This is the text of an opinion piece that was published in The West Australian on Saturday 22 October 2022

COVID-19 has compounded wellbeing concerns for our Year 12 cohort as they prepare for their final ATAR exams.

There’s widespread public discussion about the mental health fallout from the pandemic. It is said to have fuelled a surge in depression and anxiety, particularly in young people preparing for a future in a volatile and uncertain world.

Let me be unequivocal: We want our young people well, spiritually, mentally and physically.

But some of the discussion concerns me because it makes me wonder whether we have mistaken wellbeing for comfort.

The truth is life can be hard and it’s through our struggles that we define our character.

Adversity is not always welcome, but it’s hard to underestimate the fundamental value of finding motivation to strive, experiencing the satisfaction of overcoming or resolving a difficult scenario or seeing your hard work, grit and determination pay off.

Exams are hard. They are meant to be hard.

But even though final exams are a difficult test, it’s important that our students understand that they are not the ones on trial. Exams are a tool to attempt to fairly evaluate one aspect of knowledge.

Exams do not and cannot evaluate a whole person and, even when all the stars align, they are simply a reflection of single data point, or what’s expressed at a moment in time.

It’s my genuine hope that students who have put in a sustained effort and worked hard will achieve the results they seek.

These results should be about demonstrating knowledge and producing personal bests, not comparison. For example, achieving 53 per cent might be a triumph for a student who has persisted with a subject area in which they have struggled. That sort of persistence is a personal victory and should be celebrated.

I’m confident that I’m not the only educator disappointed that the ATAR system discourages students from tackling what may be seen as more challenging subjects because that effort may result in a lower ATAR score.

If we want to build a resilient and future-focused cohort of young people equipped to take on a challenging world, we need to develop a system that encourages learning, even when it’s hard. By encouraging supported risk-taking, embracing failure as a learning tool and an opportunity to try again, we will build resilient innovators.

Exams are about demonstrating knowledge acquired and, with any luck, delivering a personal best. That’s why we tell our students to be brave, not perfect and our teachers deliver an enriched curriculum that encompasses innovation, wellbeing and learning.

It’s my wish that each of WA’s Year 12 students will understand the merit of hard work at the same time as making peace with the fact that an ATAR does not and cannot define you or what you do with your life.

Helen Aguiar is Principal at Perth College, an Anglican girls’ school, in Mount Lawley