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Sydney education and international schools guide

The present day inhabitants of Sydney may want to be firmly separated from the remnants of its colonial history but, where schools are concerned, tradition often clings on and there are still some hang-overs from the ‘Glorious Past’ of the Victorian Empire.

The similarities are a strict (often archaic) uniform code, house systems, ‘colours’ given for sporting/academic achievement, strong old boy/old girl networks, and religious connections – say, a chapel on campus. The modern system has become much more complicated, with very rigorous offerings especially from the state, but the result has been that the overall quality of Sydney schools is excellent. The downside is, that the best schools are unusually difficult for expats, on short postings, to get into.

Essential facts

Education in Australia is administered by the individual states. New South Wales education is administered by the NSW Education Standards Authority, which sets the curriculum from kindergarten to year 12.

To start school, children must have turned five years of age by 31 July in the year they enrol. Late birthdays (May/June/July)are likely to invoke discussion about suitability to start rather than wait. It is becoming more routine for these children to start in the following year. Children must be enrolled, by law, when they turn six years of age. School year starts in late January and finishes early/mid-December. There are four terms and three breaks of between two and three weeks.

There are three types of high schools: government, Catholic and independent. Private schools are partially funded by the federal government, leading to a large percentage (around 35 per cent) of families sending their children down this route.

Government Schools

Local state (public) primary Schools

The school system in New South Wales consists of Primary School - Kindergarten through year 6, and High School - year 7 through year 12.  Deeply confusing to British parents, primary schools are known as public schools. These schools have a reasonably good reputation and are basically free but there is no rating system, so word of mouth counts for everything. As Sydney has a population of over five million, people tend to go on what they have heard over the years.

Good areas tend to have good local schools (and good local schools keep the property values up) as there are catchment areas for each school. There are many state schools, so if the first choice is not available, then usually  there will be another school not too far distant. It is possible to get places in schools outside your resident area if they're available in the desired age group, but locals/siblings etc get priority.

Enrolments are usually in the mid-hundreds but some schools go up to 900 and some are as small as 100. School size can be an indicator of amenities and extra-curricular activities offered but is no guarantee. Some schools have only a small paved play area whereas others will have a large green area and some also have swimming pools. 

Where your office is, will obviously influence where you live. The North Shore area, as well as "The Eastern Suburbs" (Edgecliff, Bellevue Hill, Double Bay etc) appear to be more favoured by British expats. Both Upper and Lower North Shore tend to be greener and quieter than The Eastern Suburbs, although there are of course exceptions such as Chatswood.

The NSW government website www.education.nsw.gov.au provides a search engine (by area) for all the public schools.

Local state high schools 

As in most western countries, there has been some debate as to the satisfaction with public/government high schools. Some of the high schools have an unfortunate reputation where a number of parents feel that the lack of discipline effects overall education. The significant exceptions are the state selective high schools. These schools have an enviable academic record and only enrol the top four to five per cent of students, who apply to the internal school selection committee.

Although the selective schools may appear as a desirable option for some expat parents, the strict requirement of permanent Australian residency, often does not make this a feasible choice. For those making their permanent home in Sydney, whose children are highly motivated and strive for academic success, the option is a great one.

Catholic systemic schools

The Catholic sector takes approximately 20 per cent of students in New South Wales and is made up of two categories: the independent schools run separately by some individual religious orders (see independent schools below) and systemic schools administered by the Archdiocese. Systemic school fees are comparatively low. The majority of pupils are usually catholic but most schools are not exclusive. There is a strong religious ethos and emphasis on pastoral care.

Independent Schools

This group includes schools that are governed independently, are part of other religious groups, or are alternative schools such as Rudolf Steiner. The most renowned of these schools are the above mentioned “traditional” schools with a religious background, Anglican, Catholic, and Uniting Church.

Most of these schools, which consider themselves the backbone of Sydney, are over 80 years old and have a strong similarity with English public schools. They are popular with white-collar professionals, have excellent facilities, good reputations and - unfortunately - waiting lists to match. With a few of the ultra-elite schools, it is prudent to enrol the child at the time of conception…not an exaggeration.

The majority of these schools are single sex, although a few of the boy’s schools take girls in years 10-12. A number of them are “selective” which indicates pupils are chosen on an individual merit as opposed to first-come-first-served. They are not always looking for the most academic (although this is the principal factor) but also for students who are bright, have varied interests, and will blend and complement the school community.

Private schools command a great deal of respect in the Sydney community. Demand for places is strong, as the number of schools has grown little in the last 40 years. Admittedly, some schools have increased enrolments, but many of the schools with long waiting lists have a reputation of being somewhat aloof.

For more information on a specific school, please go to each school’s individual entry on The Good Schools Guide International search or the GSGI article 'Best schools in Sydney considered by expats'.

Boarding

Boarding is an option that may open a few more doors, and could be worth considering. Many of the schools are large: enrolments of over 1000 are not unusual. As a rule when visiting a prospective school, families will meet an enrolment officer and have little prospect of meeting the headmaster/mistress except in the smaller schools. It may pay to be persistent with your application and if time allows, make regular phone calls and gentle reminders to keep your file active.

Sport

Sport is an important feature of most Australian schools. Half a day is usually set-aside for P.E. and sport. The children often come to, or from, school in their P.E. uniforms on the allocated day. There is a great range of sports both within and outside the curriculum. In the majority of prestigious private boys schools, Saturday morning is set aside for compulsory competitive sport, starting in grade 3 and continuing to grade 12.

Depending on the sport, it can last from an hour for young boys playing basketball, to whole afternoons for the more senior cricketers. This could be an opportunity to get to know Sydney, as most competition is usually with other schools around the city, and trips of 15 kilometres and more are not unusual. Great focus placed on competitive sport. Whilst not compulsory, the girls also play sport on weekends and after school. Never assume rain will stop play. Sport is a serious business here. Students who excel at sport take a high profile at school and there are many awards to honour them.

Outdoors

Outdoor Education is also a significant factor in many independent schools. The level of challenge differs from school to school. From 2 nights in cabins, to an arduous week of bivouacking in the Australian bush, these are usually compulsory camps. Canoeing, rock climbing, abseiling, mountain biking, bush skills and various other challenges are regular features of these camps attended by both girls and boys.

Uniform

Most, but not all, schools have a uniform. Many of the independent schools have a very strict uniform code which is enforced. The initial cost of outfitting children can be quite a surprise for parents, especially if there is more than one child. It might be wise, when visiting the school, to ask about specific requirements and costs involved. There are usually a summer and winter uniform, but at some schools, the wearing of a blazer is still a requirement even when the temperature soars.

Curriculum

The final report of the NSW school curriculum review, was released in the summer of 2020, with a recommendation that a new curriculum from kindergarten to year 12 should be implemented over the following seven years, giving more emphasis on 21st century skills and encouraging flexibility. In future, syllabuses will be less crowded and no longer time limited. In senior school there will be a smaller number of HSC (Higher School Certificate) subjects and there will be less division between academic and vocational learning.

Exit to overseas schools and universities

Bearing in mind that the seasons are reversed, the disparity in school calendars is probably the biggest obstacle for children returning to schools in the northern hemisphere. The differences in curriculum do not appear to be major hurdles and any differences are usually overcome by short periods of extra coaching.

Despite variations in curriculum, students can still gain admission to UK universities, as there are existing conversion systems reflecting the challenge generated by the HSC’s breadth. As a result of this, students have an extremely broad subject choice until year 11, and thus they would be well prepared for both HSC, and  A Levels.

High School Certificate (HSC)

At present, the only mandatory HSC course is English but there is an enormously long list of elective courses ranging from Agriculture to Visual Arts, taking in Maths, Languages and Technology amongst other choices. Students can also take VET (Vocational Education and Training) courses including Accounting, Hairdressing and Tourism. The course is evaluated 50 per cent on coursework and 50 per cent on exams taken in late October and early November. 

Admission to university depends on the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) which shows the student’s overall position (in percentile terms), compared to the national student body in that year.The ATAR is separately calculated by UAC (Universities Admissions Centre).Students study a range of subjects in year 11 & 12. Subjects are measured in units and while most subjects are worth two units, some extended or more demanding subjects are worth three or four units. 12/14 units are studied in year 11, which can reduce to 10 units in year 12. English is compulsory and science should not make up more than six units.

And finally…

The most frequently heard advice for families moving to Sydney is to find the school before looking for accommodation, and if you have a son he takes priority, NOT (no need for feminist panic) because boys are better but because places for boys are considerably rarer than those for girls.

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