. Professionals want to engage and want to get their students through HSC but want to do that as safely as possible," says Mark Northam, secretary of the The Independent Education Union of Australia (IEU).

The union, which represents 32,000 teachers and support staff in the non-government sector in NSW and ACT, wants to know how rapid antigen testing will work in schools, how the vaccination drive will work, and whether schools in the hotspots will be prioritised.

"The pressure on the government is magnified because the HSC is a significant credential. It's a rite of passage for students, and many students take great comfort from completing it and moving onto the next life stage," Northam said.

There are also questions around whether unvaccinated kids can go back to schools and whether teachers in those 8 LGAs will feel comfortable going back to class if case numbers do not start to fall.

Adding to all of the confusion, some are calling for this year's HSC to be scrapped altogether.

The head of Sydney Catholic Schools Tony Farley told the Nine Papers that "the HSC should not go ahead in its traditional form".

He said that the current state of lockdown and online learning is detrimental to disadvantaged students.

“The HSC is more than a final exam, and there is sufficient data and capacity to award a HSC mark and provide an indicative ATAR based on school-based assessments and NESA [NSW Education Standards Authority] moderation.”

NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell was furious at the suggestion, calling the idea "unhelpful".

The teachers unions have said it is too early to make the call.

NESA recently announced that it will extend the hand-in date for all major projects by two weeks. The hand-in date for Industrial Technology has been extended by four weeks.

Rescheduled drama performance exams will run from 6 to 17 September and rescheduled written exams will begin one week later on 19 October, with HSC results out on 17 December.

Committee chair Professor Peter Shergold said students could still receive their results, ATAR and university offers this year despite written exams being delayed by a week.

Anxiety is high

One Sydney teacher who spoke with Education Review says that anxiety and stress is high among teachers and year 12 students alike, and a lack of communication about trial exams has made preparation difficult.

"At this point they are not worried about the HSC, they've just felt the communication about what is happening hasn't been there. And from a teacher's perspective, it can't be there, because we don't know either, that's been the most frustrating thing.

"Over the past three weeks, [the student's] anxiety has been high. There are points where they've been studying hard for trials but they don't know when they will be, so they have been giving it one hundred per cent; they are going to burn out."

The teacher believes the children at her school have adjusted well to online learning and have been largely unaffected by home learning. One issue from a teacher's perspective is the pressure they are under to produce good HSC results alongside their students. 

"You do, with these year 12 classes, develop such a strong bond with them that their worries become your worries. So it has become really important as a teacher to maintain a level of emotional stability. To give them the sense of confidence and support [the students] need."

Even with all the unknowns, they do believe that the HSC should go ahead as planned. They argue that the students and teachers have spent two years working towards this point and the students should be given the chance to perform in their final exams.

"You put all of this importance on this final exam, and the kids work towards that final goal, and what I don't think people see is the massive improvements made in the space of a year.

"And if you say to me that we go off the marks as they stand...we aren't giving them a chance to really show what they've got."

Another teacher, who lives and works in one of the 8 LGAs under strict lockdown, agrees that the HSC should go ahead for similar reasons, but she is worried that her students in Western Sydney are at a disadvantage.

"It's very difficult for them being locked down ... socially and emotionally. We are seeing more and more kids suffering from anxiety, and this sort of situation puts more pressure upon them," she said.

"Of course the other thing for us ... in some households, we've got four kids in schools but only one device in the home. So it's not easy, when sometimes I have half the class on zoom instead of a full class. The resources are very limited for our kids."

As for the August 16 deadline to return to the classroom, the teacher isn't sure it will happen and isn't sure it will be safe to do so in the current conditions.

When asked if she would be comfortable to go back to the classroom in two weeks in order to maintain the HSC timeline, she replied "no".

"I know that they are trying to push through because they don't want to cancel the HSC. I understand the difficulty they are in, because I wouldn't want to see it cancelled fully either. 

"But bringing the kids back just for the sake of doing so is a dangerous prospect for all of us." 

Time to rethink a 'perverse' system 

For some in education, the pandemic has brought to the fore some of the drawbacks of the way we grade our high school leavers. And they feel that perhaps now is the time for reform.

Associate professor Philip Roberts from the University of Canberra understands the dilemma teacher's face in the question of whether or not the HSC goes ahead, but he says that this itself shows the problem with the process.

"It reinforces how the system's priorities are mixed up. It's true that the students and teachers have been working towards [the HSC], but that they've been working towards an exam for two years should raise questions around what the purpose of senior school is," he says.

Roberts says that there is modelling which shows a strong relationship between year 11 and 12 results and that a final HSC exam is not entirely necessary.

He also argues that the HSC is not fair and is skewed towards people from more affluent backgrounds, and at a time when universities are moving away from ATAR as the only consideration for university entries, schools should now follow suit. 

He also worries that too much of a teacher's self worth and standing is linked with a student's ATAR. And they can also be important in any future promotions. 

"Especially in NSW and Victoria, their identity and self efficacy as a teacher is tied up in it, because they are inexorably linked to the results of their students," he says.

"It becomes unofficially part of their professional cache.

"The system is in so many ways geared around these things that have totally perverse effects."

As for this year's HSC in NSW, he sees no reason that it needs to go ahead if the COVID-19 situation does not abate.

"I would say that we don't need to proceed with the exams, because HSC is more than the final exam.

"If everyone is in the same boat, that's what makes it fair. There is no reason that we can't have exams but still get a fair result across the board."

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