Nicole Wernert
Sue Thomson
Australian Council for Educational Research

Overview of Education System

Australia does not have a single national education system; its individual states and territories are responsible for their own education administration, although overall the structures are similar throughout the country. Government schools are owned and operated by state and territory governments, with the national government providing supplementary funding. Nongovernment schools receive the majority of their public funding from the national government, with state and territory governments providing supplementary funding, along with other funding sources (including parents). Policy collaboration takes place in joint governmental councils that include federal, state, and territorial government representatives.

State education departments recruit and appoint teachers to government schools, supply buildings, equipment, and materials, and provide limited discretionary funding for use by schools. In most jurisdictions, regional offices and schools have responsibility for administration and staffing, although the extent of responsibility varies across jurisdictions. Central authorities specify the curriculum and standards framework, but schools have autonomy in deciding curriculum details, textbooks, and teaching methodology, particularly at the primary and lower secondary levels. State authorities specify curriculum for Grades 11 and 12, and are responsible for examining and certifying final year student achievement for both government and nongovernment schools.

In recent years, the degree of involvement of the national government and the degree of collaboration between state and territorial governments has increased. In 2008, ministers of education agreed to the Melbourne Declaration on the Educational Goals for Young Australians, which outlines future directions and aspirations for Australian schooling.1 Following this, the Australian Education Act 2013 was passed, which contains a broad range of national targets to ensure that Australia remains a high quality and highly equitable system.2

Australia’s national reform agenda for education includes a number of major national initiatives, including the development of a national curriculum, national standards for teachers and school leaders, and the introduction of a national literacy and numeracy assessment for all students in Grades 3, 5, 7, and 9. Two national agencies—the Australian Curriculum, Assessment, and Reporting Authority (ACARA) and the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL)—have been established to support these initiatives.3

Children in Australia generally attend preschool or kindergarten part time for one or two years before starting school. Preschools typically are run by local councils, community groups, or private organizations, with some states also offering state-run preschools. Increasingly, preschool programs also are being offered as part of long day care (childcare based at a daycare center with full and part time options). Preschool is offered to children ages 3 to 5, though attendance varies widely. Recent national policy and funding developments aim to ensure at least 15 hours of preschool per week for all 4 year olds.4 Preschool education is primarily play-based and since 2009, has been supported by the Early Years Learning Framework.5 The Early Years Learning Framework also supports other early childhood programs such as long day care and family day care (home-based childcare), ensuring that all children have access to high quality and consistent early childhood education and care.

As of 2014, the number of students attending Australian schools was 3,694,101. Approximately one third of students (35 percent) attended nongovernment schools.6 The Australian school system is organized around years, or grades. Year 1 (Grade 1) is the first year of compulsory schooling, and Year 12 (Grade 12) is the final year of secondary education. All states now provide one year of schooling before Grade 1, variously called kindergarten, preparatory (prep), transition, preprimary, or reception (referred to as “Foundation” in the Australian Curriculum). While the minimum age for starting school varies by state and territory, from 4 years 5 months to 5 years old, the compulsory starting age is 6 in most states. As of 2015, all states, except for South Australia, include Foundation to Year 6 in primary school, and Years 7 to 12 in secondary school (South Australia retains Year 7 in primary school so that its structure is Foundation to Year 7, and Year 8 to Year 12). Following a decision by the Council of Australian Governments in July 2009, there is national agreement on a mandatory requirement for young people to complete Year 10 and then participate full time in education, training, or employment until age 17.7

Primary school and the first two years of secondary school typically provide a general program that all students follow. In subsequent years of schooling, a basic core of subjects is supplemented with optional subjects for students. In the final two years of secondary school, students have the opportunity to choose five or six subjects from a range of elective studies in which to specialize. It is common for mathematics to be taught at different levels, and for students to choose the level appropriate to their future plans.

Australia has no common national policy on ability streaming, grouping, or tracking of students. Streaming is a school-based decision and is not promoted officially in any state. Some schools choose to stream students according to ability, and some offer special enrichment or remedial programs for select groups of students.

Languages of Instruction

English is the language of instruction in education. The Australian population is mainly of European descent, although recent immigration has produced greater ethnic and cultural diversity. According to the 2011 Census, Australia had a population of approximately 21.5 million people, about one quarter of whom were born overseas, and 18 percent spoke a language other than English at home. The top six languages other than English spoken in Australia are Mandarin (1.6 percent), Italian (1.4 percent), Arabic (1.3 percent), Cantonese (1.2 percent), Greek (1.2 percent), and Vietnamese (1.1 percent). In the same census, 2.5 percent of the population (more than 548,000 people) identified as being of indigenous (aboriginal or Torres Strait Island) origin.8 Five percent of Australian school age children have an indigenous background, and some live in isolated communities.9