Opinion: "We need to stop telling kids their Year 12 mark is worthless."


Come this time of year you can generally expect a whole heap of HSC bashing dominating the media, your social media feeds and broader discussion. The debates against are well-rehearsed, and to be perfectly honest, old.

I remember them from when I was doing my year 12 exams almost 20 years ago. You know the drill: it’s too stressful, arbitrary, too much focus is put on it, no-one will ever ask you your ATAR ever again, and of course, how can we possibly expect a 17 or 18-year-old to make a decision about their career path?

Out come the standard articles and tweets: I did poorly on my HSC and now I’m a CEO, and of course, I’m a CEO and I’ve never asked my tens of hundreds of employees their HSC mark, and lastly, Why can’t we let kids be kids?

WATCH: Mia Freedman discuss how there is life after your Year 12 exams. Post continues below.

Video via Mamamia

Don’t get me wrong: they are all very valid points, albeit tired ones.

I don’t disagree with them, but I do think they need a refresh. I also think the old system needs an advocate. Because as much as there are a lot of things wrong about the HSC, there are also a lot of things right about it that rarely get surfaced. There are a lot of empowering and inspiring things about the HSC that never get acknowledged.


When I was 17-years-old, I was a weird teen from the Shire. My parents were Italian migrants, we didn’t speak English at home and my dad was a radical (the kind of person we would now title “woke”, but back then was just a strange Italian man who preached socialism and wore the same uniform every day in rebellion against capitalism).

I liked writing, I wasn’t good at sports and I was kind of obnoxious. They weren’t winning qualities. No one was waging on me to succeed. Absolutely nobody. Not my friends, or teachers, or even my family.

I wasn’t taking the classic subjects that were associated with high scores, like maths and physics, I didn’t have any connections, and I was surrounded by people who had a narrative which was out of step with the times.

But the one thing I did have: I was driven. I knew no matter how many times I was knocked down, I just needed to keep getting up. It’s kind of a migrant mentality.

My parents came to Australia in the 60s, they didn’t speak a word of English, my mum had never left her home town in Italy, and never even been on a train, let alone a plane. They didn’t finish high school – not because they weren’t clever, but because they were living in post-war Italy, which was in the depths of a depression: they were expected to work… when they were 14-years-old.

My parents were (and are) resilient, and that’s what they instilled in their three daughters: resilience; discipline; never give up.

I still remember the day the HSC marks were delivered, because my principal called me in the morning to check my results. It was kind of a shock because I’d probably had two interactions with her prior to that phone call (I was really not the type of kid that was on the student council, or helped out at bake sales or whatever “connected” and “networked” kids did).


Back in the day principals could see what percentage band you had scored in every subject, and mine were all in the ninetieth percentile. It was kind of a shock because my estimate was a lot lower. Turns out my UAI (ancient version of the ATAR) was high.

I recall every single detail about that day because it was unique in the course of the thousands of other “everydays” which crowd your life. It was the day that I realised I could do anything.

The day I realised that despite being kind of disenfranchised, weird, out-of-step, angry and all the rest of it, that if I applied myself I could make things happen. That singular HSC moment set me up. From then on every time I felt like something was too hard, or I just couldn’t do it, I knew instinctively that I could – because I’d done it before.

I knew that I just had to keep getting up earlier, I had to write that chapter, I had to run the next lap, and if I applied myself it would likely turn out.

Listen to Mamamia’s parenting podcast, This Glorious Mess, where host Andrew Daddo shares his tips for guiding a teenager through their Year 12 exams. Post continues below.

Dr Carol Dweck, a Professor of Psychology at Stanford University coined the term: “growth mindset”. It’s the idea that you can develop your abilities through practice, hard work, dedication and motivation.

In contrast, a “fixed mindset” is the notion that you’re either born with it, or you’re not. What we should be instilling in our kids, the next generation, is a growth mindset. People with growth mindsets are motivated to succeed, they learn from their mistakes, they meet challenges head-on, they learn more and faster. They don’t give up.


So, I think we should stop saying to kids that their ATAR is worthless. Yeah, I get it, it’s an arbitrary number, it doesn’t mean anything. But if we were to peel everything back we could say the same about everything in life. The thing it is though, is a milestone. One that teaches you resilience and discipline.

Of course, don’t take it out of context and go nuts – everything needs its own perspective. But remember what a privilege it is to study and to have the opportunity, because there are so many people in the world, and even in our country that aren’t afforded the same circumstances or opportunities.

My parents always said to me, “no one can take your education away from you” – and they’re wise words coming from people who simply didn’t get a chance.

D-day is December 13 for students who sat the HSC in 2019, and I have faith in this generation. A lot of people do. They’re a generation of people who know they can change the world.

They know their minds. Maybe we should stop pretending that we do, or that they’re not resilient enough to face what’s ahead, or understand and cope with something like the HSC.

Because they can.

Lisa Portolan is an author from Sydney. Her most recent book, Happy As, was released in 2018 (Echo, Melbourne). She has a BA Communications / International Studies (UTS), Masters of International Studies and is a PhD candidate at Western Sydney University examining dating apps and their impact on modern-day intimacy. 

Feature image: Getty.

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