The Australian School System Explained
Moving to Australia will be an adventure to remember. Whether you’re setting up camp in one of the country’s buzzing cities or planning to explore the whole country, Australia has so much to offer expats.
Thinking of moving to Australia with children? It’s a good idea to get the school system sussed before you head for the airport – especially since it varies depending on the state that you’re in.
Luckily, we have everything you need to know about the Australian school system on this page.
The University of Melbourne is ranked as the best university in the whole of the country
What’s on this page?
The Australian school system compared to the UK
The Australian school system is pretty similar to the UK’s – they’re both compulsory for children to attend, offer world-class service, and have both public and private sectors.
The main difference between the two systems is that the Australian school system differs slightly in each state, whereas the UK has one universal education system. You’ll typically only see minor variations between states and territories, but it’s still good to be aware.
Generally, the Australian education system is split into four categories:
- Primary school – From reception/kindergarten to year six/seven
- Secondary school – From years seven to 10
- Senior secondary school – Years 11 and 12 (some states combine this with secondary school)
- Higher education – Includes either university or vocational education and training (VET)
Similar to the UK, it’s compulsory for children to attend primary and secondary school in Australia.
Expats will also be pleased to know that Australian public schools are free of charge to any permanent residents – regardless of where they’re from. You will, however, still have to pay for some items, such as school uniforms, books, and other supplies.
If you’d rather opt your child into a private school, you have plenty of options in Oz. In fact, around 30% of primary and 40% of secondary school children attend private or independent schools in Australia.
Although English is the official language in Australia, many schools offer bilingual programmes or curriculums in other languages.
Unlike in the UK, the Australian school year starts in late January/early February, rather than in September.
All children in Australia are required to attend school by the time they reach six years old – although, most children start between four/five years old.
Primary schools in Australia offer programmes from foundation year (preschool) to years six or seven. This means children attend primary school until they are 11-12 years old.
At this stage, the education system focuses on developing essential literacy, numeracy, and social skills, as well as providing basic knowledge to children about the world around them.
Unlike in the UK, there are no formal exams for children in primary school. Instead, you can expect regular homework – usually around 30 minutes of reading every night, and another 30 minutes of maths or literacy once a week.
All students in Australia are required to remain in full-time education until at least year 10 in secondary school. The student then has the choice to opt for either two more years of full-time education or training placement, until they are at least 17 years old.
Students who complete their secondary school programme at year 12 – or equivalent training/placement – are awarded a Senior Secondary Certificate of Education. The name of this certificate varies within Australia's state-based education systems, which we’ve listed below:
- New South Wales – Higher School Certificate (HSC)
- Victoria – Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE)
- Queensland – Queensland Certificate of Education (QCE)
- Western Australia – Western Australian Certificate of Education (WACE)
- South Australia – The South Australian Certificate of Education (SACE)
- Northern Territory – Northern Territory Certificate of Education (NTCE)
- Tasmania – Tasmanian Certificate of Education (TCE)
- Australian Capital Territory – Australian Capital Territory Year 12 Certificate
Regardless of the certificate name, each is recognised by all universities, higher education, and vocational education and training institutions.
Once the student has gained this qualification, it’s then up to them whether they would like to undertake vocational or higher education courses, or start working.
Higher education – also known as tertiary education in Australia – includes all formal education beyond high school. Students have two routes they can go down in higher education:
The beautiful city of Sydney is home to some of the best schools in the country
Australian school year system
Depending on which region of Australia you move to, the education system will be split in slightly different ways. For example, whilst some states require children to start primary school at age six, other states have an “early childhood education” system for children ages four to five.
To get a rough idea of how the Australian school system is split, and which qualifications students can acquire, check out the table below.
|School year range
|Kindergarten/preparatory – Year 6/7
|Senior secondary school
|Senior Secondary Certificate of Education
|Vocational education and training (VET) diplomas, advanced diplomas, bachelor degrees, graduate diplomas, masters degrees, doctoral degrees
Australian school qualifications
Just like in the UK, students in Australia gain qualifications throughout their time in school, which help them get into university.
However, rather than having SATs at primary school and GCSEs in secondary school, students in Australia only need to do their final exams in years 11 and 12.
Is the Australian school system good?
Australia has the 11th-best education system in the world, according to William Russell.
Overall, 84% of adults aged 25–64 in Australia have completed upper secondary education, which is much higher than the OECD average of 79%. And in 2020, roughly 3.13 million people enrolled to study in Australia – with roughly a quarter of these students enrolling at a school in New South Wales.
What exactly makes the Australian school system so good? It has a lot to offer its students, including:
- Small class sizes, with a maximum of 30 students in a class
- University-trained teachers, each specialising in subject areas
- Good-quality, modern facilities
- ‘Gifted and Talented’ programmes, which support high achievers
- ‘High Achievement’ programmes, which assist top students studying university-level subjects
- Individual learning programmes for students who require additional learning support.
Parents can also rest assured that the Australian school system is designed for all learning abilities, using a variety of methods to assess student outcomes, rather than just exams.
As well as the more traditional class tests and assignments, teachers assess students with individual research projects, group assignments, oral and visual presentations, and the use of technology including PowerPoint, podcast, or vodcast presentations.
As for the standard of universities in Australia? In 2019, Australia was voted the fifth most popular destination for international students. This is hardly surprising, considering it’s home to seven of the top 100 universities in the world, including the Australian National University, the University of Melbourne, and the University of Sydney.
Public schools and private schools in Australia
Despite having one of the best public school systems in the world, there are also lots of opportunities for children to learn at private institutions.
Some of the benefits of enrolling your child into a private school over public school include:
- Smaller class sizes
- More extra-curricular activities
- Frequent parent-teacher meetings
- Specialised support for children with learning difficulties
- Advanced equipment and facilities
As you might have guessed, enrolling your child at a private school in Australia will cost you a pretty penny. School fees vary widely, depending on the type of private school and the different sectors that govern them, but you can expect to pay up to around AUD $32,000 (£17,864) for year 12 alone.
The best schools in Australia
If you’re moving to Australia with children, you really are spoilt for choice of schools – and not just because it’s an enormous country.
Generally, schools in New South Wales dominate the school league tables, closely followed by schools in Victoria.
To give you a head start, we’ve listed the top five primary schools in Australia below:
- Sydney Grammar School, New South Wales
- St Aloysius’ College, New South Wales
- Presbyterian Ladies’ College, Victoria
- Abbotsleigh, New South Wales
- John Colet School, New South Wales
If you’re moving with children that are a little older, make sure to check out the top five secondary schools in Australia below:
- James Ruse Agricultural High School, New South Wales
- North Sydney Boys High School, New South Wales
- North Sydney Girls High School, New South Wales
- Hornsby Girls High School, New South Wales
As for higher education? The top universities in Australia in 2022 include:
- University of Melbourne
- Monash University
- The University of Queensland
- University of Sydney
- Australian National University
Moving to Australia with your family might seem like a daunting task, but you can rest assured that your children will be in good hands.
With one of the best public schooling systems in the world, and excellent private schools also on hand, your children can receive the best education whilst also experiencing a new life abroad.