We shouldn’t try to convince year 12 students that their results don’t matter. Instead, we should encourage them to interrogate why society says they do, writes Courtney Robinson.
It’s now commonplace for everyone else to tell year 12 students that their HSC and VCE results don’t really matter, that there is “life after” high school.
Sometimes they do matter, though. A lot. Students are encouraged to feel ashamed if they did not achieve highly, while those who did are praised unreservedly.
This week, as thousands of students experience the heartbreak and devastation of receiving their results, articles imploring teenagers to eschew emotional investment in their ATAR score have flooded social media.
But are they right to dismiss such a culturally-loaded experience? Do these well-intentioned but occasionally patronising arguments even work?
Writing in The Sydney Morning Herald, Melbourne teacher Ann Rennie encouraged young people to put their career on the backburner and not to fear mistakes.
At Mamamia, author Rebecca Sparrow told teenagers they will not be failures or successes based on their scores.
On Twitter, journalists, authors and academics revealed their stories of post-school successes.
The “it doesn’t matter” missive is important and necessary, but it’s also worth examining how it can be more constructive, given families, schools and the media aggressively assert the message that it actually does matter.
Earlier this week, a friend and I were remembering the day we received our marks back in the mid-2000s. She revealed her mother had cried uncontrollably upon learning her daughter’s score was 97. It was the second-best result in the private Catholic school my friend attended, so she missed out on the Dux award. This was horrifying for her mother.
“When the person you’ve looked to as a moral and life compass your entire life tells you you’ve failed, you internalise that,” my friend said. “I carried the idea that I was never good enough for a long time.”
Anecdotes like these, which I hope are not the rule, but are still common enough, reveal how painful this experience can be for some.
In our attempt to share what everybody learns after school – that, post-graduation, you’re likely to never be asked what your ATAR was again – we run the risk of disregarding the impact of the pressure on Year 12 students to perform.
Even in primary school, we’re told to “shoot for the stars”. It’s hammered into us at an early age, but a grasp of the necessity and value of failure is not.
There is a “life after divorce” movement too, but it never seeks to tell a person their marriage did not “matter”.
Young people should be encouraged to ferociously question why society values hyper-achievement so profoundly. And we should not wait until the damage is already done before telling them it’s okay to fail.
The annual rollout of news headlines this week has, of course, focused on the high achievers.
Yesterday, Victoria brimmed with the news a record number of 35 students had scored the highest possible mark of 99.95. The Age ran a live coverage blog, with somewhat crude updates next to a list of schools, which stated the ATAR of the dux.
The Herald Sun carried the kicker, “Hearts are soaring and breaking today, as thousands of students receive their VCE results on their phones and the net”.
More than ever, this focus highlights the need to offer a fresh perspective to school leavers. But even well-intentioned attempts to comfort low-performing students are suspicious. The advice not to worry about failure often comes from people who are absurdly successful.
Take, for example, The Daily Telegraph’s story, “How ‘terrible’ result didn’t stop businessman hitting heights”. In it, we hear about multi-millionaire entrepreneur, Nick Bell. The article briefly acknowledges Bell’s apparently terrible VCE mark of 57, before launching into his enterprising spirit, and how selling lunch boxes at school netted him $30,000 before he graduated.
Extreme success stories also dominate ReachOut’s initiative, ‘There’s Life After Year 12 Exams’.
On the official website, short videos feature well-known Australians including Adam Spencer, Kelly O’Dwyer, Bill Shorten and Malcolm Turnbull. They recall their year 12 exams, and how their lives unfolded after school.
The Prime Minister’s recollection includes the line, “I wasn’t as stressed out about my exams as perhaps I should have been”. Rove MacManus says he remembers feeling like he should “get the best mark I can”.
This approach runs the risk of suggesting you should try do well, but it’s okay if you don’t, because you will succeed later in life. Is this really consolation for any teens this week feeling, or being made to feel, disappointment and shame in their results?
We shouldn’t try to convince teenagers that their results don’t matter, but instead encourage them to interrogate why society says they do – and how we can take steps to change it.