Every year at around the time of the Higher School Certificate (HSC) exams, the same messages appear. The HSC isn’t everything – don’t stress! One year the then NSW premier Mike Baird weighed in with, “Life isn’t defined by your exams. It begins after they have finished.”

I remember getting those messages when I did the HSC but they seemed hard to swallow at the time. I’d spent 13 years being told of the importance of school marks and HSC results. High achievers earned awards. The importance of ‘rankings’ put me in competition with my peers and I measured success in Band Sixes.

If we’re going to convince students not to stress too much about results we need to do more than tell them to relax.

If we’re going to convince students not to stress too much about results we need to do more than tell them to relax. Years of conditioning makes students believe the HSC and Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) scores have the power to determine their future. For some, the numbers can determine their self-worth.

What we need to do is explain the moral place of education in our lives and how the HSC sits in relation to it.

Why do we worry about academic achievement at all?

One reason is because we recognise knowledge and learning as being beneficial to society. Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull talks to anyone who will listen about the importance of an agile innovation economy. Such an economy relies on creative thinking and education.

Sadly, we live in a world where not every person can receive an education. Still, if we’re wise, we can make sure that every person can benefit from education. As French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote, “knowledge is power”.

Knowledge controlled by a privileged few is a recipe for dictatorship. Used wisely it can provide the power to make our imperfect world a little bit better.

We don’t just value knowledge because it’s useful. Not all learning leads to new inventions, helps the poor or changes the world. That doesn’t mean it’s pointless. Knowledge is ‘intrinsically good’. Learning for learning’s sake is a completely reasonable and very human activity.

Excelling in academic life also takes more than just knowledge or intellect. It requires a curious mind, perseverance and open-mindedness among other things.

In this sense, the HSC results do matter. They show the extent to which students have developed certain virtues of mind and character.

The HSC is an opportunity to reflect on the huge amount of knowledge gained over years of education … It does not predict the future.

What can this tell us about the HSC? A few things. First, the praise we heap on high achievers is not only about the number itself but about the virtues demonstrated in achieving the mark. These virtues aren’t unique to students who score high marks.

Some high-achieving students might be getting by on natural ability rather than any special virtue. This means the final result matters less than the way it was achieved.

Second, the HSC is an opportunity to reflect on the huge amount of knowledge gained over years of education. It’s a chance for students to be proud of what they’ve learned. But that’s all it is. The HSC tells students what they have learned up until this point. It does not predict the future.

Many people who have struggled with exams have flourished and many who have excelled in school have struggled in the real world. The markers of success in school, work and life cannot be fully represented in a single number – much less the worth or value of a person.

Finally, excellence in academic life takes more than individual virtue. It takes a decent slice of luck and help from others. Individual academic achievement is the product of collective effort. Teachers, parents, friends and factors beyond our control help determine both our success and our failure. This provides a dash of both perspective and humility.

HSC marks and ATAR scores try to represent a range of complex processes in a useful and efficient way. But it is those processes that really matter – not the final number itself.

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