What We Think We Know About Senior School Education Versus Reality

One of the big barriers schools face in partnering with parents is that parents went to school. I know that seems to make no sense but stay with me. Because everyone went to school, everyone thinks they know how schools work. Often they don’t. Times have changed and so has education. Also, when we were at school, we were on the other side of the teacher’s desk. We didn’t really have insight into the whys and wherefores.

One of the areas where this disconnect is most obvious is in senior school education. Since I left school there have been five different systems in place in Western Australia for high school graduation.

The latest manifestation of senior school is the division of courses into ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank), General (Courses that qualify for graduation but usually not direct university entrance) and VET (Vocational Education Training).

When we talk about this distinction, parents often jump back to what they know…TEE vs Non-TEE, or whatever there was in their time. With that comparison comes all the stereotypes and assumptions about those subjects in the 80s or 90s. The thing is, times have changed.

ATAR is similar to the old TEE, apart from the extension in the number and variety of courses available. It is the General learning paths that have completely changed and come of age. Regardless of the official titles, we used to call these subjects by a number of disparaging titles, like ‘vege subjects’ or ‘spud subjects’. Unfortunately, that stigma is difficult to remove.

The legal age for leaving school changed in all states of Australia between 2007 and 2010. It is now compulsory to stay at school until the completion of Year 12, for most students that is age 17 or 18. Consequently, we have a lot of terrific students who are at school but not planning on attending university immediately after Year 12. Previous to the change, these students went into apprenticeships or employment when they were eligible at age 15. Schools have had to adapt and offer challenging and meaningful alternatives. And we do.

Santa Maria College sets two priorities for students:

  1. Meeting the requirements of secondary education
  2. Sourcing the education and training that best serves the young person

VET Courses

The most notable change has been the development of VET courses. Included in this area are courses under the headings: Automotive, Business & Financial Services, Community Services & Health, Construction Industries, Creative Industries, Engineering, Hospitality & Tourism, Information & Communications Technology, Primary Industries and Sport & Recreation.

These courses can be delivered internally by the school or externally by a Registered Training Organisation that has been accredited by The Training Accreditation Council. This allows students an enormous array of opportunities to study exactly the courses that will take them where they want to go in post-school life.

It is important to note that these Certificate courses do not come for free. Some cost up to $6000. Generally, this price is paid by parents, not schools. However, at Santa Maria we have a philosophy that kids deserve equality of opportunity. A student in a VET course has as much right to resources as a student in any other class. We owe kids interesting and valuable learning experiences. So, Santa Maria pays the first $1500 of the first Certificate course. Santa Maria is the only school in WA that offers this funding.

Internally, in 2019, Santa Maria College will offer three certificate qualifications within existing courses. These include:

  • Certificate II in Outdoor Recreation, delivered within the Outdoor Education course
  • Certificate III in Business, delivered within the Business, Management and Enterprise course
  • Certificate III in Design Fundamentals delivered within the Design course

What does it look like?

If these students are being trained by off-site providers, what does their school life look like? Students experience a blend of school and post-school life which is a great transition for them. They have one or two days, depending on requirements, with the off-site provider and the remainder of the week in courses at school. Both learning contexts contribute to their secondary graduation.

Teachers and students work together to make sure students are able to balance the expectations of both institutions, and specialist Santa Maria Careers staff facilitate the arrangement. These Careers staff work very hard to ensure students are monitored and supported so that they receive maximum benefit from their special, and often unique, arrangements.

Head of Careers and VET is Marianne Hughes. She says, “Our primary goal is to source appropriate qualifications and training providers to ensure that all students are studying a qualification they are passionate about.“

And in the end? 

At the end of their senior school years, ACCESS students graduate with not only Western Australian Graduation, but also an Accredited Certificate. This gives them a remarkable head start in post-school life.

The stigma that exists for some parents around vocational pathways limits the opportunities of their children. Education is changing and there is so much on offer to meet the needs and interests of all kids. It’s our responsibility to keep an open mind and allow access to those opportunities.

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