Choosing where to send your child to school is one of the most important decisions a parent will make. With the array of schooling options available in Australia, it can be difficult to even know where to start.
Adding to the confusion currently is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has necessitated a shift to learning at home for many Australian students.
But there’s good news – choosing where to send your child to school is easier when you’re armed with good information. Here, we’ll cover the five schooling options available to Australian students.
First, we’ll look at why your choice of school matters. Knowing why it’s important and what factors you should consider can make the decision that much easier.
Why school choice matters
Education has a massive impact on a child’s development. It impinges on everything from their academic and cognitive progress to their spiritual growth and character development. It can affect their desire to learn and how well equipped they are for work or higher education.
Choices made now can influence a child for life. Parents are tasked by God with responsibility for training up their children in the way they should go (Prov 22:6). A huge part of your child’s training happens at school.
Every child is different and there is no single right choice. Aside from the God who knit your child together from conception (Psalm 139:13-14), you know them better than anyone.
Finding a school that’s a good fit and reflects your values is more important than a school’s reputation or facilities.
Some factors to consider in your school choice include:
- any special needs such as support for children with learning difficulties or disability
- your values and educational philosophy
- student safety and wellbeing
- behaviour management policies
- quality teaching and leadership
- academic performance
- school size
- subject choice
Choice means flexibility
An advantage of having numerous schooling options is the flexibility this affords. Choosing a school doesn’t lock your child into that option. In fact, many students change schools for various reasons, such as availability of subjects or cocurricular activities. Some move following a bad experience such as bullying. Whatever the reason, you can always move schools if your current choice isn’t working.
Furthermore, choice means greater ability to find a school that best suits your child’s needs and your family’s values. The competition for enrolments can also drive schools to perform better, leading to higher student achievement.
Let’s move on to what those choices are for Australian school students.
Schooling options for Australian students
1. Public schools
Also known as government or state schools, public schools are operated by state and territory government agencies. According to figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, two-thirds of Australian students were enrolled in public schools in 2019.
If you choose public school, your child must usually attend one within your designated local school district. However, exceptions may apply, and some students get approval to attend another school. This is usually based on circumstances such as student disability, specialisation or academic merit.
Public schools provide free education to Australian students. However, many require parents to pay a contribution towards costs not covered by government funding, such as uniforms, textbooks, sports and camps.
Public schools are further divided into:
- Selective schools – these schools enrol students based on specific selection criteria, most commonly on academic ability.
- Open or comprehensive schools – these schools accept all students, irrespective of aptitude or grades.
- Special schools – these cater to students with special educational needs, such as students with physical disability, learning difficulties or behavioural issues.
- Specialist schools – these offer programs for students seeking to excel in specific areas, such as sport, science, technology, rural operations, languages and the arts. It may also include schools with gifted and talented programs and trade training centres.
- Independent public schools – although still part of the state education system, these schools have been allowed greater autonomy in decision-making than other government schools.
2. Catholic schools
Catholic schools are Australia’s second largest school education provider, accounting for 19.5 percent of 2019 enrolments.
Run by the Roman Catholic Church in Australia, the administration and operation of Catholic schools varies according to the values and ethos of individual education providers. Oversight of the school may sit with a Catholic parish, diocese or archdiocese, or a religious institute (such as an order, like the Order of the Sacred Heart).
You don’t have to be Catholic to enrol your child in a Catholic school. However, you will need to be open to your child being taught Christian principles with a Catholic bias. Children who are baptised Catholic are usually given priority enrolment.
Catholic schools don’t have catchment areas like public schools, but they may give preferential enrolment to children from within archdiocesan parish areas.
Every Catholic school has its own enrolment process, so it’s best to contact the school you’re interested in. You will usually need to complete an enrolment application and attend an interview with your child. Most Catholic schools accept enrolments during the school year.
3. Independent (or private) schools
As the name suggests, these schools run independently of the government. Often, they are administered by an elected school council or governing board. They vary widely in terms of their education philosophy, governance and fee structure.
Independent schools are the third largest provider of education in Australia, accounting for 14.8 percent of 2019 enrolments according to ABS statistics. Australia has one of the highest rates of private schooling in the OECD.
Independent schools receive funding from the government and from fees charged to families. Fees vary enormously from one private school to another. They may be less than $2,000 per year to upwards of $30,000, depending on your child’s year level and the school’s size and socioeconomic factors.
According to Independent Schools Australia – an organisation representing the interests of the national independent school sector – they are attracting a significant and growing share of enrolments.
They point out that independent schools are diverse in terms of their size, type and focus, and provide a wide range of choice regarding educational programs and settings.
Private schools can be broadly divided into two categories:
These schools are distinguished by their affiliation with a church or religious institution. For example, there are Christian schools operated by the Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Uniting, Brethren and Seventh Day Adventist churches. Some Christian private schools are inter-denominational.
You don’t usually have to be a professing Christian to enrol your child in a Christian school. However, you need to be willing for your child to be taught a Christian worldview and attend worship services and/or other Christian practices.
There are also schools associated with the Jewish and Islamic faiths.
Faith-based schools will often give priority to children of families professing that faith. They usually take enrolments year-round. They may also offer fee relief to families in financial hardship seeking faith-based education for their child.
These independent schools are not linked to a religious organisation. They may be organised around other factors, including:
- educational philosophy – examples include Steiner and Montessori schools
- national philosophy – such as international schools
- academic emphasis – such as grammar schools.
Every private school will have its own enrolment requirements and processes. Often, this will involve completing an enrolment form, supplying relevant documentation, and attending a school interview.
From there, your child may be offered a place at the school. Many private schools give preference to siblings of students already enrolled at the school and may offer sibling discounts. Some will offer scholarships based on academic, sporting, or other prowess.
4. Home school
Contrary to what’s commonly portrayed in the media, home schooling is not the same as distance education or remote learning. With home schooling, a parent takes total responsibility for their child’s education.
The parent’s role as educator includes:
- choosing (or creating from scratch) the student’s curriculum
- teaching their child (or employing a registered teacher to do it)
- assessing their child’s learning
- reporting their progress to the requisite education authorities
Home-schooling families may use a ready-made learning program, or prepare one based on their educational ethos.
Home schooling is legal throughout Australia but families must apply to their state or territory
authority for permission. Usually, state and territory government legislation stipulates that home-schooling families meet specific requirements such as:
- offering your child a high-quality education
- documenting your strategies and educational opportunities
- submitting an annual report documenting your child’s educational progress
- making your educational programs and records available for inspection
Home schooling families may be visited by government inspectors to ensure they are complying with registration requirements.
5. Online distance education
This type of schooling has come to the fore due to COVID-19, but has been available for many years.
It suits some families for various reasons, such as their location or their child’s schedule. For example, distance education is popular with families who have children pursuing vocational training or rigorous schedules around sport or the performing arts. Others choose it because their child has special needs or has experienced difficulties in mainstream classrooms.
Students doing distance education complete their education from home, with instruction from qualified teachers. Online students are in classes with their peers and can interact and form friendships in the distance education community. Most schools organise events for online students, such as workshops, sports days and learning enrichment programs.
In some states, students must meet specific requirements to enrol as an online student. Once enrolled, the school operates much like any other – providing qualified teacher support, registered curriculum, learning resources and university pathways.
Students will usually follow the same learning materials as their peers, except lessons are delivered using digital technologies. Lessons may be delivered two different ways, known as synchronous and asynchronous instruction (or learning).
- Synchronous learning – students meet with their peers and teachers by logging in to a real-time virtual classroom for ‘live’ instruction.
- Asynchronous learning – students can log in and complete lessons at a time that’s convenient. Online platforms deliver learning materials and allow students and teachers to collaborate.
Schools may offer either form of learning or a combination of both.
Many distance education providers are faith-based or follow a particular educational philosophy. Fees will vary depending on the school, but are significantly lower than those of private on campus schools.
As with ‘regular’ school, there are government and private options for distance education.
Government schools of distance education
All Australian states and territories have government schools of distance education. Frequently, these cater to students in regional and remote areas. However, they may also enrol students for other reasons, such as difficulty attending an on campus school due to personal or family circumstances.
Families considering this option will need to apply for enrolment and provide the necessary supporting documentation. You may need to meet entry criteria to qualify. A parent or approved supervisor must be available to meet child care and protection requirements and support the child to complete the learning programs the distance education school provides.
An enrolment fee will usually be payable, although exemptions may be available for families facing financial hardship or exceptional circumstances relating to the student.
Independent/private distance education providers
At present, New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia have non-government distance education providers. Students may also be eligible to enrol outside of their state or territory.
With independent distance education providers, a child is enrolled like they would be at an independent on campus school, except they learn from home. The student is supervised by a parent or other responsible adult while they complete their learning materials. They receive instruction from qualified teachers, who are responsible for planning, delivering and assessing each students’ learning.
Frequently, an asynchronous learning model is used, allowing students to complete work at anytime from anywhere via the latest digital technologies.
Many independent distance education providers are associated with an on campus school, which gives them access to that school’s learning resources.
Concluding remarks about choosing a school for your child
We hope this guide has helped you think about schooling options for your child. We encourage you to pray, seek advice from wise and godly people, and remember that you can always make a course correction if necessary.