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Whilst the argument about to ATAR or not to ATAR will go on, presumably for many years, as the percentage of students using/ benefiting from its use will continue to decline, the more important question in education should not be on this outdated and limiting measure, it should be asking, how can we, alongside developing the skills and knowledge in what is often called ‘traditional disciplines’, be developing capabilities that enable students to thrive in learning and life?

Alongside 37 other ‘first mover’ schools across Australia, the University of Melbourne’s Assessment Research Centre has formed a research partnership with All Saints’ College- to reach beyond and around those traditional subjects and to focus on the deliberate development of these key competencies.

Unlike previous work and talk in this area, the focus of this research has been on assessment. In education we say that we measure what we value and value what we measure, and whilst the capabilities have formed part of the Australian Curriculum for many years, there is no requirement to assess and report on them. The power in this work, and its value to tertiary institutions and workplaces, employers is that it enables a richer, more fit for purpose evaluation of suitability.

How might this work? A student who is interested in a pathway in the Health Sciences would complete a suite of courses in Year 11 and 12 that might include examined ATAR courses or a combination of General, ATAR and VET qualifications and workplace learning that allow them to be best prepared for that area of further study. Alongside and through these studies, this student would also be assessed in the development of competencies such as communication, collaboration and problem-solving, all of which would provide data that could accompany the students academic results to provide a ‘learner profile’ that enables the tertiary institution to assess suitability.

Our current system often mismatches students to courses as they don’t have or haven’t had the opportunity to develop the requisite capabilities. Engineers need to be problem solvers and collaborators, Doctors need to have a bedside manner, Social Workers need to demonstrate resilience and compassion.

Rather than removing the importance of subject knowledge and skills, it builds on it, with opportunities to add a competency dimension to the profile of the student.

Of course, with all of this, something has to give. The relentless assessment regime that characterises the current model of Year 11 and 12 study needs to shift to accommodate richer opportunities for developing and assessing these competencies. It requires going beyond the traditional teach-test, teach-test paradigm that currently dominates classroom practice in senior secondary to more project-based, applied and open tasks that enable our young people to develop learner agency. In this new model, the role of a Tertiary Admissions Centre becomes less about ranking - serving the expedient needs of the universities- and more about match-making - finding the most suitable applicants for the courses on offer.

And whilst this model might seem far-fetched, Big Picture Schools Australia has, for a number of years, been working with the University of Melbourne to develop and have warranted their credentials that include these competencies, and the Big Picture Credential has seen several universities accept students into their courses through this warranted credential nested within a learner profile that highlights the strengths and capacities of the individual student - not just a number.

In 2022, All Saints’ opened its Fremantle campus, The Studio School, an alternative to mainstream senior secondary schooling that focuses on the development of the whole young person, curating a relevant, personalised program that pairs traditional courses with experiences including community and individual projects, university and online courses that enable its young people to not only develop the skills and knowledge they need, but develop these competencies in rich and authentic contexts that empower them and enable them to feel confident about their choices and capacities beyond school.

The assessment of these competencies and representation of them in a learner profile is a great leap forward in recognising, warranting and representing the development of the whole person and including, but not being limited by a single number, or a set of marks and grades.

We all want our young people to be resilient, active citizens who problem seek and problem solve, who use critical and creative thinking, who work cooperatively and can communicate their ideas. We want our young people to be consciously developing and honing these competencies, to be active agents of their own learning, as learning is certainly a skill for this fast-paced, constantly changing life. Reframing the question about to ATAR are not to ATAR around ‘What are the key elements of an education that enables our young people to thrive?’ perhaps leads us to the challenges that we need to face with regards to what the current system offers, and is an ATAR driven senior secondary education really fit for purpose?

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