Almost five years ago, my family was invited on a South Pacific cruise to celebrate my cousin’s 40th birthday. I’m a poor swimmer, a big fan of the epic and tragic love story in the blockbuster movie Titanic and had visions of ending up, like Jack and Rose, adrift in the ocean. I reluctantly accepted only to have my uneasiness exacerbated by some ordinary cruise reviews. Digging deeper, I discovered the complaints were about cabin comfort. I hesitated. We decided to go. It was one of the best decisions with an exceptional two weeks of travel with close family, treasured memories and very little cabin time.
My travel story is a metaphor for the journey parents and caregivers start with their children as they navigate the school system. Parents review markers including academic performance, which is important. In fact I would say each student’s intellectual, spiritual, social, physical and emotional growth are all important and all five deserve equal weighting.
The league tables published in The West Australian newspaper have provoked a great deal of discussion, but the one-dimensional focus ignores the 80 per cent of factors that underpin the development of our young people into well-balanced, confident, problem-solving adults.
I am uncomfortable with a league table ranking from one to 50 that relies only on the median Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR), creating the impression that this is the sole marker of a great school. ATAR is a rank that indicates a student’s overall academic achievement in relation to their peers.
Taken in isolation it’s misleading.
For context, between 2010 and 2021, Perth College was ranked in the top 10 six times (three of these since 2019); ranked between 11 and 20 five times; and between 20 and 30 once.
In 2022, Perth College students achieved a median ATAR of 87.60, which means Perth College students outperformed 87.6 per cent of all eligible students. Of the 93 Perth College ATAR students 34 (36.5 per cent of the cohort) won 36 School Curriculum and Standards Authority awards: one Certificate of Excellence, 10 Certificates of Distinction and 24 Certificates of Merit. Make no mistake, these are outstanding achievements and of which we are proud.
It troubles me that parents and caregivers could be misled into thinking anything less than a top 10 ranking makes a school substandard. Nothing could be further from the truth. It pays to take a closer look.
Some schools prioritise academic scholarships in Years 10, 11 and 12 to enhance their median ATAR score. Perth College does not do this.
Some schools restrict student entry into Year 11 and 12 ATAR courses to inflate their median ATAR. Perth College does not to this. In line with the vision of our founding sisters, we exist to not merely gain distinction in examination lists but to encourage students to be fitted to gain distinction in the greater business of life. We encourage our students to be brave, not perfect and have a go at subjects that match their interests and aspirations.
This may lower our median ATAR and adversely impact our league table rank, but we’d prefer to stay true to our vision.
Across WA in 2022, a little more than a third of Year 12 students tackled ATAR, compared with 84 per cent of our Year 12 cohort, who completed at least four ATAR courses.
There is very little difference between Perth College’s 2021 median ATAR of 91.00 and our 2022 median ATAR of 87.20.
League tables also fail to recognise individual gains. For example, a student on a 60 per cent C-grade for an ATAR subject at the end of Year 11 who works for 80 per cent (A-grade) in Year 12 does not have that effort recognised by the School Curriculum and Standards Authority awards.
Some schools are struggling to employ quality teachers and some schools support students who are struggling academically, socially and emotionally. These schools do amazing things with very little and league tables overlook this important work.
Universities are also moving away from median ATAR scores to determine undergraduate entry.
They are taking account of other factors, such as work portfolios and interviews, to better assess student capability and who they are as a person - factors absent from league tables.
Of our Class of 2022, 94.5 per cent of Perth College ATAR students achieved entry to a university of their choice. Others are pursuing technical and vocational training or apprenticeships and the world of work.
These are real markers of success.
Spoon-fed students trained to perform in exams to get into university are at a huge disadvantage once they leave school and enter intuitions that require them to be self-sufficient. There is a high drop-out rate for first-year university students. At Perth College, we encourage students to take risks, develop resilience, grit and self-efficacy.
We equip them to tackle life beyond school through high-quality rigorous learning and teaching, extensive arts opportunities, and innovative, integrated programs such as InsideOut, our self-leadership program, sparc, our creative entrepreneurship offering, Side-by-Side, our service-learning program, and our Sports Development and Performance Program. We live our core values: Capable, Courageous and Caring, when striving to develop our students.
At Perth College, we do not encourage students to take “the easy way out”.
We will continue to encourage students to give their personal best and select courses that they are passionate about.
Graduating from Year 12 is not an ending but a beginning. An ATAR score does not define us.
Like the life-changing experience of my cruise, Perth College is about much more than academic results. Our founders, the Community of the Sisters of the Church, got it right. What is best for the young people in our care is preparing them for the greater business of a full life, not a mere 20 per cent. I look forward to living the Perth College Vision with our community in 2023.