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Australia - Educational System—overview

schools australian percent government


Education is compulsory in all states of Australia from K-10 (between the ages 5 to 15). Effectively, almost all Australian citizens have access to elementary and junior educational provision, under state legislation in the six states (New South, Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia, Queensland, and Tasmania) and in the Australian Capital Territory, while citizens in the Northern Territory obtain education under Federal funding provisions channeled through the Northern Territory administration.

Education is in English, though most primary schools now have access to community language programs. Italian, Japanese, and Spanish are among the most common in state schools, French and German in several of the international language schools in the capital cities, and indigenous languages in Aboriginal schools, particularly in Western Australia, northern Queensland, and the Northern Territory.

Most states, along the lines of a resurgent return to basic policies operate basic skills tests in elementary schools (called primary or public schools in most states). In New South Wales, basic skills tests are run for year 3 and year 5 students. Access to state selective schools is possible in some states through special examination, and there are regular examinations for entry on scholarship to the larger private schools. Internal assessment governs progress through years 7 through 9, and in year 10, there is the equivalent of New South Wale's school certificate offered in most states as a entry point into technical education, apprenticeships, and other vocational training alternatives. Year 12 ends with a higher leaving certificate examination—in New South Wales called the Higher School Certificate, in Victoria the VCE, and in Queensland the Core Skills Test.

The Academic Year runs from the end of January (mid-summer in Australia) across 4 terms, ending towards the middle or latter end of December, allowing for a 5 to 6 week holiday in what are the hot months in most Australian states. Curriculum in most states is set by the State departments of Education, against which (through the system of public examinations at the end of year 10 and year 12) inspectors also assess registration requirements in privately run schools.

The shaping influences on Australian education have been distance and time. Distance, because it was distance that has dictated the economics and socio-cultural development of the country. Time, as both the newness of the country and the time to travel for ideas, has been critical in the formation of education policy and thought. Distance and time, significantly, are also the key axes underlying the processes of globalization which are driving educational agendas in Australia.

In the first instance, distance from the expanding centers of world civilizations meant that, until 1788, Aboriginal peoples in Australia could follow traditional mechanisms of customary education unhindered for thousands of years. Aboriginal learning patterns tend to be directed towards community survival, de-emphasizing the individual in favor of customary law, through knowledge of the intricate Aboriginal social system, and ensuring the passing on of communal history and culture in an often difficult natural environment. Their culture emphasized group work, daily vocational skills, and in-depth knowledge of the natural environment. From white settlement in 1788, these values brought Aboriginal children into a direct conflict with individualistic-, time-, and achievement-oriented white education systems.

Despite missionary practice that emphasized bible translation and grammar/vocabulary construction, which has since become a major source for the revival of Aboriginal languages and cultures, and high level recommendations towards bilingual education in the early 1960s, English remained the primary language of instruction for Aboriginal students until 1973. Effectively, this was part of a program of assimilation that was extended by the Australian government to all minority groups in Australia until the promulgation of official multiculturalism in November 1972. The extension of linguistic revivals, teaching in the primary language of students, support for the training of Aboriginal people as teachers, and national organization of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders has greatly assisted in shifting education away from the sort of identity stripping, residential institutions that were the norm for Aboriginal education from the foundation of the Native Institution under Lachlan Macquarie in 1815. A scholar noted:


the Native Institution was expected to de-Aboriginalise its pupils on a permanent basis. In this it failed, and that was how it was judged. Some colonists realized that Aborigines returned to their own people because there was no place for them in a society which regarded them, educated or not, as the lowest in the scale of humanity, but most colonists were convinced that the Aborigines themselves were inherently unable to profit from education. (Fletcher 1989)

With debate over "the stolen generations" and reconciliation dominating the minds of Australians at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is important to note the processes by which Australian education became a major tool for social engineering up until the 1970s, and then how it entered into a crisis period of self-redefinition until the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Primary education in South Australia extends from pre-year 1 to year 7, while the southeastern states (New South Wales, Victoria, and Tasmania), run from pre-year 1 to year 6. Secondary education in all states runs to year 12, with differing mechanisms for matriculation to university. Different examinations are used in Victoria and New South Wales. The development of national standards is increasingly putting pressure on these regional variations and increasing cooperation between states at all levels.

In August 1998, there were 9,587 schools enrolling 3,198,655 (61 percent K-6) students, 6,998 (73 percent) of which were government schools. In the face of a slight decline in the number of government schools (1995-1998), the non-government sector continues to grow rapidly (1 to 3 percent per triennium), particularly in the low-fee paying Christian school sector, as much as 8 percent per year (Long 1996). These trends reflect the general drift in Australian society towards private delivery and downsizing; a retreat by sub-cultures from the public sphere in the face of growing social diversity. The impact of parental fears about social trends such as violence, drugs in schools, and retention of traditional values, can be seen by the fact that such schools are strongest in years 8-10, but follow patterns of retention in government schools in K-6. The nearly 100,000 indigenous students enrolled in K-12 are, due to issues of isolation and the inability to mobilize private funding, much more reliant on government funded schools.

Most private school growth for K-12 has occurred in rapid growth, lower-to-middle-class outer suburban areas of Australia's major cities. Their ability to draw on constituency support in addition to government per capita funding of student institutions has meant that nongovernment schools have better staff-student ratios than government schools, particularly in the wealthier Anglican schools sector. Building growth has not increased at the same rate as population growth, leaving many low-fee paying private schools to struggle with accommodation issues.

Clear distinctions continue between the greater public schools, which are mostly church-based but are in fact private corporations, Catholic systemic schools, low-fee paying Christian schools, and local government schools.

With the improvement of the economy after the economic recession in the late 1980s, retention rates years in grades 10-12 have dropped, from 77 percent to 71 percent (65 percent government and 84 percent nongovernment). This trend reinforced the lack of a universal tertiary college culture in Australia (ABS, Education and Training 1999).

Higher Education was attempted a number of times through the early history of the various colonies. The Australian College in New South Wales, for instance, was meant to combine K-12 activities with the seeds of future clergy training for the Presbyterian Church. All such institutions failed, however, until the foundation of the University of Sydney in 1852—on deliberately non-sectarian lines. The University of Melbourne followed in 1853, Tasmania (in Hobart) in 1893, Adelaide (established by Act of Parliament in 1874), and Queensland in 1909 (Barcan 1980).

Enrollment figures tended to follow population growth and decline and the policy function of the universities in their home colonies/states. Prior to World War II, universities in Australia tended to be for the children of the professional classes. This status changed radically after World War II with the need to retrain hundreds of thousands of Australian soldiers for civilian life. Postwar migration added additional pressure, leading to an efflorescence of new institutions (Monash, Macquarie, La Trobe, Murdoch, and Flinders), mostly in the suburbs.

By the 1970s, universities had become a major tool for the Australian government that was attempting to redirect national effort away from commodities production and trading towards value added industries and (from the 1980s) the information industries revolutionizing large parts of Asia. Encouraging Australian students into those institutions was a more difficult task, given the lack of a generalized learning culture and the lack of obvious career paths for many of the courses offered.

By March 1998, there were 671,853 students in higher education courses in Australia (about 3.7 percent of the population), of which 72,183 (or 10.0 percent of the total) were classed as overseas students (up from 21,000 in 1989, 5 percent of the total). Some 359,225 of these students were aged 16 to 24, representing 14 percent of the population group. The vast number of the new growth among these students went into business, economics, computer sciences, media, and health. There was a relative decline in numbers going into straight humanities and education subjects. The growth in both the business disciplines and in the proportion of non-resident students, as well as the consolidation of higher education institutions through the 1980s, marked the shift of education from its position as a core community service to a position as a growing export industry that was competing in the global market.

Since 1995, all registered Australian tertiary institutions have been required to tailor their curricula according to the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF), a normative system dictating standard outcomes rather than content. The AQF replaced the Register of Australian Tertiary Education (operative since 1990). This has meant that the vocational education and training (VET) system (offering diplomas from Certificate 1 to Advanced Diploma) articulates from upper school education and to the university system, which offer knowledge based baccalaureate and higher degrees, but overlap with VET in offering diplomas and Advanced Diplomas in a unified system. It is possible to transfer credit and recognition of prior learning throughout the tertiary system.


The integration of previously separate spheres of education within relatively new and artificial standards-based structures raises two major challenges to education: "The first of these is 'What counts as worthwhile learning?' The second question is 'What may be accepted to confirm that such learning has occurred?' Both of these questions, and the issues they raise . . . must reignite a serious consideration by teacher education faculties of what actually constitutes knowledge." (Taylor and Clemans 2000)

Through the 1980s, most states introduced legislation restricting use of the terms like university or degree to those recognized by the state and falling within the AQF. With state universities, this has not been an issue, since those institutions are largely self-accrediting. Considerable tension developed over the recognition of private providers under the various state Acts. There is not an education equivalent to an Australian university criteria because there is so much variation in quality and approach between institutions. A provider does not have substantial credit if endorsed in one state and refused standing in another because of Acts that vary. Considerable work has gone into smoothing out irregularities in the system, and making the AQF genuinely national in scope. Other quality controls are imposed through the Commonwealth's Trade Practices Act 1974. State/Territory fair trading legislation helps protect the quality of higher education.


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