If you’re moving to Australia with kids, the chances are you’ve got concerns about what schools are like in Australia. I’ve recently written a feature for Australia and New Zealand magazine about our experience with private schools in Australia, but after chatting in the Move to Australia Facebook group I know a few of you have questions about state schools too. I thought I’d do an overview of both options as I know when we moved over I hadn’t got a clue how schools worked over here. (If you want to read the full magazine feature, and see my list of tips for picking a school which applies to both private and state schools, you can find it under the ‘Migration Advice Articles’ heading on my Australia and New Zealand magazine page).

Picking a school in Australia: Our background

Our boys go to a private school. We hadn’t planned on sending them private – we’d picked a couple of state schools in the area that sounded good and planned to visit those when we arrived. When we landed, we started chatting to families in the parks and making friends. We met some families who weren’t happy with some of the things like bullying at the schools we were considering. (Obviously, all schools have issues and for every family that doesn’t like a school there are often ten families that do like it so although it’s important to ask around, it’s also important to make your own mind up based on your own research as well.) Talking to other families made us realise that some private schools here were cheaper than we’d realised. We hadn’t even checked out prices as we’d assumed they would be way out of our price range – especially as Matt didn’t have a job when we arrived. It turned out there were two local church schools that weren’t too expensive – one Catholic and the other Christian. We viewed them both along with the closest state school that had a good reputation.

The state school looked great. There were plenty of positives about it – it had its own pool, they accepted anybody that applied regardless of whether you were in the catchment area or not, and the staff were friendly. We would have been very happy sending our kids there.

But then we went to the two private schools. One was fine and again, we’d have been happy sending our kids there. The teachers were great, it was a small primary campus so everybody knew one another and it had a lovely welcoming feel to it. The second private school had incredible facilities, the teachers walking around were all being greeted warmly by the students, it had air conditioning in most classrooms and I was just amazed at the feeling of community even though it was a large campus that took kids from prep through to leaving school. It also had a kindy and daycare centre on site, meaning I could do one drop off for all three kids without ever needing to drive around to different schools to do drop offs. It DIDN’T have a pool (unlike the state school) but it had other outstanding facilities like a full-sized catering kitchen, a cafe, massive auditorium, an aviation workshop and plenty of space for sports.

Of the three schools we visited, the third stood out way above the others for us. We were lucky that there were still places available (we viewed it in October for a January start), so we applied, had interviews (which were very straight forward) and were accepted the same week. Our three are thriving there (our boys are now in grade two and our daughter is in her last year of kindy) and I’m just so happy we were able to give them the opportunity of attending this school.

That’s not to say they wouldn’t also have been thriving in the state school – most of our friends’ kids go to state schools and are having great experiences there too. It’s just that we made the call based on the community feel of our school and for us it was the right move.

Are UK schools better or worse than Australian schools?

Somebody asked me that recently, and I honestly couldn’t say either way. Our school has amazing facilities and resources that are above anything we’d have found in the UK in a regular school but then we pay a fee for our school so I don’t think it’s fair to compare. I don’t think our school is at the same level as a UK private school, but then our school costs a fraction of the cost of a UK private school. I have lots of friends whose kids go to state schools and they’ve been very happy with them. Personally, I wouldn’t say one country has better schooling than the other – it’s all down to the individual school, so do your research.

Pinterest graphic Migrant's Guide to Schools in Australia

State schools in Australia

Permanent residents can attend state schools for ‘free’ (although technically they aren’t ‘free’, but I’ll come to that in a minute). Residents who are on certain types of temporary visa, however, may find that their state of residence charges an annual fee for state schooling. This information is changeable, and each state has its own rules, fees and exclusions, so rather than publish something that is quickly going to be out of date, I suggest that you run an Internet search for ‘state school fees’ with your visa type and the state you’re moving to (not all states charge yet but an increasing number of them do). It’s also worth talking to your migration agent, if you have one, as they will be able to advise on your visa choice and the best path for you to become permanent residents if that is your end goal (if you don’t have an agent, I highly recommend Veronika Hurbis of Sort Out My Visa).

Unlike in the UK, state schools (also known as public schools) in Australia aren’t totally ‘free’ for permanent residents either. You are asked to pay an annual voluntary contribution to cover things like buildings, stationery, and various other levys. What you’re asked to contribute varies considerably from state to state, and while that fee is voluntary, I believe it’s a fee that you feel obliged to pay through encouragement. With state schools, you also likely to have fees to pay for additional activities like school trips, camps and swimming lessons (at our private school these fees are all included in our fees). I can’t give you a figure for what these types of fees might add up to as it varies so much, so it’s worth sending an email to schools in the area where you’re looking to move to see if you can get a list of costs so you’re prepared for it. Some schools involve you buying books and iPads or laptops, and others loan them out to kids, so again it depends on how your chosen school works as to what your outgoings are likely to be each year.

Private schools in Australia

At our private school, we are able to pay our school fees on a payment plan through the year – we pay ours fortnightly and have a month off over Christmas. We receive a discount the more children we send (i.e. with my two boys being there at the moment we get 10% off both lots of school fees. When their sister joins them next year we’ll get 15% off all three school fees.)

We have uniforms to buy, just like you would at a state school (we have to buy these from a school shop so we can’t cut costs by buying from a cheaper store like Kmart). We also have to buy our books annually just before Christmas (which can be a couple of hundred dollars per child and is definitely not well-timed just before Christmas!). When they get older we’ll need to provide them with an iPad each (at the moment they are provided with one each during their computer lessons while they’re in primary school) and the school fees go up considerably once they hit high school. Included in our fees is a two-week intensive swimming programme each year, an excursion per term and some overnight school trips as they get a bit older. Playing instruments costs more, and so does after school activities.

Selective schools in Australia

As well as state schools and private schools, there are also selective schools. These are like UK grammar schools, so accept children based on their academic achievement. I’d never heard about these before Veronika Hurbis told me about them, but she attended one herself when she grew up in Australia (you can always tag her with any questions in the Facebook group as I’m sure she’ll be happy to answer questions you might have). Selective schools could be both private or state schools.

Catchment areas in Australian schools

You don’t need to worry about catchment areas too much – it’s not like in the UK. State schools must accept anyone in their catchment area, and there are many out there that are willing to accept anybody who applies, regardless of their address (the one we visited told us we could live anywhere and they’d still take us). So you don’t need to worry about arriving and not being able to get into a school, even if you move just before the school year is about to begin. Private schools don’t care where you live, so long as they have a place available for you.

School starting age in Australia

Different states have different rules about starting ages, so Google ‘school starting age in…’ and add your chosen state to find the latest rules. There will usually be a chart that shows you start date depending on date of birth.

People here are much more chilled out about starting school. I know a few people whose kids were born around the cut off date and they decided to hold them back for a year and start prep a year later. I also know quite a few people who kept their child back to repeat prep a second time as they were struggling. I like that the emphasis here is on making sure the child is ready to move on, and that parents and teachers make the decisions like this together.

Testing in Australian schools

They still do a lot of testing in Australian schools, just like they do in the UK. I don’t have experience of the UK system to know what it’s like, but my twins (grade two) don’t feel any pressure about the tests here (they started basic tests in grade one). To me, it feels like they are doing regular testing to keep a handle on the ability levels of the groups so they know who to offer more encouragement and support to, but I don’t feel it is having a negative impact on my boys at all. NAPLAN tests start for us next year, so I can’t comment on the pressure yet surrounding that level of testing.

Our boys brought a reading book home each night during prep as their homework, in grade one they had a few minutes of homework four nights a week but this year they’ve gone back to only reading again at nights which I think is fantastic as it is putting a strong emphasis on reading which will help the rest of their education fall into place. So far, I don’t feel there is too much pressure on them. I love that there is an emphasis on practical skills here, for instance, yesterday they were pouring water around the school grounds on different surfaces during a science lesson rather than reading from a text book – my boys LOVE doing practical experiments so this kind of learning really suits them.

Taking time off from school in Australia

Another thing I love about schools here is that they are so chilled about you taking time off during term time. I know many families take their kids out for a day to go to an attraction, or to go on holiday. The teachers (at our school at least) are really encouraging as they know you’re taking them out to give them some life experiences. When we’ve gone away during term time, we ask for extra reading books and some homework to do, but the teachers don’t push this on us at all. They just tell us to go away and have a good time and then encourage the kids to do a show and tell when they get back to explain what they’ve been up to.

Any day of the week I can decide to keep them off and nobody will say anything to me, and I love this sense of freedom. Last year, for instance, we went away to visit Fraser Island and Rainbow Beach for a week during term time. The kids had some incredible outdoor experiences and learnt about constellations, plants, geology and Aboriginal legends. I know for a fact that the things they learnt on that trip made more of an impact than if they’d learnt it all from a text book. As a travel writer, I value the experiences I can give my kids and often our trips are planned to meet magazine deadlines which don’t always co-incide with school holidays. As they get older, things will change, but for now I’m committed to teaching them about the world around them through travel as much as I can and I love that the school supports this.

Religious schools in Australia

Private schools here are mostly tied to a church, and some of them can be very religious in their teachings (and others, less so). There are independent schools, but these are much more expensive as they aren’t subsidised by a church. You don’t need to be the religion of the school to send your kids there, but you do need to be happy with the religious teachings of your chosen school.

You won’t be treated any different if you aren’t religious, but if there is only one school place left and two families want that place then the priority will be given to the family that are the religion of the school.

Should I send my kids to a state school or a private school in Australia?

I can’t tell you that. Every school is unique and there are sure to be some amazing state schools and some poorly performing ones. The same applies for private schools too – just because you’re paying a fee doesn’t guarantee the teaching or facilities will be any better quality. You can do lots of research online about test results etc., but I really feel you need to visit schools in person as you need to get a feel for them before making such a big decision. I know this is hard as if you’re considering private schools you can’t guarantee what schools will still have places left when you arrive. If you are looking at private schools, then it’s worth you emailing a few from the UK to find out what their availability is like ahead of your move. With state schools it’s not an issue – just double check whether the schools have a catchment area or not so you know where to look for a rental when you arrive.

Best of luck with your research!

Top tips for choosing a school in Australia

Don’t forget to head over now to check out the magazine article I wrote for Australia and New Zealand under the ‘Migration Advice Articles’ heading. This lists all of the things you should consider when looking at schools in Australia.

Resources

There are lots of resources online about schools in Australia. Here’s a few sites to get you started:

The Good Schools Guide 
The Australian Schools Directory
My School 
Private Schools Guide 
Better Education
NAPLAN

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