In honor of Australia Day on January 26th, we decided to spotlight a homeschooler from “Down Under.” But first a little background information about the Australian school system. The Australian school year ties in with the calendar year – it starts in late January or early February and ends in December, just before Christmas. Since it’s summer in Australia when it’s winter in the northern hemisphere, that means Australian students enjoy five or six weeks of summer vacation at the same time they celebrate the holidays!
The Victorian Certificate of Education or VCE is the credential awarded to secondary school students who successfully complete high school level studies (Year 11 and 12 or equivalent) in the Australian state of Victoria. The Australian Tertiary Admission Rank or ATAR is kind of like our ACT and SAT scores. It’s the primary criterion for entry into most undergraduate university programs in Australia. These tests are given at the end of the year.
Stephen Zhang was in the news recently as the Australian student who had a perfect VCE result without ever setting foot in high school. Stephen’s ATAR was 99.95 – he scored an impressive 46 in English language, 48 in maths method, 47 in specialist maths, 50 in chemistry, and 48 in physics – “making him the new poster boy for homeschooling in Australia” according to The Age newspaper in Melbourne.
Stephen’s top marks were in line with students from elite Melbourne private schools, including Melbourne Girls’ Grammar School and Camberwell Grammar School. But Stephen’s only experience at a state school was in a rural Victorian primary school up to year 5. He remembers feeling isolated and lonely there being the only child of Asian descent. (Stephen’s parents moved to Australia from China, but he was born in Melbourne.)
Parents Joseph and Sarah decided to withdraw him from school at year 5 because they wanted to have a greater say in his education and also be a stronger voice in his life. “My parents chose to homeschool me because they valued the whole person instead of just academics, and they really wanted to instill moral values, character, integrity – which they considered more important than academic performance. They valued that more because it would set me up in life,” Stephen said.
Stephen added that homeschooling is better suited to his style of learning anyway, as compared to the traditional school model, since his homeschool studies could be personalized to his strengths and needs. His three younger siblings are also being homeschooled, including his 14-year-old brother who is studying science at Charles Sturt University via distance education. The family has an empty bedroom that they converted to a school room.
Stephen’s mother taught him until year 10, and then he completed his VCE through the Distance Education Centre Victoria. Stephen said that homeschooling was no easy break, because he would often sit at his desk and study for 8-12 hours a day in preparation for his final exams. Nevertheless, Stephen told the Daily Mail, “I found it [homeschooling] to be extremely beneficial and I don’t think I could get to where I am today without it.” He said, “I was very lucky to have a parent who was able to teach me at home.”
During the early years of being taught at home by his mother, Stephen said they both had to learn the transition from mother and child to a teacher and student relationship. “When we started homeschooling, my mum had to basically learn how to teach,” he said. “And being my mum she was quite strict,” Stephen laughed, “but my end of year results are really a testament to her and my father.”
Stephen’s test scores also secured him a choice of scholarships to study next year at Monash University, a leading research institution, or the University of Melbourne, home to one of the world’s top ten medical schools. Melbourne University is known to have the highest admission requirements in the country, with the median ATAR of its undergraduates being 94.05. Their scholarship offer includes $5000 a year in a stipend, fully fee-paid courses, and an overseas study trip. Stephen visited Melbourne University on VCE results day and says he is likely to accept that one since he wants to study medicine.