A stop-start directive to return to schools has been going on for over a month and produced anxieties for teachers, students and their families.
How can we respond to the confusion this has produced, particularly regarding Year 12 students? The argument mounted here is that there really is only one way to respond and that is from an equity perspective.
Abandon this year’s HSC examination and – with universities, unions, curriculum associations, teachers and principal organizations – develop pathway responses that can take account of different assessment practices.
This means looking at the situation from the least empowered by addressing barriers through what might be called affirmative action. In this case that means acting in a way that responds to students who are disadvantaged. Even at a general level all students have experienced what no other has before: two years of interrupted learning. This is, after all, a once in a century pandemic. The HSC is not a set of exams at the end of one year, it is two years of assessments where the examination is but one element. Those two years for the current cohort have been tragically upended by last year’s lockdown and now this year’s lockdown. There is no issue with the lockdown, as we want everyone safe. The problem is the intransigence of the NSW government in not being flexible enough to think this through in other ways.
Sydney Catholic Schools executive director Tony Farley called for school-based assessments to replace exams. He argued from an equity perspective that disadvantaged students lacked access to adequate resources. This was rejected outright by the minister and NESA thus demolishing the first principle of democratic participation – the right to representation. Comparing the second year of COVID to what happened in Victoria or Britain last year is comparing apples and oranges. This is two years of disruption and may continue. The uncertainty is what needs to be ended.
In appealing for the HSC to proceed the Premier of NSW, Gladys Berejiklian, harnessed her migrant background and the importance of this exam in the trajectory of her success, and therefore other migrants. While there is some truth in this narrative, for many this just isn’t the case. Gone are the days when students chose to stay on for academic reasons. Most now must stay on and not all consider the HSC the golden pathway to their imagined futures. This argument also papers over the enormous differences within and across migrant communities. Evidence suggests that a lack of devices in refugee families has seriously interrupted schooling. Some teachers report teaching to two students jammed in front of one screen in the middle of a lounge room with other siblings present. Many reports of refugee and migrant families having difficulty with online learning are also documented.
Yet it is not migrants only that are impacted. Students who are neurologically and physically diverse have had less than their normal level of support. There is also the emotional and psychological impact of lockdowns on others, reported to have skyrocketed this lockdown. Whether it is the student or their family is irrelevant here given the close living and lack of escape from sometimes very close living quarters. This leads to a second failure of a democracy, and that is justice: every person has a right to just, fair and equitable treatment.
There are other questions about marking practical work such as music, drama, art and dance. Normally itinerant teachers travel but with restrictions out of Sydney on movement what is happening? Is video doing this? How equitable is the current arrangement? This leads to the other thorny question of vaccination. Are itinerant teachers vaccinated? In the middle of all this is another failure; to vaccinate frontline workers such as teachers. In other parts of the world, they were part of the first batch to be vaccinated but not here despite UNESCO calling for them to be prioritized globally. Not valued enough. Now, when the Delta variant has made schools “just perfect” as a vehicle for transmission, we are left wanting.
Who are the disadvantaged? This cannot be answered through simple categories based on ability, socio-economic status or ethnicity because we will find exceptions in all cases. Let’s turn the gaze and ask the question: who are advantaged? There seems to be some lack of decision-making around those who get vaccinated and those who don’t for one thing. As yet we won’t know what happens to those who aren’t vaccinated. Most of the rhetoric around keeping the HSC going has been from the perspective of the ‘ideal student’; one who is self-directed, prepared, committed, in control, and of course, in a home with emotional, social and technological support. We know some of these, such as the young men allowed to travel during a lockdown for their important camp experience.
What can be done?
As I argued earlier, we should abandon this year’s HSC examination and – with universities, unions, curriculum associations, teachers and principal organizations – develop pathway responses that can take account of different assessment practices. We really have no choice. We can’t send thousands of private and selective school students travelling all over Sydney in two weeks’ time and we don’t know if the students living in the heart of Sydney in hard lockdown will be able to move around at all.
There are countless pathways available to TAFE and universities already. These can be tweaked to incorporate short courses where knowledge and skills can be demonstrated leading to entry if school-based assessments have gaps. Universities such as my own have developed pathways based on Year 11 results as well as strong support systems for first year students so if they are in the wrong course or struggling, they are given support to know if they want to continue or not. Others moving to workplaces, apprenticeships and TAFE could also be accommodated with broad based representation involving consultation and some imagination. Who knows, we might even develop a new way forward that caters for a different world.
Everyone has been impacted so the support for this cohort has to be broad. Why not tap into community goodwill? We are all in the same boat. Teachers, as professionals, have not been given much space to demonstrate their capacities but have been providing what they can as they too struggle with lockdown, their own family’s needs and a lack of consultation. Let’s look after the least empowered and the collective goodwill flowing from this will serve us well. Business as usual just isn’t working.
Carol Reid is a sociologist of education in the Centre for Educational Research at Western Sydney University. Carol’s research explores processes of globalisation and mobilities on youth, ethnicity and race and the intersections of these social identities with the changing nature of teacher’s work. Current research is concerned with Settlement Outcomes of Syrian Conflict Refugees and cosmopolitan theory for education. Carol received her PhD and BA (Hons) from Macquarie University in Sociology and was a teacher prior to these studies for 13 years.