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ATAR Plus Approach: Developing Young People Beyond The Classroom

By Ms Esther Hill, Director of Djoowak: The Beyond Boundaries Institute  

While the discussion of whether to pursue an ATAR pathway or a different pathway will inevitably continue for many years as the percentage of students following a traditional ATAR pathway declines, there is a more important question students, educators and families should be asking. Rather than focusing on an outdated and limiting measure, how can schools, alongside developing the skills and knowledge in what is often called ‘traditional disciplines’, develop capabilities that enable students to thrive in learning and life outside the classroom?

Alternative Pathways To University

Alongside 37 other ‘first mover’ schools across Australia, the University of Melbourne’s Assessment Research Centre has formed a research partnership with All Saints’ College to reach beyond those traditional subjects and focus on the deliberate development of these key competencies and capabilities.

Unlike previous work in this area, the focus of this research has been on assessment. In education it is often said that we measure what we value and value what we measure, and whilst the capabilities have formed part of the Australian Curriculum for many years, there is no requirement to assess and report on them. The power in this work, and its value to tertiary institutions, workplaces and employers is that it enables a richer, more fit for purpose evaluation of suitability.

How might this work in reality? A student who is interested in a pathway in the Health Sciences would complete a suite of courses in Years 11 and 12 that includes examined ATAR courses or a combination of General, ATAR and VET qualifications and workplace learning, better preparing the student for that area of further study. Alongside these studies, this student would also be assessed in the development of competencies such as communication, collaboration and problem-solving. This data would accompany the student’s academic results to provide a ‘learner profile’ which would enable tertiary institutions to assess suitability.

The Traditional ATAR System

The traditional ATAR system often means students haven’t had the opportunity to develop the capabilities required for their post-schooling plans. Engineers need to be problem solvers and collaborators, Doctors need to be respectful and empathetic, and Social Workers need to demonstrate resilience and compassion.

The concept of developing capabilities alongside classroom learning doesn’t remove the importance of subject knowledge and skills. Instead it builds upon it, creating opportunities to add a competency dimension to the profile of the student.

The strenuous assessment regime that characterises the traditional model of Years 11 and 12 needs to shift to accommodate richer opportunities for developing and assessing these competencies. It requires moving beyond the traditional teach-test paradigm that often dominates classroom practice in students’ senior years to more project-based, applied and open tasks that enable young people to develop learner agency. In this approach, the role of a Tertiary Admissions Centre becomes more focused on match-making – finding the most suitable and prepared applicants for the courses on offer.

A Different Approach To Secondary Education

In 2022, All Saints’ College launched The Studio School, an alternative to mainstream secondary education that focuses on the holistic development of a young person. The Studio School model sees students receive a personalised program that pairs traditional academic subjects with real-world learning experiences including community and individual projects, university and online courses, work placements and industry partnerships. This enables young people to develop their skills, knowledge and competencies in rich and authentic contexts that empower them to feel confident about their choices and capacities beyond school.

Ms Esther Hill speaking at The Studio School's inaugural Graduation Ceremony in 2022


The assessment of these competencies and representation of them in a learner profile is a great leap forward in recognising, warranting and representing the development of the whole person and including, but not limited by, a single number or a set of marks.

As 21st century learners embark into a VUCA* world, young people need to be resilient, active citizens who problem seek and problem solve, use critical and creative thinking, work cooperatively and can communicate their ideas. Young people need to be consciously developing and honing these competencies and to be active agents of their own learning. Exploring the key elements of education that enable young people to thrive allows the world of education to deeply challenge the traditional system and provide more real-world learning opportunities to help students become engaged and compassionate global citizens.

*volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous