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Education in Sydney Australia

Traditional is a term used here for many private and independent schools that operate the New South Wales (or other states) curriculum but are considered to be similar to the British system.

Many of those schools are over 100 years old and the education style was laid down when Australia was a colony and still looked up to mother England as the authority on all things. Sir Robert Menzies, the Prime Minister during WWII, always talked about UK as "home" and his quote "I did but see her passing by, and yet I'll love her till I die." (in tribute to Queen Elizabeth II) is a classic example of the reverence to Royalty and UK. Things have moved on here, but there are still some hang-overs from the Glorious Past….

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 overall modern system has become much more complicated, with very rigourous 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.

Education in Australia is administrated by the individual states. New South Wales education is administered by The Board of Studies which sets the Curriculum from kindergarten to year 12. 

To start school, children must turn 5 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 6 years of age. School year starts in late January and finishes early/mid December. There are four terms and three breaks of between 2 and 3 weeks. State (government) schools charge a fee ($150-350 p.a.) and although this is voluntary, most parents pay.

There are three types of high schools in New South Wales: government, Catholic and independent schools. Australia has a high enrolment of children in private schools, currently around 35 %, due in part to the partial funding of private schools by the federal government.

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.  Primary Schools are known as public schools and are also called  state and primary schools. The local public primary schools have a reasonably good reputation and are basically free - maybe about $500 a year, and as in most places, it matters where you live. However, even in the best areas, all parents report under-funding by the government. 

There are no tables and there is no rating system (recently discussed again in State Parliament but caused no end of ranting from various parties and at the moment seems to have moved into the "too hard" basket. Everything, therefore, is word of mouth. As Sydney has a population of over 4 million, people tend to go on what they have heard over the years. As teachers and principals are constantly on the move, (and parents have a bad day) so word of mouth reputations rise and fall.

Good areas tend to have good local schools (and good local schools keep the property values up). There are catchment areas for each school; a school is obliged to offer a place if you live within the boundary areas and the school has vacancies in the year required, but some catchment areas are quite small (Glenmore Rd school is great in Paddington, but if you live on the wrong end of Glenmore Road, you don't necessarily get a place - some people rent for the sole purpose of 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. However, local advice is that a bit of pandering/promises of helping on school committee/etc could do the trick...

Placements are done around the summer (Northern Hemisphere summer) time of year. Enrolments are usually around the 550 - some schools up to 700 and some as small as 100. Most parents seem happy with quality of teaching staff in their various schools, but do check child to teacher ratio: classes can run to over 34.

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 other will have large green area and some have swimming pools (outdoor). 

Note that Sydney is growing rapidly, aided by quite a large immigrant population often coming from non-english speaking  countries. This appears to sometimes put a strain on the teaching staff although nearly all schools have  ESL teachers. (English second language).

Location of office will obviously dictate an area of residence. 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.

On the website of Department of Training and Industry; the links to Public schools provide a wealth of information. This website also lists all government schools by region Northern Sydney and Sydney are probably the sites worth checking - unfortunately all government schools are on this list (even this site calls these schools both Public and Primary schools K-6). On the school locator, it is possible to check for Public schools only. There are links to all the schools and their websites, although there is no set layout and on some sites it looks as the pupils may have had some input (some well laid out with lots of info - others are like trying to unscramble eggs!).

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. To gain a coveted place, candidates sit the very rigorous Selective High Schools Test in year 6 for entry to year 7. This is theoretically the top academic 4 to 5% of the state of New South Wales.

Although the selective schools may appear as a desirable option for some expat parents, the strict requirement of permanent Australian residency and challenging exams, which must be applied for a year in advance, do not make this a feasible choice. For those making their permanent home in Sydney, whose children are highly motivated and strive for academic success, further information is available at

Catholic Systemic Schools

The Catholic sector takes approximately 20% 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. These schools 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 enroll the child at the time of conception…not an exaggeration.

Most of these schools are single sex, although a few of the boy’s schools take girls in years 10-12. A number of these schools are “selective” which indicates pupils are chosen on an individual merit as opposed to first-come-first-served. These schools 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.

Several schools that are exceptions to the traditional style schools are gaining excellent reputations for both pastoral care and academic success. Places are hard to find in most independent schools, especially for boys. Keep options open. There are no schools in Sydney offering the British curriculum and only one, an American school,  offering the International Baccalaureate. This school is also the only school in Sydney to operate on a northern hemisphere calendar.


The traditional New South Wales High School curriculum has similarities to the UK system, with obviously more emphasis on Australian history, literature and related areas. In years 3 and 5, children undertake basic skills tests. The results are available to schools and parents but are not widely published. The School Certificate awarded in year 10 is a combination of coursework years 7-10 and exams taken in November. This is an indicator for future study in years 11-12 but has little relevance in the community.

The New South Wales High School Certificate “HSC”, taken in Year 12, is not as specialized as English A levels, as pupils usually take between 4 and 6 subjects, but is more focused than the US system. The Board of Studies publishes a brief list of HSC high achievers by subject and pupils achieving the highest band of marks, but there are no school league tables. The local newspapers translate this given information into a brief list of the “top” performing schools, which is really just a minor indicator of what constitutes a good school.

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. Anecdotal accounts suggest although foreign languages may present a problem in the short term, other 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 the A levels. One possible discrepancy would be history, as the focus of the two systems will differ. Prospective American university students sit SATs arranged through the U.S. consulate in Sydney.

High School Certificate (HSC)

Students study a range of subjects in year 11. Subjects are measured in units and while most subjects are worth 2 units, some extended or more demanding subjects are worth 3 or 4 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 6 units.

The course is evaluated 50% on coursework and 50% on exams taken in late October and early November. The students are sent their results, which show achievement within given descriptors. To apply for a university place, the HSC score has to be converted into a University Admission Index number (UAI), calculated by the University Admission Centre. The UAI is a percentile rank (between 30 and 100 with increments of 0.05) using the HSC score plus other specifics to calculate the student’s position relative to other students. 

As an indicator, a UAI of 99.60 is necessary to study Law and medicine, whereas a UAI of 80 would be required for teaching and nursing. The confusion between HSC and UAI is not unusual, some schools report their achievements in UAI terms. Others use the HSC. Students can achieve high marks in the HSC, but are scaled back by subject choice; less rigorous subjects carry less weight and therefore will reduce the UAI. University places are allocated by UAI scores. For 99% of courses no interview is required.


When considering education, families moving to Sydney should be aware that, depending on their visa, they could be liable to pay considerable school fees even if their children are in state schools. The government requires that the visa holder pay Australian tax to take advantage of state schools.

Private schools command a great deal of respect in the Sydney community. Demand for places is strong, and the number of schools has grown little in the last 40 years. Admittedly, some schools have increased enrollments, but many of the schools with long waiting lists have a reputation of being somewhat aloof. 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, as places for boys are considerably harder to find than for girls.

Boarding is an option that may open a few more doors, and could be worth considering. Many of the schools are large: enrollments of over 1000 are not unusual. As a rule when visiting a prospective school, families will meet an enrollment 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 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 Sydney, 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.

Very few schools have dining halls. Children either take a pack lunch from home (including a frozen drink which acts as a chiller) or buy a take-away lunch from the canteen. Lunch is then eaten in a designated space nearly always outside, usually in a shady area. Alternative arrangements are made during inclement weather. Exposure to sun damage is taken seriously by all schools. The “no hat, no play” directive operates everywhere. Younger children often have a second “play” hat as part of their uniform that is left at school.

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.

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.

A Final Note: Most state schools do not have air-conditioning (except for some specialist buildings such as libraries, auditoriums in some independent schools etc); most rely on cross-ventilation that isn’t always as effective as the pupils, and some of the staff, would like, and can be quite uncomfortable some days. Not all private schools have air-conditioning, but the buildings are usually more climate friendly.

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