Thousands of teenagers on tenterhooks
By Roger Simms
THE FOOTY season is over, the Melbourne Cup is on this month and Christmas is already in the shops.
The run to the end of the year is picking up its usual unforgiving pace.
It can be a busy, stressful time but spare a thought for some 26,000 young West Australians who have been under real pressure of late.Read more
I’m talking about our Year 12 school leavers heading out for the wider world, many still wrung out from Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) exams, worried about their results and facing all sorts of choices that will shape adult life.
Tertiary study? What university? What course? Technical and Further Education (TAFE)? A job? A gap year? How will I pay for everything?
Anxiety among Australian high-school students has been on the rise in recent years, with Covid an obvious cause.
But even before the pandemic’s disruption, a survey reported in the research-based media outlet The Conversation found that stress levels among Australian students were well above the international average.
And in WA last year, exam stress was seen as the reason for a drop of about 1000 in the number of students studying four ATAR subjects.
Perth clinical and counselling psychologist Robyn Bett says feelings of stress over ATAR are inevitable, with some students finding they are ready to meet the pressure and others experiencing a crushing burden.
“There are many factors involved, including a student’s earlier experiences with stress,” she says.
“One factor lurking in the background, she says, can be a student’s fear of leaving the safety of childhood and school at the same time as ATAR pressure is building.
“Luckily, ATAR is not the only route to higher education.
“Other pathways can reassure capable but uncertain students that they can try the ATAR course but change tactics if that doesn’t work out.”
Exam blues aside, some high excitement awaits our school leavers – a rite of passage, as it’s become popularly known since 1980 with the advent of Schoolies Week, the annual outpouring of student revelry in holiday places such as Rottnest and Dunsborough.
Toodyay seniors who can recall sitting for WA’s former ‘Leaving’ final year school exams in WA’s repressed student scene in the 1950s and 60s may regard this high-octane fun fest with wistful regret that their own post-exam days weren’t a little more stimulating — or perhaps see it as a reckless excess that they wouldn’t touch with a barge pole.
Certainly, it can be a worrying time for parents, as a glance at Wikipedia’s entry on Schoolies Week might suggest.
Under the heading Problems and Risks, it says the celebrations are considered a week-long alcoholic binge with the risk of drug taking, violent and sexual assaults, unprotected sex and the propagation of sexually transmitted infections.
Organisers at Schoolies.com, however, tell a different story.
Their take is that the event is a celebration for Australian Year 12 leavers with parties, festivals and events run especially for Schoolies – a time to make lasting memories, meet people and enjoy a last burst of joyful stress-free freedom before heading off into the real world.
Safety is just as important as having the time of your life, they say.
The Schoolies environment is as safe as possible with a 24-hour helpline, official ID cards to restrict outsiders, a support team known as Red Frogs and local police help.
So good luck Schoolies – I guess the message is: Party hearty but take care.
Looking back in the light of today’s competition for student places in Australian universities, it’s hard to imagine a time when educators spent so much of their energies allaying community suspicions about the worth of a university education.
In the years before Perth’s University of WA opened in a collection of wood and iron buildings in Irwin Street in 1913, Sir Edward Wittenoom told the WA Legislative Council: “To expect that people who have their living to earn will attend university is to expect the impossible.”
How times change.
In my own case, I recall the Leaving examination of 1959 being just as big a mark of achievement as ATAR scores are today, with university plans and prestige riding on the outcome.
One big difference though is the way kids in those days learnt how they fared in the final exams.
No internet or website to check.
The first airing of exam results would be in The West Australian newspaper with huge crowds besieging the watchman’s office at the old Newspaper House in St George’s Terrace to get their hands on a copy of that night’s first edition of the next day’s paper.
Laughter, groans and grumbles would erupt as pages were opened and lists scanned.
No Schoolies celebrations for us.
Just the anxious ritual of ripping newspapers apart in the city on one night in early December.
And then laughter or tears.