Starting school in Australia can be daunting for anyone, let alone if your kids are starting school in a brand new country. The Australian education system can feel so alien when you first arrive, not to mention getting used to the timings of Australian school holidays (and getting used to not having half term holidays!).
This is an expanded article of a column I wrote for Australia and New Zealand magazine last year and it seemed relevant to update it now the new school year has started again.
I’ve written a post all about schools in Australia here if you want some further reading about the costs of schools, things to consider when choosing a school and general information about education in Australia.
Schools in Australia: Starting school
Our daughter has just gone into year one in Australia and our twin boys have just started year four. We’ve been living in Australia for just over four years now and we moved before our kids started school so don’t have any experience of the UK system other than pre-school. Either way, being a new school mum is always a learning experience as there is a lot to figure out, and as my own experience of school was in the UK system I had to adjust to the new Australian school system too because I had no idea what to expect from it.
When our daughter started prep in Australia a year ago, it was seamless and easy as we’d been through it before with our boys. There was none of that worry about what being an Aussie school mum would mean or how things work. I’d been through it so knew the drill and I was there to help the new mums along who were waving goodbye to their first borns with tissues in hand.
I had a fleeting moment of sadness that time is passing so fast and eight years of dropping kids off in daycare/pre-school/kindy was over with, but her eagerness to run into class and see her friends and her new teacher made it all so much easier.
We chose our school for so many reasons. It had a great community atmosphere, even though it’s a huge campus with around 1400 pupils. There is air conditioning in most of the classrooms (something we felt was important with us living in Queensland), and it has lots of amazing facilities. These include a school café where the high schoolers learn catering and retail skills, a huge auditorium where the kids learn stage management and an aviation department where kids can take part in all kinds of STEM projects, and they can even go on to take flying lessons.
Our daughter had been going to the daycare centre there part-time for almost two years, first to the toddler rooms and then building up to the kindy room. She had walked her brothers to their classrooms since they started. She had stopped with me to look at the koalas in the trees in the school grounds more times than I can count. She had spent many hours drinking babycinos and eating cake with me in the school café with our friends. She knew her way around the campus already. Her prep teacher was actually her brother’s grade two teacher, so we knew her well already. The whole thing was just so easy. And she was so ready to get started.
As I sneaked out of the door with my bar of chocolate in hand on that first day (our school dishes out tea bags and chocolate on the first day to parents to remind us that it’s all going to be ok!), I didn’t cry. I just felt proud at how my three little babies have coped and settled into their new home in Australia. They’ve taken everything in their strides – new childcare arrangements (from pre-school to kindy), new friends, new words (I still laugh that when the boys’ prep teacher told them to remember their togs for the swimming lesson the next day they just stared at her blankly and had absolutely no idea what she was talking about).
Kids are amazing creatures – we worry like crazy about how they will cope with such a big change, but in reality they often find the whole thing a lot easier than the grown ups.
Things I’ve learnt since being a school mum in the Australian school system
While a lot of the core things about education in Australia might be very similar to education in the UK, there are a whole lot of differences to get used to as well.
- Not all schools have air conditioning in Queensland. Really!
- Not all classrooms have fridges so you are likely to need to invest in good quality, insulated lunch boxes with ice blocks to keep lunch cool.
- Water fountains are called bubblers.
- Australian school holidays and terms are very different to the UK school holidays. For a start, we don’t get half terms – our terms go right through for 8-10 weeks! Private schools in Australia run on slightly different term dates to state schools in Australia and they tend to get longer holidays. Summer holidays here are in our summer which gives us a lovely long Christmas break.
- The Australian school year begins in late January. All states have their own rules for starting ages (Google ‘school age Australia + the state to check).
- The kids still have lots of tests here – even the preppies. It doesn’t feel too stressful though and the kids don’t seem to feel pressured to perform.
- You’re allowed to take days/weeks off for holidays without getting into trouble. If your little one is getting tired towards the end of term, the teachers often tell us to keep them home for a day off to catch up on some rest!
- Hats are compulsory. No hat, no play outside.
- Handball is a big thing in Australia (read more about Australian games in this post).
- Kids in primary school in Australia (well at least in our primary school!) have ‘fruit break’ not long after arriving, and ‘morning tea’ mid-morning (basically a snack break). Some schools also have ‘afternoon tea’ for more snacks.
- Schools are very strict on allergies and there are many, many things we can’t include in lunch boxes. I think it’s a good thing that they are so allergy aware here.
- Sweets are all called ‘lollies’ here. That’s all sweets, even those without sticks. Kids aren’t allowed lollies in their lunchbox as there are strict rules on eating healthy food.
- Kids are only allowed to drink water at school and they are encouraged to drink a lot of it, especially when they are playing outside.
- Classrooms all have big bottles of sunscreen, although I also send small bottles on a keyring for my kids so they always have access to it. Whether they remember to apply it is another story.
- Some schools offer free supervised play before school which can be handy if you work (not all offer this so you’d need to check). Our school runs a free breakfast club where the kids can get toast, juice and cereal with their friends before class.
- If my kids are allowed tuckshop as a treat, they ALWAYS ask for a dagwood dog. This is basically a sausage cooked in batter on a stick. Then they squirt ketchup (known as ‘red sauce’ here) all over it. Bleugh.
- Kids don’t get changed for PE here. They come dressed in their sports uniform on PE days and stay in them all day. This can mess with your head when you are trying to get three kids out of the door in the mornings wearing the right gear for the day!
- If the kids do swimming lessons at school and have to catch a bus to the pool, they get changed at school and travel in their swimmers and thongs (flip flops) and come back wet wrapped in a towel (actually this is how many people travel to swimming pools here at leisure centres – it’s very common to see people arrive and leave in their swimmers, especially in the warmer months.)
- School photos still cost a small fortune here just like they do in the UK.
- Some schools are all on the same campus from kindy through to high school, making dropping off kids of different ages a breeze.
- There are high schools that focus on specific interests here. So if your child is leaning towards STEM subjects there are high schools that specialise in this, or the creative industries. There is even an Aviation High School in Brisbane for kids with a specific interest in aerospace and aviation work!
Our experience of primary school, Australia
We haven’t experienced high school in Australia yet – only primary school in Australia. I can’t say how different education in Australia is to the UK as we’ve only had experience of the Australian school system, but I’m enjoying the experience of the Australian education system. The Australia school year seems well balanced – I love having a very long summer holiday over Christmas. I also prefer going through the long terms with longer school holidays in between to break it up. I also appreciate how relaxed the teachers are at putting the wellbeing of your children ahead of schooling – they understand that we know the needs of our kids best and can make a call if they need a day to step back from things towards the end of a term during the first year or two.
Yes, there are school fees in Australia whether you choose private or state (check out this post for more info) but I am still loving our experience here and feel that it is worth the cost that we pay.
So here we are at the start of another Australian school year. We’re now on week three of the first term of the year and I finally feel like I’ve caught up on work enough to sneak a day off to lay by the pool in the sun and enjoy some much-earned peace and quiet! Now that is something I wouldn’t have been able to do in the UK!