How Are Children Educated In Australia?

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    When it comes to educating children, the country of Australia has some distinct differences in how they approach this process. They have a system called "schools", which are broken up into three different levels: primary schools, secondary schools, and tertiary (university) level education.

    Primary school is for kids aged six to twelve years old, while secondary school is for kids aged thirteen to eighteen years old. The only exception is that there are special cases where students can get enrolled at seventeen or twenty-one years old if circumstances call for it. Tertiary education occurs after completing secondary school and typically lasts two or four years, depending on what degree you're pursuing.

    What are the different ways in which children are educated in Australia? How does our education system work? What is its purpose? These questions might come up when you're living abroad and wondering about how to send your child(ren) to school. This article will give you an overview of the basic principles that form our education system, what it looks like here in Australia, and whether or not this would be a good fit for your family.

    Australia's Children

    Childhood is an important time for healthy development, learning, and establishing the foundations for future wellbeing. Most Australian children are healthy, safe and doing well. However, childhood is also a time of vulnerability, and a child’s outcomes can vary depending on where they live and their family’s circumstances. This report brings together a range of data on children’s well-being and their experiences at home, school, and community.

    Child Learning And Development

    Children’s learning and development in the early years is integral to their wellbeing and, in the longer term, impacts their job prospects and participation in and connection with the wider community.

    For most children, the home is the main influence on child language and cognitive development in the early years (Yu & Daraganova 2015). Starting to read regularly with children during this time stimulates brain development and strengthens parent-child relationships. This, in turn, builds language, literacy, and social-emotional skills (Council on Early Childhood 2014).

    Preschool programs can help children prepare for starting school by developing learning-related skills, such as the ability to:

    • express thoughts
    • adapt appropriate behaviours
    • control impulsivity
    • show curiosity
    • retain concentration
    • develop social competence (Melhuish 2012).

    Starting school is a key milestone in a child’s life, requiring a significant adjustment to a new environment. Research has found that children developmentally vulnerable on school entry were more likely to perform poorly on literacy and numeracy tests later in their schooling (AEDC 2014).

    Schooling is important for children to develop the necessary skills for learning and educational attainment and social skills such as friendship building, teamwork, communication, and healthy self-esteem.

    Attendance patterns have been found to be established early in school life, and differences in attendance tend to be carried into and become greater in secondary school (Hancock et al., 2013).

    Literacy and numeracy form part of the cornerstone of formal education for young Australians (MCEETYA 2008). They are fundamental building blocks for children’s educational achievement, their lives outside school and engagement with society, and their future employment prospects.

    All Australian education ministers are members of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Education Council—the principal forum for developing national priorities and strategies for the early childhood and education sector, schooling, and higher education (Education Council 2014).

    Early Childhood, Education And Care

    Early childhood, education and care (ECEC) services in Australia comprise child care and preschool services.

    Child care services provide education and care services to children aged 0–12 and include:

    • long daycare
    • family daycare
    • outside school hours’ care
    • occasional care
    • other care, including services supporting children with additional needs or in particular situations, or 3-year-old preschool which does not meet the preschool service definition (as provided immediately below), mobile services, playschools and nannies.

    Preschool services deliver a preschool program (also known as kindergarten in some jurisdictions). Preschool programs are:

    • structured and play-based learning programs
    • delivered by a qualified teacher
    • aimed at children in the year or 2 before they start full-time schooling.

    Responsibility for the ECEC is shared by the Australian Government, state and territory governments and, in some cases, local government (SCRGSP 2019a).

    Australian Government Responsibilities

    The Australian Government is responsible for paying the Child Care Subsidy (formerly the Child Care Benefit and Child Care Rebate) to eligible families and providing funding to:

    • state and territory governments for early childhood education
    • support the regulation, assessment and quality improvement for ECEC under the National Quality Framework (NQF).

    The Australian Government also provides operational and capital funding to some ECEC providers (SCRGSP 2019a).

    State And Territory Responsibilities

    The roles and responsibilities of state and territory governments vary across jurisdictions but mainly include funding and/or providing preschool services and, in some cases, providing funding to child care services. They also provide funding to support activities under the NQF.

    State and territory governments are responsible for regulating approved services and licensing and/or registering child care services not yet approved under the NQF.

    They also implement strategies to improve the quality of ECEC programs and provide curriculum, information, support, advice, and training and development to ECEC providers (SCRGSP 2019a).

    Local governments also plan, fund and deliver ECEC (SCRGSP 2019a).

    Schooling In Australia

    School education is compulsory for all children across Australia, although the child age entry requirements vary by jurisdiction (SCRGSP 2019b). In Australia, there are 2 main types of schools—primary and secondary—differentiated by the level of education they provide.

    Primary schools provide education from the first year of formal school—called Foundation in the Australian Curriculum. Primary school education extends to Year 6 (Year 7 in South Australia).


    Secondary schools provide education from the end of primary school to Year 12 (SCRGSP 2019b). From Term 1, 2022, the South Australian public education system will change, and Year 7 public school students will be taught in high school (SA Department of Education 2019).

    Schools can be broadly categorised into 3 sectors:

    • government schools, owned and managed by state and territory governments
    • Catholic schools
    • independent schools.

    The latter 2 are owned and managed by non-government establishments.

    Responsibility for primary schooling is shared by the Australian Government, state and territory governments. The Australian Government provides funding for schools, government and non-government (Department of Education 2019a). These levels of government work together to progress and implement national education policy priorities, such as: a national curriculum, national statistics and reporting, national testing, and teaching standards (PM&C 2014).

    Responsibility For Delivering And Regulating Schooling

    Each state and territory government delivers and regulates schooling in its jurisdiction. They also provide most of the school education funding in their jurisdiction. In addition, they register schools, regulate school activities and are directly responsible for the administration of government schools.

    Non-government schools operate under conditions determined by state and territory government registration authorities (SCRGSP 2019b).

    Responsibility For Delivering The Australian Curriculum

    State, territory and non-government education authorities are responsible for delivering the Australian Curriculum, including decisions about implementation timeframes, classroom practices and resources that complement the teaching of the curriculum (Department of Education 2018).

    National Education Strategies And Initiatives For Children

    A key COAG objective under the National Partnership on Universal Access to Early Childhood Education is to ensure a quality preschool program (also referred to as kindergarten in some states) is available for all children in the year before full-time school (Department of Education 2019b).

    Universal access to quality preschool is supported by the NQF. Under this framework, preschool services must have an early childhood teacher in attendance, with specific requirements varying depending on the size of the service (Department of Education 2019b). In addition, the Early Years Workforce Strategy provides an agreed vision and long-term framework for the early childhood education and child care workforce (Department of Education, 2017).


    In 2008, Australian education ministers agreed, within the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians, for Australian schools to promote equity and excellence and for all young Australians to become successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens (MCEETYA 2008).

    These common goals underpin the strategic reforms outlined in the COAG National School Reform Agreement, which are for Australian schooling to give all students a high quality and equitable education. The agreement includes these outcomes:

    • academic achievement improves for all students, including priority equity cohorts
    • all students are engaged in their schooling
    • students gain the skills they need to transition to further study and/or work and life success (COAG 2018).

    The Measurement Framework for Schooling in Australia is the basis for reporting by Australian education ministers on performance in accordance with the Melbourne Declaration (ACARA 2015). It specifies the annual assessment and reporting cycle for the National Program, which includes the National Assessment Program–Literacy and numeracy (NAPLAN) tests.

    Australia’s national curriculum gives schools, teachers, parents, students, and the community a clear understanding of what students should learn, regardless of where they live or what school system they are in (Department of Education 2018).

    What’s Missing?

    The sections in this domain include a number of established national indicators; however, consistent national reporting is not available in some areas due to a lack of a suitable data source and/or indicator. National work underway to improve the quality, consistency, and collection of education data may improve these areas (COAG 2018). For more information on national data gaps, see Data gaps.

    A number of topics were not included for other reasons but could be considered for future updates.

    Children’s Subjective View Of School


    There are currently limited national data on how children view their experience at school to support population-level monitoring. However, some aspects, such as school belonging and bullying, are captured in data sources such as PIRLS and the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC). See also Specific areas related to schooling below.

    Pathways, Transitions And Outcomes

    Initiatives in national data integration work involving learning and development data will create a more complete picture of pathways through the Australian education system.

    The National Education Evidence Base was established as a sub-project of the Data Integration Partnership for Australia, with work starting in 2017–18 (Department of Education and Training 2018). The National Education Evidence Base will draw together data on all aspects of education:

    • early childhood education and care
    • schools
    • vocational education and training
    • higher education (Department of Education and Training 2017).

    This work could improve understanding of children’s learning trajectories, including the impact of child care and/or preschool on these trajectories and how trajectories may vary for some disadvantaged groups. Integration of education data with other data sources, such as health, will also give further insight into the relationship between health and educational outcomes, for example, the educational outcomes of children who received long-term intensive care at birth.

    Priority Populations

    Currently, data are not available on school attendance for a number of priority groups, including attendance of children:

    • from low socioeconomic groups
    • with disability
    • in out-of-home care.

    There may be opportunities to enhance information through linkages, for example, NAPLAN and National Disability Insurance Scheme data, and regular linkage of literacy and numeracy data relating to children in out-of-home care.

    National data on children who are homeschooled are also limited.

    Specific Areas Related To Early Learning

    The Early learning section predominantly focused on how often children were read to. It was supplemented with data on the number of books in their households. However, this does not capture information on the actual quantity and quality of the early learning experienced.

    National data on other types of learning, such as learning experiences at an early child care centre or exposure to other learning-based activities and materials, are also not available.

    Specific Areas Related To Schooling

    The Bullying section in the Justice and Safety domain gives some overarching information on bullying at a national level, but this does not paint a clear picture of bullying at school or other types of unfair treatment at school.

    National data on school expulsions and suspensions are also limited.

    Student Engagement

    Student engagement, comprising behavioural, emotional and cognitive engagement, is also an area of increasing interest where comprehensive national reporting is unavailable (SCRGSP 2019b).

    School attendance is 1 measure of behavioural engagement (see Attendance at primary school), and students’ attitudes towards school is 1 measure of emotional engagement.

    Student attitudes are not reported here, but sense of school belonging is included as part of regular PIRLS reporting (see Reporting Australia’s results PIRLS 2016) and could be considered for future updates.

    How Do We Know About The School-age Detached Students In Australia And How Many Are There?

    While dedicated data sets identifying the number of students who have detached from schools around the country do not appear to be explicitly maintained, most senior educators are well aware of the magnitude of this ongoing problem.

    Furtive attempts to address and understand the extent of this problem have been attempted but discontinued in many cases. At various times, there have been isolated efforts by some school systems, districts, and schools to set up programs to track and re-attach such students.

    Despite isolated educators in various locations advocating internally for significant recurrent funding to address this issue more transparently, we have found little evidence of long-term strategies for success. A cynic might take the view that some governments and ministers don’t think they can win elections in the short term by exposing long term and ongoing flaws in education systems.

    Given there is no specific national coordination and tracking of the actual or even potential number of detached students of compulsory school-age in this country, it is difficult to estimate the numbers. However, we must try. By using census data, UNESCO data and anecdotal evidence, we have formulated an estimate of the magnitude of this issue in Australia, and the numbers are most concerning.

    Compulsory school ages vary slightly across all Australian states and territories, but all children must be in school (depending on their jurisdiction) between the ages of five and six, although most children start in pre-school programs between four and a half and five and a half. The compulsory leaving age also varies across Australia, but in general, a student must be 17, although it is possible (depending on location) for students to leave school after year 10 and engage in alternative education programs, training and/or employment.

    In the same Census, there were 206 486 children. However, there was no information provided on the Census form about their student status or the type of educational institution they were attending.

    According to the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics Census (2016), there were 3 460 766 children aged between 5 and 16 years living in Australia in 2016. However, in the same census, there were 206 486 children. There was no information provided on the Census form about their student status or the type of educational institution they were attending.

    That is, the person completing the household census form listed the presence of children in the household but did not provide the required information on their student status or the type of educational institution that they were attending.

    According to the national Census, of all children aged five years, 16 755 were reported as not attending an educational institution, and neither were 3 894 adolescents aged 15 years and 10 897 aged 16 years. Thus, we know that 31 554 children aged in those three demographics were not reported as being engaged in education which still leaves 174 932 unaccounted school-aged children.

    It is possible that some parents of the children aged five years may have decided to delay their entry into formal education. A number of 15 and 16 years may have left the education system early to seek employment or vocation-based education, but we cannot be certain.


    The Census requires that children of all compulsory school ages who are home-schooled should be reported as either full-time or part-time students on the Census form.

    Therefore, a significant number of home-schooled children are unlikely to be included in the remaining unexplained 174 932 (6–14 years of age) children missing based upon Census responses relating to education status. It is, however, likely that some household responders may have chosen not to complete the educational institution type question for a multitude of reasons, so the figure is certainly likely to be lower than the almost 175 000 young people not reported.

    The 2019 Garma Program in North-East Arnhem Land provides a compelling example; the Garma Institute reported that ‘8 out of 10 Aboriginal students in the local region do not continue school past Year 8 meaning 8 out of 10 young adults are not job-ready or life-ready.’

    UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) data in comparative international monitoring estimates that in 2017 the number of out-of-school children, adolescents and youth of primary and secondary age in Australia was 39 314. This data is devised by subtracting the number of children in school from the total population.

    To produce the data, UNESCO collects data through harmonized education surveys sent to the Member States on an annual basis, so it is verified by the countries of origin. UNESCO notes, however, that these numbers may not reflect the exact magnitude of out-of-school children due to discrepancies between data sources.

    In addition to informed approximations and estimates, many staff and leaders of educational institutions are provided significant anecdotal evidence of detached school-aged young people known as ‘alternative settings’.

    This term refers to many governments and independently funded specialist schools and education providers who cater to disengaged students and detached young people looking to reattach in more suitable and supportive educational environments. Many stories and case studies demonstrate the evidence of a large cohort of previously detached young people of school age who have spent varying amounts of time outside of formal education institutions.

    The 2019 Garma Program in North-East Arnhem Land provides a compelling example; the Garma Institute reported that ‘8 out of 10 Aboriginal students in the local region do not continue school past Year 8 meaning 8 out of 10 young adults are not job-ready or life-ready.’ We cannot afford to sit back and allow emerging but marginalised adolescents to miss out on the necessary educational foundation required for future success in a turbulently globalised world.

    As part of the research for this report, bureaucrats (who preferred not to be named) in two State Education Departments, who conducted a detailed analysis across relevant student data-sets, identified approximately 8 000 potentially detached students across one state and 10 000 students in the other.

    While acknowledging that these evidenced-based numbers may not be completely accurate, it is reasonable to suggest that the total number of detached students across the country is uncomfortably and inappropriately large. Therefore, based on these informed professional estimates and the comparative populations of each of the states, we estimate that there may be upwards of 50 000 unaccounted detached students across the country.

    School education is 13 years and divided into: Primary school - Runs for seven or eight years, starting at Kindergarten/Preparatory through to Year 6 or 7. Secondary school - Runs for three or four years, from Years 7 to 10 or 8 to 10. Senior secondary school - Runs for two years, Years 11 and 12.

    School education is compulsory for all children across Australia, although the child age entry requirements vary by jurisdiction (SCRGSP 2019b). ... Primary school education extends to Year 6 (Year 7 in South Australia). Secondary schools provide education from the end of primary school to Year 12 (SCRGSP 2019b).

    A deeper dive into the data reveals that 71.7 per cent of 15-year-olds in Australia are achieving baseline competency in reading, mathematics and science (2015) and 80 per cent of children are participating in organised learning one year before the start of compulsory schooling (2013/14).

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