By James Maasdorp.
Year 12 is the metaphorical mountain put in front of every school kid when they enter the schooling system.
Many attempt to scale the peak. Some pass, some flourish, some drop out. Others exit the system earlier to pursue other paths.
Regardless, year 12 has long been placed on a pedestal as the gateway to tertiary education and the promises of careers and development that go with it.
But is year 12 worth all the stress that comes with exams, family pressures and heavy workloads? And does it prepare you for the ‘real world’?
In 2016, 14 students around Australia self-documented their entire final year in high school for the ABC series My Year 12 Life through daily video diaries.
Six of the participants share their thoughts on whether year 12 was worth all the hassle.
‘The worst year of my life’
Zoe Mallett endured a difficult final year in her all-girls public high school in Victoria, working hard for good marks but battling a complicated family situation and an on-again off-again relationship.
She got through year 12, but the experience was taxing.
“I honestly am not sure if it was worth it,” she says.
“On one hand it was worth it, because I came out the other side and I’m a lot stronger and a lot wiser and I know myself a lot better, and I did get good marks. It’s not like anything went to waste.
“But on the other hand, I struggled a lot mentally, and it was the worst year of my life.
“On that side of things, I think is it really worth it, to go through that much stress?”
Zoe says she “thought she had her shit together” in the lead-up to her final year, but the stress of school manifested itself in other ways, exaggerating her anxiety and making her question herself.
“I think that was a trigger for me to develop anxiety a lot. A lot of it stems from protection and control, and because with my family being separated, that’s just one element of my life I don’t have control over,” she says.
“That definitely elevated and exaggerated my anxiety. It put pressure on me to take control and be perfect in other aspects of my life.”
Pressures, stresses were worth it
Ben Kenworthy, a self-proclaimed class clown who attended a Victorian all-boys Catholic high school, had an entirely different experience.
“Definitely worth it, it was a terrific year. All the pressures, stresses, exams and tests, they were all definitely worthwhile, without a doubt,” he says.
“Just being around your good mates, just all day, five days a week … that’s something special. Just to be around friends and mates most days is pretty special.”
Ben took the importance placed on year 12 to mean he had a licence to go easy in the earlier years, with the plan always being to flick the switch for year 12, having watched his three older siblings experience it before him.
“I didn’t really find it too stressful because I try not to stress. I see it as something bad,” Ben says.
“Obviously there’s times you don’t feel great or feel a bit anxious, but I tried my best not to stress and keep a cool head, so I was pretty good on the whole.
“I remember a few people would come to you saying ‘year 12 is the best year of your life’. So I went into it at the start of the year with that in mind.
“Looking back, for sure, it was one of the best years of my life.”
‘I don’t want this number to define who I am’
For Eden Wallis, who faced a daily commute to school from NSW’s Sutherland Shire before working long shifts into the night, year 12 was uniquely difficult.
“I’m dyslexic. I don’t believe in myself. I feel relieved now that I’ve left school because I’m not measured on these marks,” she says.
“I’m measured on who I am as a person, what conversation I can talk to people about, how I come across to people.
“There’s a lot that I do know, it’s just that I can’t put it on paper. I need to express myself in other ways.
“Unfortunately, that’s just how the education system is. Having something written down determines if you’re bright, or not as bright.”
Eden, who sees herself as more of a creative person than an academic, says the ‘year 12 experience’ tends to shoehorn people into being something they’re not.
“I don’t understand why people who have never been good at English and maths are suddenly meant to be getting 99.95 in their ATARs,” she says.
“People who’ve never been good at certain subjects, why are they all of a sudden expected to be getting ridiculous marks?
“It’s sad that that’s the only way that people are measured against, their [academic] intelligence. I feel it now when people ask me what I got, and I don’t tell anyone. I don’t want this number to define who I am.”
‘The stepping stone for stress’
Angela Zhang knew all about parental pressure to perform at school, all while juggling commitments to taekwondo, where she competes at a national and international level.
“I think year 12 is the stepping stone for stress, considering I’ll be studying in uni for a couple of years. In university, the stress is going to be even worse,” she says.
“The stress does double in year 12, but at the same time, it’s a gateway to all that stress. Which isn’t a good thing, but I think there are some people who need to experience that first-hand for later on in life.”
But did year 12 itself prepare Angela for her life outside of school?
“To be honest, I don’t think it prepared me for real life, I think my parents prepared me better on that,” she says.
“We never learned anything in year 12 that’s going to help me when I’m 30. I doubt I’m going to need trigonometry when I’m 30 to do my mortgage.”
Students locked down by ATAR
What about students who didn’t go through the ATAR system?
Tom Forrest, who went through a number of high schools in Western Australia before finishing year 12 in the Kimberley town of Kununurra, was a non-ATAR student who feels ready to tackle the world outside of school despite not going down the academic road.
“I feel like I’m pretty ready. I’ve been living out of home since I was 16. As soon as I moved out of home, it was straight into what people call ‘the real world’,” he says.
“You’re paying your rent, your bills, and you have to work if you want to live and survive, and I was going to school. Adults don’t go to school and work [at the same time].”
“I can go out, live on my own, and work.”
Tom Forrest moved closer to his family in the Kimberley midway through year 11 after an isolating experience in a Perth high school.
He felt more connected with his community in the town of about 7,500 people, and while he still felt pressure just to pass year 12 — he’s the first person in his extended family to even attempt the final year — he felt his approach to school was far more beneficial than his more academic fellow students.
“ATAR students definitely put themselves under way too much pressure,” he says.
“I did understand it, they’re aiming for a goal, but I’d ask them ‘what are you doing this weekend?’ ‘Oh, study, all weekend. I’ve got this much homework to do’.
“My weekend would be hanging out with the mob Friday and Saturday night, go to the waterfalls, take photos, have a barbecue, go out on the boat, go wakeboarding.
“I got to do stuff that made really good memories and I had heaps of fun doing that.
“And all these ATAR students are locked down, doing homework. Some of them are getting anxiety, and I think that’s because of ATAR. It’s just full-on study and they’re getting stressed from it.
“It’s crazy, they finish school, go home and study. That’s not really a life.”
‘There are other pathways out there’
Budding footballer Tom Paidoussis made the decision in year seven to prioritise sport over school in an effort to one day be drafted into the AFL, yet still made time to make sure his grades were up to scratch.
He says while the private high school he attended “catered for everyone” and provided plenty of opportunities for its students, he thinks a number of private schools focus too much on achieving high ATAR scores.
“They sort of nail it that you need … a 95-ATAR, and they talk about 40-plus scores and high-achieving assemblies,” he says.
“But it’s just silly, because they don’t actually address that there are other pathways out there and there are different places to go.”
“At the end of the day, it’s just a number. It shouldn’t make a difference to your future at all and I don’t think they tell kids that enough.”
Tom Paidoussis says the myriad of options available to high-school graduates — and even those that drop out — makes the pressure put on year 12 students even stranger.
“Even if you get a 60-ATAR, you can still do something at uni and then transfer and make your way up, and eventually you’ll end up doing what you want. That’s why I think there’s way too much pressure put on kids doing year 12,” he says.
“It’s not worth it for that one number that you get through a text message or on a computer screen.
“Funnily enough, I think it’s worth being free and not having to worry about school ever again.”
My Year 12 Life will screen on ABC, ABC ME and ABC iview from February 20, with over 400 additional clips available across ABC ME’s digital platforms, iview, Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram.
This post originally appeared on ABC News.
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