Dean Snow says he was encouraged to do VCAL instead of VCE because his school thought his grades were too poor. He thinks they were trying to protect their academic reputation. Photo: Wayne TaylorDean Snow dreamedof going to university – his private school had other plans.
“They thought I might become a tradie,” he says. “That’s how they saw me.”
At the end of year 10, the teenager was called into a meeting where his teachers encouraged him to do the Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning – a vocational alternative to the VCE.
“My school has a pretty good reputation,” he says now. “They would look at a student like myself with poor grades and not want me to tarnish their reputation.”
But Dean wanted to do the VCE. He wanted an ATAR.
The 18-year-old is speaking out about what he says is an insidious practice: barring underperforming students from the VCE to boost schools’ results.
As competition intensifies, insiders say some schools are putting their reputation ahead of their students’ best interests.
Students with poorer grades are being pressured to do VCAL. Others are being pushed to do the unscored VCE, which lets students finish school without the stress of exams, and with no ATAR.
These tactics improve the data high-performing schools are so desperate to promote – their median study score and percentage of study scores of 40 or above. But gaming the system comes at a cost – for students most of all.
To start with, students without an ATAR struggle to get into many university courses. But they also lose something less tangible, but perhaps more important. Self worth.
Psychologist and former teacher Dr Kevin Quin met dozens of students at his school who were barred fromsitting exams at their previous schools, due to the “huge pressure”to improve VCE scores.
Mr Quin, who worked at Notre Dame School, a school in Shepparton offering a program for disengaged students, says this had a profound psychological effect.
“They feel rejected, they feel like failures,” he says.
A Fairfax Media analysis of Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority data shows that Victorian students undertook 11,076 unscored VCE subjects in 2015.
Last year, 1747 students completed their VCE without an ATAR.
Dean is relieved that he finished school with an ATAR. Despite his teachers’ repeated attempts to persuade him to do VCAL, he insisted on doing the VCE and received an ATAR of 53.
His school did not want to provide comment.
His favourite subject, VCE media, inspired him to pursue a career in directing.
“My teacher would encourage me, he allowed me to take risks,” Dean says.
Ryan Harvey* was among dozens of students in his year level at another school who were robbed of an ATAR.
Despite two years of VCE study, in which he showed up to class and passed assignments, Ryan agreed to finish Year 12 without an ATAR.
His year level co-ordinator spoke to him a number oftimes during the year, telling him he was not cut out for the high-stakes exam. Weeks before he was set to sit his exams, he gave in.
“If I could do it again, I would have just done the exam,” he says.
A teacher at Ryan’s school, who did not want to be named, says these students were victims of a sophisticated scheme to weed out under-performing kids.
“The school targeted the kids who were getting a D and E, and pulled them out of class.”
The VCAA acknowledges there has been an increase in the number of students undertaking unscored VCE subjects over the past two years and is considering publishing detailed data on individual schools.
ItsVCE rules state that not attempting graded tests “may limit a student’s options for further training, study and work”.
Principal of Oakwood School, David Roycroft, says the unscored VCE was meant for students facing a personal crisis, or who were too anxious to sit their exams.
He says while VCAL is “terrific” in building vocational skills, it should not be the default option for students with low grades.
“If the student is thinking that they are heading towards tertiary study, then they should be doing a VCE program, regardless of their grades.”
A principal at another school, who did not want to be named, says schools are “fudging their data”.
He says students were told that the unscored VCE took the pressure off Year 11 and 12 because they didn’t have to sit exams, and could finish earlier. “They dangle all these little carrots in front of them,” he says.
“It can be a significant benefit to the school because they are not going to drag down the school’s results.”
Victorian Association of State Secondary Principals president Judy Crowe says the unscored VCE and VCAL are legitimate and valuable options.
She says the unscored VCE suits students who do not cope with exams, including those with physical, emotional or intellectual health difficulties, while VCAL suits those who have a clear idea of what they wantto do vocationally.
She says parents often put pressure on their children to do VCE, when they would be better suited to VCAL.
“Parents think the only pathway for their child is VCE and then university,” she says.
A VCAA spokesman says that for some students, undertaking the VCE without study scores is a valid and desirable alternative. It enables schools to “better cater for the needs of individual students,” he says.
Last year Dean Snow became the first person in his family to finish school. He is hoping to studymediaat university this year.
The teenager says university would not have been an option if he had not done the VCE.
“I would’ve gone straight to work and wouldn’t study another day in my life.”