Higher School Certificate

Why we must abandon the 2021 HSC now

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. 

The study of novels and poetry is essential for senior secondary students

The serious dumbing down of the senior English syllabus in NSW will have significant repercussions for students, employers, writers, poets, and Australian culture.

The changes have been widely criticized. The worst ones are the reduction in texts to be studied, the study of both novels and poetry becoming optional and the formerly non-ATAR English course now becoming assessable for the ATAR. My colleague Don Carter, who in a former role led the team developing the non-ATAR course, is greatly concerned by how this will affect students, as is Jackie Manuel, who has examined these changes in detail here on this blog.

Yes we understand the importance of STEM education and why it needs special attention these days. Also it can’t be denied that film, media and digital texts are part of today’s technologies so should be studied. And bottom line, these changes to HSC English will save money by cutting marking time.

So why worry about our HSC students skipping novels and poetry in their final year of school? What have novels and poetry got to offer in today’s world?

So much, so very much.

Why studying  novels and poetry should be compulsory

The intensive study of multiple texts, written from diverse points of view and cultural heritages, gives a vicarious glimpse of the worlds of others. Literature is the ultimate virtual reality.


In a novel, and without fancy gaming scenes and movement, sound effects, actors and cinematography, literary worlds (and plot and characters) are built by a writer using one simple tool, the infinite arrangements of an alphabet consisting of a mere 26 letters, and are then sustained and grown by readers’ imaginations.

Intensive study of novels grows awareness of how words can be used and manipulated, in both positive and negative ways, and helps us learn how we, and others, respond to such words, as well as how we can use them. Forensic study of novels, delving beyond the top layer and investigating how language creates characters and conveys feelings and emotions somehow sparks all senses; hearing, seeing, feeling, touching, smelling. Observing and studying people both like and unlike ourselves in crafted case studies in a created world provides resources that mature our understandings of our own world.

Exploring how novels and poetry (I’ll come to poetry in a minute) work, not only breeds creativity, that highly sought-after attribute when everyone is talking ‘innovation’, it also expands awareness of other perspectives, ways of thinking, and needs and problems. A novel can change cultures and bring about social change. Think about the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said on meeting author Harriet Beecher Stowe, ‘So this is the little lady whose book started a big war.’ He was of course referring to the American Civil War.

This lowering of standards by NSW represents a lowering of expectations and is a sad reflection of our impoverished educational philosophy. It’s a scary repeat of the scrapping of grammar decades ago.

In a few years we’ll (suddenly!) discover that Australian students are lagging behind world standards not only in literacy and reading and writing skills but in cultural literacy, creativity, nuanced thinking and the ability to critically analyse language.

The more people and experiences we are exposed to, actually, and virtually (and I repeat, literature is of course a virtual reality), the more we learn to respect others and respect difference. As David Parker notes, novels are ‘sites of the culture’s deepest moral questionings’; Simon Haines writes that they are sites of ‘ethical reflection’.

This is the ethical reflection of deep literacy, not just respect but a generous and intimate understanding of others that makes us hope for their wellbeing. Writing about the novel, Martha Nussbaum says that ‘respect for a soul’ is ‘built into the genre itself’. In other words it makes us more empathic, more collaborative, better teammates. It makes for more flexibility in thinking, more agility in considering how things can be done.

And some of our most beautiful novels can be challenging and need a guide (good teachers!) to introduce us to them. I’m thinking of Tim Winton’s opening lines in Cloudstreet – ‘The beautiful, the beautiful, the river’, and David Malouf’s description of the sea in Remembering Babylon:

It glows in fullness till the tide is high and the light almost, but not quite, unbearable, as the moon plucks at our world and all the waters of the earth ache towards it ….

Extended exposure to creative imageries such as these encourage a similar ache, and the capacity to listen with the mind as well as the ear, to see with the spirit as well as the eyes. Creativity is contagious; it jumps from one thought to another, from one imagination to another, from one mode of expression to another.


Poetry is the literary genre that first attracts children into language. Think of ‘Round and round the garden/Dancing teddy bear’ and ‘Twinkle twinkle little star’: rhythm and rhyme, sound and imagery. Poetry is important both for philosophical and pragmatic reasons, both for self enhancement (life enhancement) and for the skills it grows.

Poetry breeds and cultivates and demonstrates succinctness of expression, depths of thinking that generate a creative climate of shared human-ness – humanity. It uses words like Russian dolls; open up one word and another one tumbles out, wrapped in thoughts and feelings and scattering other images along the way. Advertisers and jingle writers know and love this, and we need our children to understand how it happens.

Poetry is like a theorem; a few words can express a deep thought. I’ve used this example before, but it’s just so apt:


This world of dew

is but a world of dew,

and yet …oh, and yet.    

Koyabayashi Issa (1763-1828)

The words are so simple, we know what each one means. But what is this famous haiku actually saying? It feels repetitive, unfinished. It’s like saying an apple is an apple, and the ‘and yet’ repeated at the end means – what?

These words stand on the surface of a complex thought, above not just one idea but many (philosophical, creative, intellectual, universal, particular) that may provoke, delight, and/or unsettle. We know what ‘dew’ is ( the dictionary says it is ‘moisture condensed from the atmosphere especially at night’) but this simple definition unravels into other ideas pertaining to moisture; water, morning, dawn. These in turn tumble into thoughts about dawn as being a new day, as being either a fresh start or a despairing start (or both), and moisture and water as both that which assuages thirst and as the moisture of tears and sweat, sorrow and exhaustion, or sometimes of great happiness and pleasure.

So, almost subliminally, this invites the reader to take a thought plunge into both the profound delights and the profound sadness of the world and indeed of human existence. And whichever way we read this, as delight or sadness, or both, or neither, there is always the ‘and yet’, the something else, the other side, the perhaps holy or perhaps unholy concomitance.

Poetry – using the magic of sound as well as sense – energises rigour of thought and the imagination that recognises and engages with the enigmas and the puzzles of the ‘and yet, oh and yet.’ It acknowledges and accentuates the wondering (and the wonder).

And Australian poetry! The line of a simple ballad is with me every time I look up at a starry sky: ‘And at night the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars’. Simple, some say trite, I say tapping into and enlarging the experience of being human, of being part of a mind-staggering universe.

If young Australians don’t have to study it, will they know such poetry exists? They may miss John Shaw’s Nielson’s delicate ‘Love’s coming’ (a wonderful antidote to the current deluge of lovers on reality TV); and Judith Wright’s “five senses’ that ‘gather into a meaning/all acts, all presences’; and Lionel Fogarty’s ‘sweet peace crowned country’ and Martin Harrison’s morning song, ‘As early as this – it’s just after dawn – you’re overwhelmed by the glimmering of things’; and Paolo Totaro’s cry against war when a child picks up something that looks like a pomegranate: ‘Where did it come from, that winsome hand-grenade?’

Studying novels and poetry is needed in this new global world

Most of all, intensive study of novels and poetry grows a willingness to engage with ambiguity. Think of that ‘world of dew’ again. We haven’t got all the answers and our point of view is not always right. And the idea of ‘right’ may always be ambiguous.

Think about quantum theory and the theory of relativity. The position of the observer is always disruptive and time is not absolute.

I have heard whispers of the idea of ‘unknowing’ creeping into educational discourse, and applaud this. Part of deep engagement with novels and poetry helps us to understand that we just don’t always know and that we need to acknowledge our unknowing. This is not a deficit, but a part of growth. Life is profound and mysterious; in philosopher Cora Diamond’s words:

There is far more to things, to life, than we know or understand. Such a feeling is tied to a rejection of the spirit of knowingness often found in abstract moral and social theorising.

It is this that helps individuals to commit to a moral order beyond the self and to connect, with integrity, to community.

By cutting the need for high-level study of a range of novels and poetry are we really equipping our students for global futures?

NESA, please rethink this decision, which is not grounded on pedagogical principles or research, and is contrary to the feedback received from so many experts.

Our students are worth more than this.


Rosemary Ross Johnston is Professor of Education and Culture at UTS, and is the Director of the International Research Centre for Youth Futures. Her latest book, Australian Literature for Young People, is currently in press with Oxford.





Last week (end of March 2017) NESA did a back-flip and announced a new ruling “to clarify the requirement to study a novel in Year 12 in English”.

Read about it here.

Direct link between teaching and learning with laptops and better HSC results in biology, chemistry and physics

Most Australian students in years 9 to 12 were provided with a laptop courtesy of The Digital Education Revolution between 2008 and 2013. There was a lot of comment at the time about how the use of laptops might influence student learning and what that influence might be. I was particularly interested in the possible impact on the experiences and achievements of high school science teachers and students.
In 2010, I embarked on a six-year study involving 16 Sydney Catholic high schools in NSW to gather evidence. I have to say my expectations at first were quite conservative. I predicted my research would get a null result, as the data would be too inconsistent and messy.

The most interesting finding

However, the results were surprising and quite clear, with the statistical significance and positive effect sizes that boffins wanting “evidence” so crave. The major finding of my research was that teaching and learning with 1:1 laptops was directly linked with students attaining better results in their HSC in biology, chemistry and physics. In most of the previous research in this area only evidence of generic qualities, such as increased motivation or engagement, had been found. My research actually provided hard numbers. Given the high stakes nature of HSC exams in NSW, these findings might be of interest to other teachers of senior students.

Biggest impact in physics, why?

Investigating further I found that 1:1 laptops had a bigger positive impact in physics than in biology and chemistry. The reasons for this seemed related. Physics teachers and students out-reported their peers in the other subjects in terms of using science specific applications e.g. simulations, science software and spreadsheets. They were using applications that would directly benefit the teaching and learning e.g. simulations for experiments that would be impossible to do otherwise. Digging further, this is not surprising as the physics syllabus encourages and even mandates the use of technology throughout the syllabus, whereas in say biology, there is no reference apart from some generic motherhood statements.

I am not claiming in any way that the physics teachers were better than the biology teachers with using technology (they may or may not be, I didn’t explore this), but that the physics teachers had a mandate to use technology and they did, whereas the biology teachers didn’t have the same obligations, so they did not.

Other findings

Students became more proactive

Even if teachers didn’t engage with the technology (a minority), the students would still do so of their own accord. Given that they had a laptop, it appears they really wanted to use it. Also, students were much more inclined to use more creative applications such as blogging, video editing and podcasting than their teachers.

Old practices continued

However, in contrast, while I observed that students moved away from using pen and paper and did more work on their laptops, they still took notes and worked from textbooks, as they did before they had their laptops. The only difference was they now used word processing for notes and electronic textbooks plus simple online searching. Essentially, the laptops were most commonly being used to perpetuate traditional practices. It must be understood however that these findings were from 2010 data, only one or two years into the DER. The question now should be what are the modal practices with technology in 2017?

Teachers had ‘fingers on the pulse’

Another interesting finding was regarding teachers’ perceptions of what students were doing on the laptops compared to what the students reported themselves. About one third of teachers very much had their fingers on the pulse and were quite aware of what their students were doing. Just over half had a medium sense of their students’ practices. One in six teachers appeared to be out of tune with their students’ practices.

Teacher case studies

The final findings were based on case studies of four science teachers. Not surprisingly, I found that different teachers started from different positions of use of and expertise with technology. However, over the years of the study, all teachers reported improvement in their use of and expertise with teaching with the laptops, especially those that were starting from the lowest baseline.

A shift in the power dynamics of the classroom

The most interesting finding from the teacher case studies was that the implementation of the laptops involved a renegotiation of the power dynamics of the classroom and a shift in the teachers’ role from traditional instructor to facilitator of independent learning.

All of the teachers involved reported a gradual relaxing of ‘control’ over time, trusting and collaborating with the students more, and allowing the students to take more of a lead in how to make best use of the technology.

Future impacts

Five years since the end of the DER (such is the nature of part-time research), I feel the findings of this study still have currency for today’s schools. Whatever the latest iteration of technology in schools, or indeed any new initiative, this research raises areas of consideration for future classroom practices and research.

Teachers need to have their fingers on the pulse of their students’ practices. If teachers and students use technologies to capitalise on the unique opportunities they provide, rather than as a gimmick, it has been demonstrated that teaching and learning will improve. Hopefully, this research will further encourage research into new initiatives to include a more quantitative analysis and measurements of improvement or lack thereof.

I would strongly advocate that teachers are consulted on their personal thoughts and experiences in advance to any new initiatives implemented by governments and administrations, based on my research, and that these are monitored over the course of the implementation.

Impact on new syllabuses

In NSW as in many other states and territories, new syllabuses are being written in light of the new(ish) Australian Curriculum. It is quite pertinent that syllabus writers take into consideration the latest research regarding their influence on teaching and learning practices. New syllabuses should encourage the use of and capitalise on technologies that have been demonstrated to benefit teaching and learning. Empty motherhoods statements or catering for the lowest common denominator are not good enough – contemporary syllabuses should be relevant to a contemporary world and evidence-based.

Throughout the time of the DER and in the years since, it has been the subject of persistent criticism, particularly within the right-wing media (it was a Labor initiative after all). However, as with any initiative, while there are often failings, there are also many successes.

In the post-truth world we now find ourselves, we could all benefit from looking at the evidence rather than just react to the constant flow of opinion and comment in the media.


Simon Crook has just completed his PhD in Physics Education Research at the University of Sydney. Producing a ‘thesis by publication’, most of his academic journal articles are already in the public domain. Professionally, Simon is a STEM education consultant with his company CrookED Science. He supports primary and secondary schools and school systems across Australia, providing professional development to teachers and working with students. Previously, he was a high school science teacher for 15 years in the UK and Sydney and eLearning Adviser for the Catholic Education Office Sydney for 6 years. You can find him on  Twitter @simoncrook and check out his website

This article is about the findings from my recently published PhD thesis entitled Evaluating the Impact of 1:1 Laptops on High School Science Students and Teachers, completed through the Physics Education Research group at the University of Sydney.