On March 23 2019 Connor Meldrum’s life changed forever and he has spent much of the last two years trying to regain normality – that is, as much normality as you can with only half a skull.
Connor fell from a cliff face at Cape Byron in 2019 when he was 15, and from being airlifted to the Gold Coast University Hospital where he had surgery for a serious brain injury, then going into and coming out of coma, rehab at Queensland’s Children’s Hospital and having a plate inserted in his skull, Connor was able to go back to school at Trinity Catholic College part-time just three and a half months later, and in those weeks until the end of the school year, he had to relearn how to read, speak and walk.
Top eight of his class in 2020′
Things went well in 2020 and Connor finished year 11 in the top eight of his class – a testament to his self-motivation, willpower, bloody determination and intelligence. He was on track to do well as part of the 2021 cohort of HSC students at the school when before the year began, he developed an infection and the plate in his head had to be removed.
Connor rallied enough to get back to class not long after term one started but he was only up for three subjects with a regime of 24hr IV antibiotics for three months. This would make him two subjects shy of the HSC requirement.
There is nothing more that Connor wants than to finish his HSC this year, but try as they might, Connor and his family and friends are not having any luck with the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA).
NESA says ‘no’
NESA, according to their website, are ‘an independent statutory authority reporting to an independent Board and the NSW Minister for Education and Early Childhood Learning. Making sure all children and young people in NSW leave school ready to take advantage of life’s opportunities, as well as to rise to its inevitable challenges, is at the heart of what we do.’
Yet, helping Connor take advantage of his life’s opportunities and helping him rise to his life’s challenges, doesn’t appear to be at the heart of what they are doing for him, say his family.
A letter from NESA’s CEO Paul Martin to Connor’s parents says that ‘NESA’s illness/misadventure program is available to students when a recent, emergent and unforeseen event, including illness or accident, affects their HSC exam performance. Students cannot apply for illness/misadventure in advance, as the program explicitly excludes long-term injury or illness unless a recurrence during or immediately before the exam period affects a student’s exam performance.
What that boils down to is that Connor’s illness is chronic, therefore he doesn’t qualify for any dispensation, no matter how ill he is and no matter what he has achieved so far.
Against all odds
Connor came back literally against all odds to be one of the top students in his year, his track record is clear and concise, yet NESA doesn’t think he should be given any special treatment, even though they have the power to extrapolate the capability he has shown in his work to date, work that he completed under extremely trying conditions, to allow him to gain his HSC.
Connor says that everyone at the school has been very supportive, to the point of starting a petition to NESA that got over 2,000 signatures on the first day. ‘I’m so grateful to my friends who started a petition, all of the Year 12 at Trinity, and everyone else who has signed this in support of me getting the HSC this year. It makes me feel like people understand and there is hope.’
Parents struggling to understand the system
Having come close to losing their precious boy, Connor’s parents are struggling to understand a system that appears to be working against their son.
‘This is a classic example of where individual circumstances are sacrificed for rigid adherence to a general principle,’ says his father David. ‘Instead, there has to be an acceptance that sometimes extraordinary circumstances require an individual approach.’
Connor’s mum Kim says there isn’t a single person she has spoken to who supports NESA’s position on this, other than the staff at NESA. ‘Even if there were a note on the HSC Certificate that Connor’s results had been extrapolated for two subjects due to a life-threatening condition in year 12, we’d be happy with that. We’re not asking for anything unreasonable here – just for fairness in what are extreme and very challenging circumstances.’
For Connor, this is not about skipping ahead. Having to complete his HSC next year means having to struggle on without the people he has spent that last six years with to support him.
But it’s about more than even that – it’s about having another year of HSC looming and all of the stress that goes with that level of study, and it’s about having a rest from the turmoil and taking a gap year to regroup and work out how he can move forward into adulthood.
With the tenuous grasp he has on good health, having another year of the HSC is more than a boy approaching manhood should have hanging over his head.
‘Finishing this year with my friends is the most important thing to me at the moment,’ says Connor. ‘I’m facing another brain surgery in the next few months and I just don’t understand why NESA doesn’t have a system for dealing with students who have life-threatening illnesses in their final year, instead of punishing them by making them do the HSC over two to five years.
‘It’s not like we chose this – we have just been victims of very, very bad luck!’
If you would like to add your voice to the petition, visit: me.getup.org.au/petitions/hsc-for-connor-meldrum-2021.