We used to talk about preparing our young people for the V.U.C.A. (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) World without a sense of what the issues and challenges they might face could be. The past two years of COVID-19 – lockdowns, closed borders, economic uncertainty and political unrest – have provided a context for this expression and an impetus and urgency for the work of schools to ensure they are truly well-prepared. The following provides a brief insight into some of the significant and emerging trends in senior secondary education in Australia.
The Knowledge/Skills vs Capabilities Debate
Central to global narratives about education in the COVID and post-COVID Age, is the emerging exploration of an education that goes beyond the traditional learning of knowledge and skills of the industrial age of education, to ensuring there are opportunities for application and, more recently, enabling a greater emphasis and focus on the development of the complex capabilities.
The Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Declaration (The Mparntwe Declaration) provides a blueprint for the directions of the Australian education systems. It made bold statements regarding the changes needed in curriculum, teaching practice and educational outcomes. In The Mparntwe Declaration, Goal 2 remains with only slight adjustments. Goal 2: All young Australians become confident and creative individuals, successful lifelong learners, and active and informed members of the community.
The declaration identifies that students need to be, ‘Confident and creative individuals who..’, ‘are resilient and develop the skills and strategies they need to tackle current and future challenges’; ‘are able to recognise, adapt to, and manage change’ and ‘show initiative, use their creative abilities and are enterprising’.
Further, ‘successful lifelong learners who.. ‘are productive and informed users of technology as a vehicle of information gathering and sharing, and are able to adapt to emerging technologies into the future’; ‘are creative, innovative and resourceful, and are able to solve problems in ways that draw upon a range of learning areas and disciplines and deep content knowledge’; ‘are responsive and adaptive to new ways of thinking and learning’; and ‘are able to plan activities independently, collaborate, work in teams and communicate ideas.’
A further reference to the importance of capabilities development is made in the declaration’s commitment to, ‘delivering world-class curriculum and assessment’, highlighting the centrality of capabilities to an education that supports students to become responsible, confident and capable contributors to the knowledge economy.
The curriculum supports students to become responsible local and global members of the community in an interconnected world and to engage with complex ethical issues and concepts such as sustainability. As a foundation for further learning and adult life, the curriculum includes practical skills development in areas such as ICT, critical and creative thinking, intercultural understanding and problem solving. These skills support imagination, discovery, innovation, empathy and developing creative solutions to complex problems. They are central to contributing to Australia’s knowledge-based economy.
These broader learning goals that encompass a greater emphasis on the development of complex capabilities present some challenges for a senior secondary education system that often feels clogged with the requirements of preparing students for ATAR exams. However, it is clearly a goal that is becoming more of a priority and was recently articulated by Milligan, Mackay and Noonan (2022) as prioritising the capacity, ‘for every learner to master knowledge in depth in areas of interest, but also how to apply that knowledge, to use it to add value to the community, to keep learning in the face of change, and to develop transferrable general capabilities that will stand them in good stead irrespective of their path in life’.
At ASC, we have never seen an either/or in the debate over knowledge and skills vs capabilities. Our work currently explores the ways in which all the knowledge and skills students learn can be developed and applied within rich contexts that are nested within the development of capabilities; with all these domains represented and shared through a learner profile.
The Move Toward a Learner Profile
All Saints’ College is the only West Australian school selected to participate in the New Metrics project with the University of Melbourne. Emerging from this work are two significant and linked projects – the first being the development of a set of measurement and assessment tools for enabling the assessment and reporting of students’ development of complex capabilities. This work is seen as a significant step toward shifting our systems’ emphasis on the traditional knowledge and skills as we measure what we value and what we are able to measure. Supported by the University, 2022 sees ASC trialling the assessment and reporting of students’ development in two important capabilities: Learner Agency and Collaboration.
The second significant project to emerge from the work of New Metrics is the development of a Learner Profile, with the aim that every student should leave school with a ‘transparent, trusted, useful, authorised, comparable, and inclusive learner profile, representing standards of learning attained in a range of domains’ (Milligan, Mackay and Noonan, 2022). A Learner Profile would aim to represent the broadness of a students’ growth and development in domains that include, but go beyond, the academic. This would include students’ capabilities and be substantiated with evidence of their engagement, participation and development in a broad range of areas that are not represented in current reports. As examples, this might include students’ growth and development in drama productions, debating teams, coaching roles, their employment outside of school and the leadership roles they have undertaken. Significantly, students would play a role in developing their learner profile and selecting and showcasing their distinctive and unique abilities, interests and experiences.
At ASC, we see the Learner Profile as a significant platform for students to present their growth and development across their senior years in the rich variety of opportunities they take up during their time at the College and we are excited about developing and trialling our initial versions in 2022.
The Place of ATAR
Whilst the ATAR continues to serve its purpose and is trusted as an efficient and broadly fair tool for ranking students for the purpose of admitting students to competitive university courses, it is facing a number of significant challenges.
Firstly, the COVID world has seen universities respond to the crisis by providing and promoting a range of alternative entrance opportunities for students. These new and emerging ways to enter university include pathways programs, VET entry, special consideration processes, early offer schemes and portfolio entrance schemes.
Secondly, whilst the ATAR is an efficient tool for ranking students based on their performance in course work and externally set exams, it is criticised in terms of ensuring that students are selected for university courses based on suitability and a student’s capacity to persist in an area of interest. As expressed by the Tertiary Admissions Centre in NSW, ‘The ATAR is an efficient and effective measure of academic achievement and potential, but it does not consider equity issues and says nothing about a student’s life goals, passions and broader personality, beyond being resilient, motivated and organised enough to have achieved the HSC. What’s missing in the current debate about ATAR is balance.’
Thirdly, a significant challenge that has seen students drifting away from the ATAR in West Australia is the considerable stress that the system of assessment and examinations creates for many of our young people. Combined with the opportunity of alternative pathways, WA has seen a fall to only 46.6% of students taking up an ATAR pathway in 2021, with many young people deciding to take a different path for wellbeing and balance reasons.
At ASC, we have focussed on the ATAR Plus approach for a number of years and so we are confident any shifts away from the centrality of that approach will see our students well-placed with each student carefully considering their pathways to explore and build their unique strengths and capacities and achieve their goals.
Education for Agency and Flourishing
In the global knowledge economy, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation (OECD) has an increasingly influential role to play in determining the goals, practices and outcomes of education systems. In 2018, the OECD released its framing paper, The Future of Education and Skills: Education 2030 which contains the OECD Learning Framework 2030 – a vision and some underpinning principles for the future of education systems. The Framework attends to two significant needs in education: the need for broader education goals for individual and collective well-being, “Education needs to aim to do more than prepare young people for the world of work; it needs to equip students with the skills they need to become active, responsible and engaged citizens.”
South Australia has recently taken up the challenge from the OECD of redesigning its Senior Secondary schooling with a focus on flourishing and agency. Seen as a first mover in Australia to reimagine their system for a new age, South Australia has placed wellbeing at the centre of their design with six key elements: Zest for life, Agency, Deep understanding and skilful action, Human connectedness, Ability to transfer learning and Belonging as the key aims of the students’ final years of school. In South Australia, ‘Thrive’ is a learning entitlement.
A key focus for us at ASC in 2022 is on building students’ capacity to develop agency and, of course, to ensure that wellbeing is at the heart of all our programs.
Going Beyond Boundaries at ASC
The establishment of Djoowak, The Beyond Boundaries Institute at ASC in 2018 had the aim and focus to ensure that the College is leading in ensuring that we are at the forefront of conversations about education and its emerging directions. As we examine these emerging trends, we can feel confident not only that we have a deep understanding of how they do and are playing out in schools across the globe, but also that we are leading conversations to ensure that we contribute to these emerging trends; thus ensuring that our young people have the best opportunities to thrive in the V.U.C.A. world and have the benefit of educational innovation, supported by sound research and expert partners as the basis of a world-leading education.
References and Further Reading:
OECD. (2018). The Future of Education and Skills: Education 2030. Retrieved from: http://www.oecd.org/sti/global-forum-knowledge-economy-2014.htm
(CAGEC), C. o. A. G. E. C. (2019). Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration. Retrieved from: https://docs.education.gov.au/system/files/doc/other/pdf_accessible_-_alice_springs_mparntwe_education_declaration_acc_002.pdf
Milligan, Mackay and Noonan (2022). Framing success for all: a proposal about regulatory arrangements for certification in Australian senior secondary schooling. Retrieved from: