How to find the best school for your child in Australia and answers to all your questions if you are moving from the UK
If you are emigrating to Australia one of your main concerns will be finding the perfect school for your children. Not only is their education important, but you also want them to fit in, make new friends and feel at home as quickly as possible.
Fortunately whilst there are quite a few differences to schools in Australia compared to the UK, you’ll find the culture easy to get to grips with – especially once you have read this guide!
Most importantly Australian schools are not only friendly and welcoming but generally of a very high standard so with a little planning and preparation everything should go very smoothly for your move to Australia.
- Australian School Catchment Zones And Districts
- Australia’s Private Or Public Schools – Which Are Best?
- A Typical Australian School Day
- Wearing School Uniform In Australia
- Australia’s Heatwave Policy For Schools, Or Lack Thereof
- Number Of School Years In Australia
- Non-Compulsory Early Learning Programs
- Compulsory First Year Of Formal Education
- First Year Of Official Primary School
- Starting Ages For Australian School Children
- British Migrant Children Starting School In Australia
- Starting Age For School Children In Queensland
- Starting Age For School Children In New South Wales
- Starting Age For School Children In The Australian Capital Territory
- Starting Age For School Children In Victoria
- Starting Age For School Children In Tasmania
- Starting Age For School Children In South Australia
- Starting Age For School Children In Western Australia
- Starting Age For School Children In The Northern Territory
- Australian High School Age
- Australian School Terms And Holidays
- What You’ll Need To Enrol Your Child In An Australian School
- Australian Education System Resources:
- Let Us Take Care Of Your Shipping To Australia
- Get a House Removal Quote For Australia
The Australian School System – An Overview For Migrants
Australia’s richly diverse multicultural society has created a similarly rich education system. Today you’ll find non-government (private) schools that cater for most faiths and religions (Catholic, Anglican, Islam etc), educational philosophies (Steiner, Montessori etc), and even industries like agriculture as well as a massive network of government (public or state) schools.
All Australian schools, public and private, must be registered with the Education Department in their state or territory. They’re also required to comply with government regulations around the registration of their teaching staff and standard/level of infrastructure.
NB: Public schools in Australia are free state schools and not private schools like in the UK. So for the rest of this guide, we’ll be using the Aussie terminology.
Australia’s public schooling system guarantees a place for every school age child at their local public school, including new migrants. Obviously, the number of non-government schools available helps take the pressure off the government school system to do this but nonetheless, the commitment remains. Having said that, there are also ‘selective’ high schools in NSW that require students to obtain what is called the NSW Selective High School Minimum Entry Score before they’ll be accepted.
Most Australian public schools enrol students according to a catchment zone or district system, similar to the UK. These zones are determined by each state’s Department of Education. Whilst every attempt is made to ensure children have a place at their closest local public school, there are times when the designated school for a particular area is not the closest one for all residents in that area.
Parents can send their children to a public school outside their designated catchment zone but accepting out of zone applicants is up to the school involved. Children are also not guaranteed a place in any school outside their local public school.
If you’re considering an out of zone school, check the enrolment process for the school or schools you’re looking at. Some schools have very tight zone restrictions. If they only accept children living in the immediate vicinity of the school, it’s highly unlikely they’ll accept children from out of the area altogether. Some other considerations for choosing a public school outside your zone can be found here.
Whilst private schools don’t typically have catchment zones, they often have other criteria by which they select which students they’ll enrol. This may include waiting lists and preferential feeder primary schools in the case of secondary schools. Religious faith schools may also have a policy of accepting local parish children before considering those from further afield or may only accept children from families actively involved in the religion or faith.
There is a perception that private schools in Australia provide a better education than public schools but the statistics, and many people’s personal experience, prove otherwise. Any list of the top schools in Australia includes a large number of public schools, many of which outrank private schools! If you’re interested in finding a top-ranking school for your child, this website does an excellent job of summarising these on a state-by-state basis.
Australian schools are required to provide a minimum of 25 tuition hours per week. Class periods usually range from 40 minutes to 90 minutes. Class sizes vary but typically will have no more than 30 pupils – the average is between 20 and 24.
Most schools operate Monday to Friday during term time, and a typical school day starts at 9am and finishes at either 3 or 3.30pm. School principals have the authority to alter school day start and finish times so you’ll find that many schools have modified these to suit local conditions and student requirements.
You may also find that primary schools often run from 9.30am to 3.30pm whilst high schools are from 9.00am to 3.30pm. There is a half hour break (recess) mid-morning, and a half hour for lunch. Lunch is usually eaten at school in the open air – students either bring their own or many schools have excellent canteens. Many schools are particularly appreciative of parents who can volunteer to help out in the canteen!
Most Australian schools require students to wear a school uniform, including a decent hat that must be worn at all times whenever they’re outside. This is because Australian schools generally have strict policies about sun care; the ‘no hat – no play’ rule is widely adopted and strictly enforced.
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Surprisingly, considering some parts of the country can experience extreme temperatures during the summer months, most Australian states don’t have a formal heatwave policy for schools. Therefore, you won’t find school automatically being cancelled for the day because the temperature is forecast to hit 44oC in the shade! There is however ample documentation available to schools about effectively managing children during heatwave conditions and most schools do observe best practices in these circumstances.
All Australian states except the Northern Territory have 13 years of compulsory schooling – 7 Primary Schools and 6 High Schools. The NT has 12 because the ‘pre-primary’ year is not compulsory in that state.
- Primary school takes in the ‘pre-year’ and years 1 to 6.
- Years 7 to 12 are Secondary School or High School in most states. The one exception is South Australia, where Year 7 is currently a Primary School year but this will be changing in the next few years. The NT also has a slightly different arrangement here too. In that state, the following applies:
- Number of primary school years: 6 – Years 1 to 6
- Number of middle school years: 3 – Years 7 to 9
- Number of senior school years: 3 – Years 10 to 12
Currently, children in all states are eligible to enter non-compulsory education programs at age 4 (Victoria also offers a part-time program for 3 year olds).
By the age of 5 and a half, children in all states except the NT must be enrolled in their first year of formal schooling. Those born before the cut off date in their state can start at the beginning of that calendar year. In some states, they have the option of deferring until the next calendar year. Those born after the cut off date must start at the beginning of the next calendar year – this is standard in all states.
This first year is called different things in different states – in Queensland, Victoria and Tasmania it’s called a Preparatory or Prep year; in NSW and the ACT it’s called Kindergarten, in South Australia, it’s called Reception, and in Western Australia it’s called Pre-primary. The NT has a similar year for 5 year olds called a Transition year but it isn’t compulsory.
By 6 years and 6 months of age all Australian children must be in Year 1, their official first year of Primary School and their second year of formal schooling (or their first in the NT).
Australia has a somewhat confusing birth date cut off system for school starting ages that determines whether a child can start school at the beginning of that calendar year, or must wait until the start of the following calendar year. To make things even more confusing, in some states children born before the cut off date have the option of deferring their start date to the following calendar year so they’re a year older when they start (some research suggests this is more beneficial for the child).
This cut-off date also varies from state to state and between public and private schools. However, there are school-age calculators readily available these days so you can easily work out when your child can start. Australia is also moving towards introducing a single policy for ages.
British Migrant Children Starting School In Australia
First Year: Preparatory (compulsory)
Age cut-off: 5 on or before June 30th
Age eligibility – children who turn 5 on or before June 30th may start Prep at the start of that calendar year but can defer until the start of the following calendar year when they’ll be a year older. Children who turn 5 after June 30th must start Prep at the beginning of the following calendar year.
Visit the Education Queensland website for detailed information about enrolling children in Queensland schools.
First year: Kindergarten (compulsory)
Age cut-off: 5 on or before July 31st
Children who turn 5 on or before July 31st can start at the beginning of that calendar year or defer until the start of the next calendar year. Children who turn 5 after July 31st must start at the beginning of the next calendar year.
NSW also offers a year of non-compulsory preschool for children not yet old enough to attend kindergarten.
Visit the New South Wales Department of Education website for information about enrolling children in school in NSW.
First year: Kindergarten (compulsory)
Age cut-off: 5 on or before April 30th
Children who turn 5 before the 30th of April can start on the first day of term for that calendar year, or defer until the start of the following calendar year. Children who turn 5 from the 1st of May must start on the first day of term the following calendar year.
An optional year of preschool is also available for children not old enough to attend kindergarten.
Visit the ACT Education Directorate website for information about enrolling children in school in the ACT.
First year: Preparatory (compulsory)
Age cut-off: 5 on or before April 30th
Age eligibility – children who turn 5 by April 30th are eligible to attend Prep from the start of that calendar year. They may also defer for 12 months. Those who turn 5 after April 30th must attend prep from the start of the following calendar year.
Like most states, Victoria also offers optional educational programs for younger children. There is Early Start Kindergarten for 3-year-olds as well as four-year-old kindergarten. The majority of children do attend the four-year-old program at a minimum.
Visit the Victorian Education Department website for more information about enrolling your child in school in Victoria.
First year: Preparatory (compulsory)
Age cut-off: 5 by January 1st
Age eligibility: all children who have turned 5 by the 1st of January must be enrolled from the start of that calendar year.
Four-year-old children (by January 1st in a calendar year) may attend optional kindergarten.
The Tasmanian Education Department website contains more information about enrolling children in school in Tasmania.
First year: Reception (compulsory).
Age cut-off: 5 by May 1st
Age eligibility: children who turn 5 before May 1st (on or before April 30th) can attend Reception from the start of that calendar year. Children who turn 5 on or after May 1st must be enrolled at the start of the following calendar year.
Optional preschool is also available for four year olds. As with Reception, if they turn 4 before May 1st they can start at the beginning of that calendar year. If they turn 4 on or after May 1st they will start at the beginning of the next calendar year. Preschools in SA may also be called kindergartens, early learning centres, or children’s centres.
More information is available from the Department of Education (South Australia) website.
First year: Pre-primary (compulsory).
Age cut-off: 5 by June 30th
Age eligibility: any child that turns 5 by June 30th must start Pre-primary at the start of that calendar year. Children that turn 5 after June 30th will start Pre-primary at the beginning of the next calendar year.
Four-year-olds (by June 30th in a calendar year) may attend optional kindergarten.
You can check the Department of Education WA website for more information about WA’s school system.
First year: Transition (not compulsory).
Children who turn 5 on or before June 30th may attend this non-compulsory Transition year from the start of that calendar year; those who turn 5 after June 30th may enroll in the following calendar year.
First compulsory year is Year 1.
Age cut-off: 6 by June 30th
Age eligibility: any child that turns 6 by June 30th must start year 1 at the start of that calendar year. Children that turn 6 after June 30th must start year 1 at the beginning of the next calendar year.
Four-year-old children may attend optional preschool.
Visit the Northern Territory Department of Education website for more information about the NT’s school system.
Depending on their birth date, students are 12 or 13 when they start high school in Year 7 (or a year older in SA where Year 7 is currently still in Primary School) and 17 or 18 when they leave in Year 12.
It’s now compulsory in all states for students to remain in school until at least Year 10 or they reach a certain age, whichever comes first. This age is 16 in some states and 17 in others. Year 11 and 12 aged students in most states must
- remain in full time education ie complete their high school education OR
- be enrolled in (and attending) some type of full time vocational training OR
- be employed part-time and completing part-time education, which must add up to the equivalent of full time education ie an apprenticeship or similar.
Australia’s school year, across all states, runs from late January (or early February) to mid December. This may vary by one or two weeks in various states, and between private and public schools, but by Christmas, all Australian students are well and truly on holiday.
The Australian school year is broken up into 4 terms. Each term is between 9 and 11 weeks, with a 2-week break in between each of the first 3 terms, and a 5 – 6 week Christmas holiday break after the 4th term.
- Term 1: starts late January/ February (Qld is mid Jan) and runs through until the end of March / mid April. It’s followed by a 2-week autumn break in April.
- Term 2: starts late April / May and finishes end of June / July followed by a 2 week winter holiday in July.
- Term 3: starts mid to late July and finishes mid to late September with a 2-week spring holiday in late September / October.
- Term 4: starts early to mid October and finishes mid to late December followed by a 5 to 6 week summer holiday over late December and January.
Probably the first tip is to not immediately write off your closest public school. If you’re heading to Australia for work, you likely already know where you’re heading and may even have company housing already lined up. In that case, find out where your local public school is and check for reviews online. Many Australian public schools (primary and secondary) provide an education that is on par with or better than private schools and has the added convenience of being close to home.
If you know which state you’re moving to and don’t have a particular location in mind but would like it to be close to good schools, there are ‘Top School’ lists like this one available. Alternatively, there is a directory of Australian Schools available (link is in the resource section) that lists every Australian school (public and private). The Australian government also has a site called My School that is an excellent reference.
Are you coming over for a brief visit prior to moving permanently? If so, it would be a good idea to have a short list of schools and have arranged in advance to visit the schools to talk with the principal, meet some of the teachers, and get a feel for the school and what it will offer your child, or children.
Involve your child in the decision process; they are after all the one who has to go there! Look at websites together; make a list of things they’d like to know and see if the schools you’ve short-listed can answer them for you.
Australian public schools are ostensibly ‘free’ but most have an ‘extracurricular’ fee that isn’t compulsory but which you are expected to pay nonetheless! Private schools are of course not free and fees vary according to state, and the type of school it is. If you’re considering a private school, their fees may be listed on their website. Otherwise, contact the school.
Also, check your Visa as this can have some bearing on whether or not you’ll have to pay school fees even for public schools.
Contact your chosen school (public or private) to get an enrolment application form. If the school has a website, the form is probably available online. If you require assistance with the form, the school admin staff can assist you. Alternatively, some states provide a generic form for enrolment in any public school, which is available from the state Education Department website.
Submit the application as soon as possible; whilst enrolling in public schools in most states can be done throughout the year, some schools do start taking them up to 12 months in advance. It’s particularly important to get this done as soon as possible if you’re considering an out of zone school. If you’re considering a private school, contact the school to find out when you must enrol.
Along with the application form, you must supply certain types of supporting documentation. Typically this will include at least some, if not all, of the following:
- A copy of the child’s birth certificate or some other proof of age (travel documents, passport)
- A copy of the child’s Australian Immunisation Register Immunisation History Statement (How to get an AIR Immunisation History Statement). It’s now compulsory for schools to request this information in order to protect other students and the community from outbreaks that are preventable by vaccination. For overseas children migrating to Australia, here is an overview of the procedure to follow upon arriving in Australia with respect to immunisation. Note – only certified vaccination providers (ie medical practitioners) can supply immunisation information to the AIR.
- Contact details – address, phone number, email etc for parents/guardians/carers
- Emergency contact details
- Proof of your current address (typically a copy of a current utility bill, bank details etc)
- Contact details for the child’s emergency care providers (doctor, dentist)
- General health and welfare information – details of any medical conditions or disabilities the child may have
- Information about languages used at home
- Copies of parenting, Family Court, or other legal documents that affect the care and safety of your child. Note – Australia’s privacy laws require service providers such as schools to keep this information private.
Note – the above list is by no means exhaustive so we recommend you check with your state Education Department to get an up to date list.
The Australian Schools Directory – a complete list of all public and private schools in Australia
My School – comprehensive government produced resource providing information about Australia’s schools
Private Schools Guide – guide to Australia’s private (non-government schools)
School Catchment Zone Maps – a compilation of all the school zones across Australia
Let Us Take Care Of Your Shipping To Australia
If you are moving to Australia you can rely on the team at PSS International Removals to take care of packing and moving all your household furniture and shipping belongings to Australia.
You’ll have a lot to plan and think about in starting your new life down under so it’s great to know that we can take the stress out of this part of your move so you can focus on other matters – such as finding the perfect school in Australia.