More than 77,000 NSW high school students will sit their first HSC exams this week as one of the final cohorts to sit the test before the NSW government enacts sweeping reforms across the state.

From 10am on Thursday, thousands of students will simultaneously pile into school halls, classrooms and exam centres for the only compulsory exam of the HSC, English.

Among them will be 17-year-old Matthew Wilson who, between training for the trials of the World Short Course Swimming Championships, has managed to squeeze in five HSC exams.

Given the option by his parents of finishing up school early and concentrating on his 50,100, 200 breaststroke and 100 freestyle, Matthew threw it right back at them.

“I am not a quitter,” he said.

In April, Matthew was the fifth fastest 200-metre breaststroker in the world.

Over the next month, in every week he will miss just one of his twice-daily training sessions for a bit of extra study, while using his travel time between the pool and home to cram – on top of normal school hours.

“Swimming is kind of my free time, I just ponder about everything and have a song going on in my head,” he said.

His final exam, Food Technology, will take place the afternoon before his first trial in a temporary exam room next to the meet. He hopes it will be his last before he takes up a Bachelor of Exercise Science next year.

“I’m not worried at the moment, but that can change in an instant. I’ve done exams in similar conditions before, without a lot of preparation. I’ve coped all right.”

It is a feeling many of his fellow students know well.

But students will soon experience that feeling from a younger age as the NSW government institutes education reforms for the next wave of HSC candidates.

From next year, year 9 students sitting NAPLAN will be assessed on their ability to pass their HSC three years down the track.

The mandatory test will see students have to pass the third-highest level of NAPLAN literacy and numeracy in order to be eligible for their HSC. The move has drawn criticism for heaping pressure on students as young as 14.

“We don’t want the HSC to be just a ribbon for turning up, it’s actually got to have meaning,” NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli warned in July.

Students who fail to reach the minimum standard by year 9 – estimated to be up to 50 per cent of the cohort – will have repeated opportunities to pass until they finish their HSC, or for up to five years after they finish school.

That year 9 group, which will complete the HSC in 2020, will also be one of the targets of the government’s continued crackdown on cheating after offences climbed by 8 per cent last year.

Take-home tasks, completed before the final exams, continue to record the highest levels of plagiarism, fuelled by the rise of online essay-writing services and the increasingly sophisticated methods of transferring essays between students.

The new regulations will limit the ability of students to pre-prepare or buy responses through a reduction in the number of take-home and in-school assessments to four per year while increasing emphasis on analysis and presentations. The HSC exams will finish on November 4.