Premier, there are more important things to worry about than the HSC

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Opinion

Premier, there are more important things to worry about than the HSC

When we think back on the great challenges of the past century, the eras of death and despair - the Spanish flu, the world wars - few of us devote much time to wondering how the governments of the day ensured final-year students ticked the boxes of their school-leaving credentials.

Last week, the NSW government said tens of thousands of year 12 students could go back to school on August 16, despite intensifying restrictions on everyone else, due to the importance of the HSC. Now it’s winding that back. Amid the fallout, Premier Gladys Berejiklian is justifying her initial announcement - made with barely any detail - by saying NSW is required to run statewide, public exams in October.

HSC students face uncertain times as they prepare for the final few months of year 12.

HSC students face uncertain times as they prepare for the final few months of year 12. Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

She’s partly right, but like most politicians the Premier is glossing over other options and muddying facts for an audience mostly ignorant of how the HSC works.

There is a clause in the Education Act that says the HSC must involve public, statewide exams. But there’s another one, too, outlining how students can still be awarded their HSC if they cannot sit the exam; a misadventure process. The authors of the laws did not anticipate a statewide misadventure application due to a pandemic, so the government could face a legal challenge if exams did not go ahead. It’s a grey area.

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Yet, there’s no rule to say exams have to be held in October. The HSC takes about four weeks to mark, but while results are released before Christmas, they can - and have been in the past, as many readers would remember - be released in January. The national deadline for university offers is mid-January, but interstate universities may be flexible on that, too.

There are also ways to truncate the marking process for this year as a one-off, without compromising the credential. It’s great to have a ‘gold-standard’ HSC, as politicians have often described it. But maybe, during a pandemic, it’s okay to settle for silver.

Ms Berejiklian talks about the state opening further in October and November, when vaccination rates are higher. Even under her timetable, mid-October examinations could be possible. Or early- or mid-November examinations. That gives plenty of time to get needles in arms to add extra insurance for HSC students, beginning with those in south-west Sydney next week and perhaps more widely as extra supply comes online.

Year 12 is also perfectly capable of learning remotely. They’re young adults; they don’t need the supervision little kids do. Many will be doing it at university next year. Last year’s HSC cohort worked remotely for seven weeks - during a period when they were learning new material, rather than the present period of assessment and revision - and the NSW Education Standards Authority says it had no impact on their results.

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Remote learning can be tough, but it’s better than getting COVID-19 and spreading it by taking trains and buses from hotspots to schools in the east or northern suburbs.

In an ideal world, year 12 would have certainty to help it through a stressful period. But we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, so no-one has certainty. Parents juggling remote learning and work, little kids missing their friends, and single people aching for company, would love a bit of certainty too. The government sold its initial return-to-school plan - which lacked detail - on the importance of certainty for year 12, but the resulting mess has further confused everyone.

Victoria, the state we patronise so often, even for their not-quite gold standard Victorian Certificate of Education, faced exactly this situation last year. Their authorities said exams would still run, but they’d push them back a bit, allow every student a COVID misadventure application, and have a plan B up their sleeve. Perhaps NSW, again, needs to learn from Victoria.

It’s puzzling political leaders who remind students every year the HSC is not the be-all and end-all, are now telling them the exam is so important that they need to risk the safety of themselves, their families and their teachers to sit a practice version of it in the next few weeks.

For what it’s worth, I tried to find out how crisis governments dealt with school-leaving certificates. There’s not much information. Maybe those governments had bigger things to worry about.

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