Access to quality education facilities is a main consideration for people looking at emigrating to Australia. If you’re taking your kids out of their school to move, you need to know their education and their future is safe in your new country.
The good news first: Australia’s education system consistently scores among the top 10 worldwide in the OECD’s Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) rankings, and comes first for egalitarianism: background counts for less in Australian schools.
Three Types of Schools
Australia has three types of schools: Government, Catholic and Independent. In Australia, school can start when a child turns five years old on a certain date – the date varies depending on the state or territory you live in. All across the country, though, children have to be in school by the age of six. When a child’s birthday falls midyear, the typical choice is to hold that child back a year rather than pushing them forward a year, but it is sometimes possible to get a child put forward a year based on academic achievement: this is at the headteacher’s discretion, but it’s worth talking about if it’s what you want.
The school system consists of Primary School and High School. Students attend primary school from five or six until 11, and then attend high school until Year 12 (18 years old). In many states, students can leave high school in Year 10 with a Junior High School certificate – not a full High School graduation certificate. They can then decide to stay on for a full High School certificate, attend vocational training, sign on as apprentices or look for jobs.
Australia is working on implementing a National Curriculum, but the education system is currently administered at the state or territorial level. Depending on state or territory, a full high school certificate is called a High School Certificate/HSC (New South Wales), a Victorian Certificate of Education/VCE (Victoria), a High School Certificate/HSC (Australian Capital Territory), a Northern Territory Certificate of Education (Northern Territory), a Queensland Certificate of Education/QCE (Queensland), a South Australian Certificate of Education (South Australia), a Tasmanian Certificate of Education/TCE (Tasmania), or a Western Australian Certificate of Education/WACE (Western Australia). These are all broadly equivalent and all function as gateway qualifications to Australian universities. The Australian qualifications framework is explained in detail here.
In Australia the school year starts in January and ends in December, and there are four terms with breaks of two to three weeks, and a longer summer break of six to eight weeks over December (remember, the ‘winter months’ are in Australia’s summer because it’s in the southern hemisphere).
Uniforms, Lunches and Fees
The majority of Australian schools require a uniform and don’t provide lunches. It’s typical to take a lunch to school with you as well as a snack for morning recess, though schools increasingly have canteen facilities staffed by parents on a voluntary basis.
It’s important to consider costs. While government schools are technically free, many will solicit a donation from parents which is technically voluntary and is usually about $70-300 a year for primary school and $250 – $800 for high school.
Additionally, overseas students are often required to pay a premium for their education in Australia, and this applies even to public, non-fee-paying schools. Fees and exemptions vary from state to state, and they are quite significant: in New South Wales, fees are $4, 500 a year until the last years of school, when they rise to $5, 500; some holders of 457 visas are exempt. In ACT the fees are $9, 320 a year for primary school and more for secondary school, and Northern Territory schools are nearly as expensive at $8, 000 a year, though here, holders of several kinds of skilled migrant visas are exempt. In Tasmania, the premiums are about $5, 000 a year, with exemptions for holders of 457 and 574 visas. However, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia don’t charge additional fees for overseas students.
Private school fees are also considerable, with private nurseries typically beginning at $2, 000, and some independent private schools charging up to $35, 000 a year. There’s also the probability that students who aren’t residents may face additional fees here too.
When you’re shopping for a uniform, you can expect to find that private schools have very precise and often expensive uniforms, so that a full set can cost $800 or more. Most secondary schools have second-hand departments where you can buy items of uniforms much cheaper: far from having a stigma attached to it, this is the norm and is considered to be an act of support for the school by parents.
Sport in Schools
Australian schools are typically very sport-positive. In most private schools sport is compulsory for boys and strongly encouraged for girls, and government schools usually emphasize competitive sport too. The school age social scene is often very sport-centred, with many children finding an ‘in’ to their new community by way of organized sporting teams; unsurprisingly in a country that sometimes seems to live on the beach, swimming is also emphasised and many parents enrol their children in swimming classes; sometimes these are provided by the school.
Educational provision for blind or deaf students is usually via specialist schools, though there is support in mainstream education, depending on circumstances. For students with mental or physical special needs there are specialist schools available, and support is also available in mainstream education, which falls under the control of the principal of that school. Like regular schooling, special provision or specialist schools are provided by states or territories, and you should look up the state or territory that you’re moving to for more details.
About 15% of Australian pupils attend independent schools, and these sometimes have boarding facilities. They span a broad range, sometimes having links with churches and others being founded on alternative educational philosophies such as those of Rudolph Steiner. There are national schools, like the French and German Schools in Sydney, popular with expatriates, and some independent schools offer the International Baccalaureate, which is considered desirable because of its portability and international currency, especially in Europe where it is increasingly the norm.
Australia’s third category of schools, Catholic schools, often have a good scholastic reputation and aren’t exclusive – you don’t have to be Catholic to attend them – but they usually express a strong religious ethos. They’re often popular with expatriates because they charge lower fees than even government schools to overseas students. They will take Catholic students as a priority, treat parish zones as catchment areas and often will require a baptism certificate, so consider these factors when you’re making your choice.
University education in Australia is administered at the state level and typically universities are located in major cities. For example, the University of Adelaide shares South Australia with Flinders University, Carnegie Mellon University, University College London, and the University of South Australia. A full directory of Australian universities can be found here.