The Australian and British Education Systems

There are a lot of expats out there who are convinced the British system is superior and that Australian education falls short. They patrol around on places like PomsInOz, PomsDownUnder, and other such creatively named forums, telling horror stories about their experiences with the Australian education system. Some expats even go so far as to return to the UK solely for the education.

But are they really that bad? Realistically, is there such a gap between the standard of education that it warrants moving to a different country? Of course not! If you lived in Africa, or the Middle East, or the PNG highlands, then by all means, return to a different country to give your child a better education, but Australia and the UK are both developed nations, have a lot in common, and really, the qualify of just about anything between the two countries is more or less equal. And, to be honest, I’ve heard just as many horror stories about state schools in the UK as I have of public schools in Australia (and, given that I spend far more time in Australia than I do in the UK, that’s really saying something).

One of the first things I notice in many of these stories is that someone has moved their children from a Public or independent school in the UK to a public school in Australia. I don’t know whether it’s foolhardiness, ignorance, or genuine confusion over the name, but comparing two schools like that is like comparing apples and oranges. They’re completely different. A Public school in the UK is a privately-owned, often very exclusive and very selective school, while a public school in Australia is state-run. If you’re going to compare schools, compare UK Public schools with Australian private schools, and UK state schools with Australian public schools. There’s more of a difference between the two sorts of education than there is between the two countries, as anyone in either country ought to know, and I’m going to talk mostly about the state/public sort of education, because it’s much more unified in both countries.

To start off with, the philosophy behind education is rather different in the two countries. In the UK, the point of school is largely to learn facts to help you in later life. In Australia, the point of school is to teach you to think, to adapt and to learn for yourself. Many Australian curriculums don’t emphasise the teaching of facts as much as the teaching of life skills and independent thinking. This results in a stark contrast in the younger years between students in the UK, who often have very academic and rigorous curriculums and lots of homework, and students in Australia, who have a less rigorous curriculum and spend a lot of time doing independent and group-based research on various topics. The truth is, both students are learning pretty much the same things, it just seems from both an outside and a British perspective that the Australian kid and education system is slack.

From left to right: Australian facility/school, Australian Curriculum Band/framework/ School Year in both countries, child's age in both countries, UK National Curriculum Key Stage, UK school/facility.

From left to right: Australian facility/school, Australian Curriculum Band/framework/ School Year in both countries, child’s age in both countries, UK National Curriculum Key Stage, UK school/facility.

Both systems are fairly similar for the first decade or so of compulsory education, and quite a few direct comparisons can be made between the British National Curriculum, the Australian National Curriculum (which is only about half-implemented), and various Australian state curriculums. A fair indicator of how good an education system or curriculum is is whether it’s being used outside of the country it was intended for – and in both cases, it is. Aside from the usual suspects of various Commonwealth and former Empire nations (most notably India and Pakistan, as well as Afghanistan) using a British curriculum, the Middle East uses both British and Australian (Victorian and NSW) curriculums, and there are several schools in Mainland China which also use a Victorian curriculum. Unlike the British curriculum, which is used in more places worldwide, various Australian systems aren’t actively pushed in the international arena.

At a basic level, both the British and Australian National Curriculums (as well as the NSW curriculum, I believe) are made up of Key Stages (UK) or Bands (Australia), which organises education into manageable chunks and offers standards and assessments which should be reached by the end. The Key Stages/Bands more or less correspond, too, with Band 1 and Key Stage 1 being roughly analogous (Band 1 is R-2, while KS 1 is just 1 & 2), Key Stage 2 comprising Band 2 and Band 3, Key Stage 3 and Band 4 corresponding, as well as Key Stage 4 and Band 5. The ANC (as well as, I believe, the NSW and Victorian curriculums) are very strongly based on the British “Key Stage” system. In terms of what’s actually learnt, you can compare the British National Curriculum with the Australian National Curriculum as well as the Victorian and South Australian there. None of these sites, of course, gives much information beyond about Year 10, and I’ll cover that in a bit, but I’m sure you’ll find the actual material learnt is much the same, although it may be taught and applied differently.

The Australian and British systems of education are much closer in terms of schools, levels, and terminology than either is to, say, the American system, for example. Both Australian and British systems are two-cycle, which means you have one primary school of seven to eight years and one secondary school of five to six years – and unlike the American and French systems, which are three-cycle and include a primary/elementary school, a middle or junior high school, and an upper secondary or high school. Also, both places use school uniforms – and very similar-looking school uniforms, at that.
However, it’s when you get to leaving certificates that the Australian and British systems diverge quite suddenly. In the UK – and in Scotland, which uses a different system (surprise, surprise) – you have two levels of qualifications/certificates at the high school level – the GCSE (former “O-Level”) and the A-Levels. GCSEs are done in Years 10 and 11, and A-Levels in 12 and 13. Both allow students to choose a small selection of subjects to study, with an exam at the end.

Australia, on the other hand, has just one certificate at the end of high school. The name and exact requirements vary from state to state, but (with the exception of NSW), each ends with the words “Certificate of Education” (SACE is South Australian Certificate of Education, WACE is Western Australia Certificate of Education, VCE is Victorian Certificate of Education, and so forth). Such a certificate programme usually lasts for two years (sometimes two-and-a-half years if there are requirements in Year 10, or three years if you choose to spread it out a bit and do fewer subjects at once) and allow students to choose about 5 subjects. Australian certificates of education are much more proficiency-based than GCSEs and A-Levels, which means that only about 30-50% of the final mark for a subject comes from the final exam, and the rest is made up with various assessments and tasks completed throughout the year or semester. It’s thought that this gives the opportunity for students who don’t test well to still do well in the subject.

In terms of education level, the certificates of education (let’s call them ACE, which is probably what the National Curriculum version will be called if they ever get around to developing it) fit somewhere between GCSEs and A-Levels – which makes sense, given that you do GCSEs in Year 11, ACE in Year 12, and A-Levels in Year 13. Personally, I think the British idea of having two qualifications is better than the Australian idea of one, because that means that the less-academic students who drop out/ get a job or apprenticeship after Year 11 then have some sort of education certificate.

In terms of private/Public schools, in both nations, they’re often fairly autonomous in their curriculum and education standard. In both countries, they’re known for having a higher education standard, and certainly both are known for having better facilities. In both cases, private/Public schools often follow a different curriculum to state/public schools – Cambridge programmes, International Baccalaureate programmes, or an independent programme of some sort. It’s difficult to compare them, since there’s so much variety, but it should be noted that many Public schools in the UK have offshoots in Australia – Winchester, for example.

A common alternative curriculum in both countries is the International Baccalaureate (IB). It is in comparison to the IB that we can draw some more conclusions about the education level and style in either nation. In the UK, schools offering the IB usually offer it all the way through school, or might even offer just the PYP and MYP without the Diploma. In Australia, the opposite is true. It’s far more common for schools to offer just the Diploma, without any opportunity to do the PYP or MYP first. Very few students in the UK swap from the National Curriculum to the IB Diploma programme, while it is more than common in Australia.

Why is this? Am I just making generalisations with no evidence? I don’t think I am. As I mentioned at the beginning, the Australian education emphases individual learning and critical thinking far more than it does knowledge of facts. The IB programmes are the same, although it should be said they probably emphasise knowledge of facts far more than various Australian curriculums do. It’s easier for Australian students to transition to the IB Diploma because all of their education to that point has been very similar – and in many cases directly adapted from – the IB programme. It’s harder for British students because the driving force and style of education is much different.

Australian education is much more “alternative” and wholistic in nature than the British. A quick glance at the two nation curriculums reveals that – in Music, for example, the British system in primary school focusses almost entirely on academics, knowledge and skills, while the Australian system at the same level encourages thinking about why music is made, and where, and how it effects and is effected by culture and people – perhaps to the detriment of actual music skills and knowledge! This pattern is reflected in almost every subject.

Alternative education systems, such as Montessori and Waldorf-Steiner are popular in Australia, and not all that different to the teaching methods employed in various public and other private schools. Homeschooling is far more common in Australia than in the UK, and much more widely-accepted, perhaps due in part to the long geography-induced history of distance and correspondence education. The British system favours hard facts and traditional teaching methods, while the Australian system favours critical thinking and wholistic teaching methods. Both systems have their benefits and their pitfalls, and both systems have good schools and bad schools, and while it does result in a very different experience at the primary school level, neither system is significantly better than the other.

(That’s a nice final, dramatic note to end on, but I’m not going to. I’m just going to put in as an addendum that the UK is significantly better with special provisions than Australia. Australia does well for normal but academically struggling kids, but has very little provision at present for either gifted kids or those with special needs such as autism – and God forbid you have both! The UK, on the other hand, has tonnes of provisions for both ends of the spectrum in terms of programmes in schools and even schools specifically for these needs. Australia has certainly improved in this field from twenty or even ten years ago, but it has a long way to go to catch up to the UK).