The Daily Telegraph (Sydney) - - Saturday Extra -

The Higher School Cer­tifi­cate turns 50 on Mon­day when 70,000 can­di­dates tackle the first English pa­pers un­der the tight­est se­cu­rity ever and a crack­down on cheat­ing. Olympics mae­stro John Coates knew the value of the newly minted HSC when the class of 1967 sat for the very first ex­ams half-a-cen­tury ago.

Coates, now a high-rank­ing Olympic of­fi­cial who helped Syd­ney se­cure the 2000 Games, was des­per­ate to do a law de­gree at the Uni­ver­sity of Syd­ney but fell just short.

So the Home­bush Boys High School stu­dent re­peated the HSC, gain­ing four level one scores and a level two in Maths — enough to set him on a ca­reer in law and a path to be­com­ing one of the world’s most in­flu­en­tial sports ad­min­is­tra­tors.

“The new HSC meant school be­came six years in­stead of five … we were older and the teach­ers treated us as young adults,” Coates re­calls.

The “guinea pigs” of ’67 who broke new ground in the first HSC — and changed the ed­u­ca­tion land­scape in NSW — in­cluded many oth­ers who went on to be­come no­table Aus­tralians.

Among their num­ber were golf­ing great Jack New­ton, swim­ming gold medal­list Michael Wen­den, Chil­dren’s Court judge Peter John­stone, Aus­tralia’s first fed­eral race dis­crim­i­na­tion com­mis­sioner Irene Moss, Opera Aus­tralia artis­tic di­rec­tor Lyn­don Ter­racini and car­di­ol­o­gist Pro­fes­sor Terry Camp­bell. Also sit­ting that very first HSC was Ma­jor Gen­eral (Retd) Michael Smith who served in the Aus­tralian De­fence Force for 34 years and is the cur­rent pres­i­dent of the United Na­tions As­so­ci­a­tion of Aus­tralia. For Olympic swim­ming gold medal­list Wen­den and his school­mates the first HSC — fol­low­ing the land­mark Wyn­d­ham Re­port — was a jour­ney into the un­known. “It was tak­ing a cal­cu­lated risk be­cause no one was sure what (aca­demic) lev­els you would need,” he said. Irene Moss re­calls feel­ings of be­ing un­lucky be­cause the first HSC meant six years of high school “and we were all keen to get out into the world”. “It was also rather chal­leng­ing be­cause the teach­ers were often learn­ing the new cur­ric­ula along with the stu­dents and many of the text books were very late, es­pe­cially in science,” she says. “How­ever … the chaos was the best learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence we could have had be­cause it taught us all to cope for our­selves much ear­lier than would nor­mally have been the case. “The teach­ers worked very hard to make the HSC a suc­cess but the self-teach­ing skills which we stu­dents de­vel­oped as HSC guinea pigs have proven to be more valu­able to me than any text book could have been.” The HSC helped launch Lyn­don Ter­racini’s dis­tin­guished ca­reer in mu­sic. “In the con­fu­sion of the time I was the only kid in the school — Manly Boys High — who did mu­sic for the HSC,” he says. “It went well and was what I only ever wanted to do.” Since the class of ‘67 the HSC has evolved into a glob­ally recog­nised cre­den­tial stud­ied by more than 2.3 mil­lion stu­dents. It is still un­der­go­ing ma­jor changes that at­tract both ad­mir­ers and crit­ics. The bat­tle to­day is to pro­tect the HSC from scan­dal and glitches that un­der­mine its cred­i­bil­ity.

Se­cu­rity has come a long way since the days when an exam pa­per was stolen from the print­ers in the early 1980s, given to a ra­dio sta­tion and read out on air.

Now the pa­pers are pro­tected by guards and alarm sys­tems, stored in safes and can only be re­moved by au­tho­rised staff on the day of the exam.

Ex­am­in­ers are re­cal­i­brat­ing the for­mat and style of ques­tions to stamp out rote learn­ing and pre-pre­pared and mem­o­rised an­swers.

Breaches of rules and mal­prac­tice which have be­come more so­phis­ti­cated in the dig­i­tal age — in­clud­ing smug­gling in elec­tronic de­vices in­clud­ing smart watches — draw se­ri­ous penal­ties up to dis­qual­i­fi­ca­tion.

More than 600 stu­dents were found to have pla­gia­rised an as­sess­ment or cheated in an exam last year, data from the NSW Ed­u­ca­tion Stan­dards Au­thor­ity shows.

When the HSC was launched — re­plac­ing the old Leav­ing Cer­tifi­cate and ma­tric­u­la­tion sys­tem dat­ing back to the Vic­to­rian era — just 18,000 stu­dents were en­rolled in one or more sub­jects.

To­day, four times as many sit at least one of the ex­ams and the HSC is un­der­go­ing its big­gest over­haul in 17 years, in­clud­ing a new science ex­ten­sion course and fewer and fairer as­sess­ment tasks.

But the changes have at­tracted a storm of crit­i­cism amid claims that the English syl­labus has been wa­tered down.

The big­gest fight has been over the gov­ern­ment’s de­ci­sion to im­pose a re­quire­ment for stu­dents to reach bench­marks in read­ing, writ­ing and nu­mer­acy so the HSC can­not be just a “rib­bon for turn­ing up”.

The lat­est data from the Na­tional As­sess­ment Pro­gram — Lit­er­acy and Nu­mer­acy (NAPLAN) re­veals al­most 70 per cent will need to sit an ex­tra read­ing, writ­ing or nu­mer­acy test to be­come el­i­gi­ble for the HSC from 2020.

To be guar­an­teed of re­ceiv­ing the cre­den­tial, can­di­dates will have to score at least Band 8, the third high­est NAPLAN level for Year 9, in the core sub­jects.

Stu­dents who fall short of the bench­mark by the end of Year 12 will not re­ceive the HSC — in­stead, they will be awarded the Record of School Achieve­ment (ROSA).

The tough new rules fol­low plum­met­ing per­for­mances by Aus­tralian teenagers in crit­i­cal sub­jects such as read­ing, math­e­mat­ics and science.

A ma­jor re­port by the Aus­tralian Coun­cil for Ed­u­ca­tional Re­search (ACER) has found the de­clin­ing achieve­ment level is so se­ri­ous it could af­fect the na­tion’s abil­ity to com­pete glob­ally for the next 50 years.

The re­forms fol­low com­mu­nity feed­back — in­clud­ing par­ents and ed­u­ca­tors — about pre­par­ing stu­dents for 21st-cen­tury ca­reers.

They have been ap­plauded by busi­ness groups as a “vic­tory for young peo­ple and their em­ploy­a­bil­ity”.

But iron­i­cally, the most se­ri­ous at­tack on the HSC has come from West­ern Syd­ney Catholic ed­u­ca­tion boss Greg Whitby, the re­cip­i­ent of the pres­ti­gious Sir Harold Wyn­d­ham Medal this year for out­stand­ing con­tri­bu­tion to ed­u­ca­tion.

Mr Whitby, who leads 80 pri­mary and high schools in the Par­ra­matta ed­u­ca­tion dio­cese, de­scribes the HSC as a relic of the 1950s that no longer re­flects stu­dents’ needs and should be scrapped.

He be­lieves the HSC is rarely used to seek em­ploy­ment and fewer stu­dents are us­ing their ATAR (Aus­tralian Ter­tiary Ad­mis­sion Rank) to get into uni­ver­sity.

But Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter Rob Stokes says the HSC re­mains the “gold stan­dard of sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion in Aus­tralia”.

“I am proud to see some­thing that was first a the­o­ret­i­cal ex­er­cise flour­ish into one of the most highly recog­nised ed­u­ca­tional qual­i­fi­ca­tions on the planet,” Mr Stokes says.

“There is not a sin­gle top­tier uni­ver­sity in the world that doesn’t recog­nise the HSC as a com­pre­hen­sive en­try pre­req­ui­site.

“De­spite the evo­lu­tion of tech­nol­ogy, rev­o­lu­tion of teach­ing meth­ods and so­ci­ety’s mass cul­tural up­heaval, one thing about the HSC has al­ways re­mained con­stant: its core foun­da­tion in the pur­suit of knowl­edge.”

New English, Maths, Science and His­tory syl­labuses will come into force from 2019 but claims that English has been weak­ened have drawn a sharp re­sponse from NSW Ed­u­ca­tion Stan­dards Au­thor­ity chair­man Tom Ale­gounar­ias.

“You will not be able to com­plete the HSC with­out study­ing great lit­er­a­ture,” he says.

The num­ber of texts and choices has been re­duced to en­able stu­dents to study sub­jects in greater depth.

A re­newed em­pha­sis on Shake­speare has sparked de­bate across so­cial me­dia over the value of clas­si­cal lit­er­a­ture to stu­dents in the dig­i­tal age.

One critic put it this way: “Shake­speare, while bril­liant and cer­tainly worth study­ing, is not pre­par­ing kids for the mod­ern world.”

Irene Moss, from the HSC class of ’67.

Aus­tralian Olympic Com­mit­tee boss John Coates at his old school Home­bush Boys High School, with cur­rent stu­dents Karim Faour, Fawad Fa­heem, Ethan Tianh and Christo­pher Kadamani, and (right, from top) Michael Wen­den, Jack New­ton and Lyn­don Ter­racini. Main pic­ture: Richard Dob­son

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