Center on International Education Benchmarking

Australia was among CIEB’s Top Performing Countries for 2009. This profile has been archived and is no longer being updated.
System Design

In most states, students are required to attend school from ages 6 to 15. Typically, students attend primary school for seven years, followed by three years of secondary school. Students are allowed to leave school at age 15 or 16 or after grade 10, depending on the state, provided they find full-time employment. Most students, however, choose to attend upper secondary school, which accepts students for grades 11 and 12, or until the age of 19. In 2010, 78% of Australians between the ages of 20 and 24 had completed school through grade 12, which represents a 7% increase from 2001. Within upper secondary schools, students can take both vocational and academic classes.

Students who choose not to complete grades 11 and 12 may pursue a vocational education and training program following completion of lower secondary school. These are offered at Registered Training Organizations (RTOs), which range from Training and Further Education (TAFE) colleges to training programs at private companies. These programs are not, for the most part, equivalent to upper secondary education, but do prepare students for the workforce. TAFE colleges also offer post-secondary training for students who want to pursue a vocational path beyond high school.


The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) establishes both the curriculum and achievement standards for both primary and secondary education. New initiatives under the National Assessment Programme (NAP) are working not only to unify the curriculum and standards across Australia, but to ensure that they are closely aligned. The establishment of a National Curriculum is quite recent; Australia began developing the curriculum using the guidelines in the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians for 2008. Initially, ACARA developed English, math, science and history curriculum for grades 1-10; they then followed up by rolling out national content and achievement standards for foreign languages, geography and the arts. ACARA is now beginning to extend curriculum development to information and communications technology, civics and citizenship, business, economics, physical education, and health education and design and technology. In these other learning areas, states continue to be responsible for developing their own curricula.

In the subjects for which ACARA has developed a national curriculum, the organization provides explicit guidelines for teachers and administrators, including year-by-year guides for what a student should know and be able to do. They are working to make teaching materials and resources available online to all teachers. Much of this information is also available to parents.

The federal government has also developed the Early Years Learning Framework, which relies on play-based learning to prepare students aged zero to five years for primary school, with a focus on communication and language, believing these to be the building blocks of literacy and numeracy.  For students in primary school, the Ministerial Council for Education, Early Childhood Development and Youth Affairs promotes eight key learning areas: the arts, English, health and physical education, second languages, mathematics, science, society and the environment and technology.


Australia is a world leader in the development of innovative national assessments. All national assessments are managed under the National Assessment Programme (NAP). While states and schools still manage formative student assessment, the National Assessment Programme Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) examinations are beginning to play a large role in how schools and teachers are assessed, and Australia is seeking to find new ways to create greater ties between these national assessments and formative assessments.

Over the course of their primary and secondary education, in addition to school-based formative assessments, all Australian children take NAPLAN assessments. These assessments show whether or not students have met literacy and numeracy benchmarks in grades 3, 5, 7 and 9, but are primarily used to determine school performance. Every three years, there are additional national sample assessments in science literacy, civics and citizenship and ICT literacy. Finally, in some states, students in grade 12 hoping to enter higher education must take an external exam, the results of which becomes a component of their Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR), which determines their admission to university. These exams differ from state to state and by the student’s ultimate educational goal; for example, students hoping to enter post-secondary vocational education might take a different test from students hoping to matriculate at an academic university. Similarly, some states require further diagnostic tests at different stages of a child’s education; in Victoria, for example, all five-year-olds must take a diagnostic literacy test in their first month of school. Many states have some form of early diagnostic testing. Another example is the examination of Information and Communications Technology competencies given to tenth-graders in the Australian Capital Territory; similar assessments are done in the Northern Territory, New South Wales, South Australia and Queensland.


Instructional systems vary by state. Most schools practice whole-class teaching strategies in primary school, though many states provide ability-based differentiated curriculum and concentrations within schools at the upper educational levels. Recent policy initiatives have promoted the integration of technology into the classroom and particularly into lesson plans, with the goal of universal digital literacy.  Recently, there has been an emphasis by the government on preparing all students in employability skills, which include communicating ideas and information; planning and organizing activities; working with others in teams; solving problems; collecting, analyzing and organizing information; using technology; and possessing cultural understanding. Since the 1980s, Australia has also been incorporating work experience programs into some secondary school pathways.

The Structure of Australia’s Education System 


Students attend primary school for six years, and then transition into a comprehensive secondary school. It is not until the end of lower secondary school that students make choices about their academic pathways. At this point (at the end of grade 10 or age 15/16) students may choose to leave school with a Year 10 Certificate and enroll in a general upper secondary school or go into vocational education and training (VET).

Students who take a general route earn a Senior Secondary Certificate of Education upon completing upper secondary school, the prerequisite for attending university. Prior to 2009, each state had its own system for determining a student’s eligibility; this was replaced by the Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR), which is a nationally-recognized percentile rank given to each student based on their upper secondary performance and their results on a state exam (if the state requires one). Students are considered for admission at all national universities based on their ATAR number, and are ranked within their state, based on state standards. Students from general upper secondary schools can also enter community colleges, which offer sub-bachelor’s degree programs in a variety of subjects, or Training and Further Education (TAFE) colleges, which offer vocational training.

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