The coming exam period is crucial for year 12 students. Meet the six teens whose trials and tribulations we'll be following until next year.
'PROCRASTINATION is the thief of time. Collar him!'' Mr Micawber urges in David Copperfield, a Charles Dickens novel that has graced many a VCE literature text list. The hapless Mr Micawber admits he has never taken his own advice himself, hence, ''the miserable wretch you behold''. He's not alone. Procrastination, it seems, is the bane of a year 12 student's life.
''Procrastination is a big problem for many people I know, including myself,'' says Clara Haberberger, who is doing VCE at Glen Waverley Secondary College. Clara has found herself revisiting favourite childhood novels, the literary equivalent of comfort food, as the clock ticks down to exams. ''Anne of Green Gables, I love that series,'' she says ruefully. ''There are 10 books, so it keeps you going.'' The hardest part of exam preparation, Clara says, is putting your head down. ''Once you start studying, it's pretty easy to keep going.''
Hashela Kumarawansa, a VCE student at Keilor Downs College, also names procrastination as her bete noire. ''The hardest part of the year has probably been balancing school and everything else and studying,'' Hashela says. ''I tend to - as most kids do - procrastinate. That's been really hard, knowing that exams are really close by, just to buckle down and study.''
The final countdown has begun. Year 12 students across Victoria are attending their last classes. They are planning muck-up days and eagerly anticipating valedictory dinners. Some are poised to enter the workforce or go on to TAFE. Others are bracing for exams that are terrifyingly near. As they enter this crossroad in their lives, six students have agreed to share their experiences of school, their exams and their dreams in The Age multimedia series The Year 12 Club.
They attend different schools, both state and private, and are completing different senior secondary qualifications. Two are studying the Victorian Certificate of Education or VCE, as it is better known. Another two are doing the vocational alternative, the Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning. The remaining two have chosen the International Baccalaureate diploma, recognised by more than 4000 universities worldwide. They may not be aware of it, but all of them, as they juggle busy lives and competing demands, are trying to heed the advice of Mr Micawber: ''Never do tomorrow what you can do today.''
With his scruffy hair and Penguin-classic copy of A Clockwork Orange, VCAL student Pat Zielonka looks more like a university arts student than a tree specialist. But Pat has been adamant he wants to be an arboriculturist since he cleared the branches of an oak tree in his grandpa's backyard in year six. ''I just grew a knack for it, it became something I really wanted to do.''
This year Pat did a school-based apprenticeship at Sandringham College, dividing his time between school, TAFE and his job with Axetion Tree and Stump Removal. ''I chose VCAL because it was just simply the best option,'' Pat says. ''I knew it was pretty much a direct pathway to go straight into a trade and that's just always been what I wanted to do. It [VCAL] has definitely been one of the best things that's ever happened to me; it's been everything I wanted it to be.''
VCAL has been offered in Victoria since 2003 as an alternative to VCE for students who wish to complete apprenticeships, work or attend TAFE rather than go to university. The rise in student numbers has caused most of Victoria's growth in year 12 retention rates over the past five years, according to the government's On Track data, which charts the study and work choices of school-leavers. The program continues to grow in popularity - 16,691 students were enrolled in 2011-2012, according to the education department's yearly repor, significantly more than the target of 14,000.
But despite its success in keeping students at school, the government last year announced $48 million would be cut from the program in co-ordination funding over four years. Victorian Association of State Secondary Principals president Frank Sal says a recent survey showed schools were making cuts in other areas to continue offering VCAL.
''A lot of kids aren't suited to VCE,'' he says. ''VCAL provides them with hands-on experience that will direct them down a pathway to a future instead of an academic VCE that may just mean they waste a year.''
Narre Warren South College champions VCE and VCAL as equally viable options. It's a philosophy that assistant principal Rob Duncan has described as ''horses for courses''; an acknowledgement every student is different. The school has two halls of fame - one for VCAL state award winners and one for VCE students who scored more than 90.
Phillip Kareroa, one of three VCAL school captains, says the school makes sure neither qualification is favoured. ''I guess the reason I chose VCAL is that growing up I was never the type of person to just listen to someone talk and take the instruction in. I'm the type of person, you have to give me something, I have to use my hands and then I understand how to do stuff. VCAL … offers that practical side of things.''
Phillip has worked at the City of Casey and studied business administration and events management at TAFE as part of VCAL. Next year he's planning to do a certificate four in youth work at TAFE. Ideally, his future involves some combination of the three, maybe organising youth events such as drug and alcohol-free concerts.
''I want to promote that life is good and no matter what happens, you can always change the future.''
The prestigious International Baccalaureate diploma is more popular in Victoria than any other state, with nearly 1500 students enrolled in year 11 and 12 this year. The International Baccalaureate Organisation was founded in Switzerland in 1968 to provide schools with an internationally recognised qualification. The academically lauded diploma enables students to go on to study anywhere in the world, including Harvard, Oxford and Yale.
It is at present only available at 16 independent schools in Victoria, although next year Werribee Secondary College will become the first state school to offer it. Melbourne High School is also seeking authorisation to implement the program. Like VCE, the IB diploma takes two years to complete. Students are required to study six subjects, including a second language, undertake community work and complete a 4000-word research essay.
''I think the main difference between IB and VCE is that IB goes into much more depth, especially in the sciences,'' says Daniel Schulz, who is doing IB at Tintern Schools.
''There is a common misconception, it might just be at my school, that if you do IB you are going to get a better score, which just isn't true. You'll get the same score regardless of whether you do IB or VCE, it depends how much work you do.''
Daniel, who hopes to study engineering at the University of Melbourne next year, is interested in a job in mechatronics, a combination of mechanical, software and electronic engineering. ''You have them all together to make something really cool, like a 3D printer for example.''
Students doing IB choose the subject they wish to research for their 4000-word extended essay. So it is a remarkable coincidence that both Daniel and Presbyterian Ladies College IB student Miranda Zhang examined how online shopping has affected bricks and mortar stores.
''I chose that because it really, really interested me in how a store worked in comparison to online stores, since there is such a high prevalence of that in today's economy,'' Daniel says.
Finishing the essay was one of the academic highlights of his year. ''It took so long to actually get something done and dusted and proofread and corrected. You have many drafts. Once I handed that in, you sort of feel like you've accomplished something.''
Miranda, a school captain at PLC, was also attracted to the non-academic components of the IB diploma. Students are required to complete about 150 hours of community service and physical and creative activities. Miranda performed in the comic opera The Mikado and the PLC choir, took piano lessons and was a member of the debating team. She also did aerobics, played tennis and volleyball and helped out in her local Salvos store.
''It really helped me to not just have my head in books the whole time. It is really easy in year 12 especially to just focus on your studies but with this being a component of the IB you really need to … get involved in the community and make sure you take care of your health and do things like sport and also challenge yourself with creative activities.''
While enrolments in VCAL and IB are increasing, most Victorian students still do VCE, with 50,874 eligible to graduate this year.
''There's never really been any other option for me, it's always just been VCE from a young age,'' says Hashela, who hopes to study journalism next year at RMIT. She'd love to become a TV news anchor, ideally working somewhere ''mainstream'' such as Channel Ten.
Hashela is studying English and further maths - the two most popular VCE subjects - along with Japanese and literature. She is dreading the literature exam, which asks students to analyse texts. ''I had a trial exam and I wasn't able to finish both my exams under the two-hour time constraints. I'm really worried about that at the moment.''
Clara Haberberger has done three foreign languages in VCE and dreams of becoming an interpreter for the UN. She hopes do a bachelor of liberal arts and sciences next year at Leiden University College in The Hague. ''It's pretty much exactly what I want to do and if I get in I will be surrounded by like-minded students and professors.''
The application is as important as her VCE: a political essay, a letter of motivation, a CV and two letters of recommendation. Clara has written about why revolution is important; a topic more difficult than some of the options, but one that allows her to expand on her thoughts and philosophical fears. ''[The Leiden University College] don't actually request a specific [VCE] score, which is good, it takes a bit of the pressure off.''
Clara doesn't skip a beat when asked to name a highlight of VCE: ''The exact moment when a SAC (school assessed coursework) is over.'' But there have been many others: editing the school magazine, the upcoming valedictory dinner, her ''amazing'' French teacher, 18th birthday parties, the sports carnival.
''You don't end up just coming [to the sports carnival] dressed in house colours, you get into costume,'' Clara says. ''You don't do 100-metre sprints, you do 100-metre cartwheels because nothing matters any more. It's an exciting year. VCE is a bit of a roller-coaster ride.''
■ The Age will speak to the students as they sit their exams, receive their results and decide their futures.