General education

High school leavers need to be armed with more than just a ranking

Michelle Zahra / 14 December 2023

Last week we took a magnifying glass to the performance of Australian 15-year-olds against their international peers with the release of the OECD-run Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results.
This week, Australian students will receive their Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR) which will be the culmination of years of hard work and determination. The successful completion of high school is a significant milestone for these young people and also for their support networks - parents, teachers and school communities.
Accordingly, the news is already awash with stories celebrating and elevating the top performing students - those with the elusive 99.95 ranking that will open any door to any university course around the country. We’ll also look back at the top performing students of yesteryear, to see where they are now.
While we absolutely celebrate in those successes, I’d like to pause for a moment and recognise all students who have learned lessons, overcome challenges, achieved personal growth and are ready for their next chapter. The young people who are prepared for the world, equipped with the skills to thrive as curious learners, creative and critical thinkers, and our future leaders.
Those attributes can’t be measured by an ATAR, and yet it is the standard to which our young people are held. Is a ranking the ultimate end game and an appropriate reflection of 13 years of formative school life?
What if we shifted our thinking towards how to best prepare young people for life after school and careers of the future? What’s the measure we put on that?  
Evidence shows that bringing the outside world of work into the classroom, and doing this early and at every stage of their education can play a tremendous role in preparing young people for their futures.
Australian governments recognise that developing stronger partnerships between schools and businesses are pivotal to each Australian young person pursuing, and fulfilling, productive and responsible lives.
A consistent finding from the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) is that working together benefits students by providing inspiration, confidence, learning and networks. Benefits can also extend to families, educators, employers and employees, and governments.
The old school view was that schools and business were separate. Students would leave the high school grounds for a week in year 10 and go into a business to conduct work experience. More often than not, it involved photocopying and filing. That world of work experience is outdated. What is needed in its place, and what has proven to be most effective, is purposeful partnerships between schools and businesses to provide real world learning opportunities.
By bringing the real world of work into the classroom, it provides students with the opportunity to see a range of career options to which they may never have otherwise been exposed. Meaning they can make more informed decisions about their pathways after high school, and be better prepared.
An example of this in practice is the partnership that Origin Energy has developed with Rooty Hill High School over the past five years. The Explorers Day, co-designed by the school and one of the nation’s largest energy companies, has provided Year 8 students with access to a range of hands-on workshops in various job clusters run by industry professionals working across various fields. It is designed to help inform students’ choice as they select their Year 9 electives.
The result has been students becoming more aware of different career pathways, with students choosing a broader spread of Year 9 electives, and swapping subjects less. Origin’s volunteer workforce meanwhile benefits from connecting with students and teachers where they are challenged by new thinking and develop skills that are relevant for their roles in the business.
Despite the importance of education and business sectors working together being high on the national agenda for the last 30 years, there have remained significant barriers to embedding this practice more broadly. One significant challenge has been that both schools and businesses are time poor, and lack the tools and resources to help guide this activity and make it easier.
The Origin Energy Foundation believes in the power of education to help create better lives for young Australians, and has worked in collaboration with our partners in the education sector to tackle this problem with the development of Purposeful Partnering – an online resource to support schools and business on how to work together towards improved outcomes for young people.
It is our hope that as more school and business leaders embark on developing partnerships, we will see improved outcomes for young people and our community.
It’s time to recognise there is more than one impactful way to measure success and help prepare young people for life after school, and to become our leaders of tomorrow.

Michelle Zahra is Head of the Origin Energy Foundation

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