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Living and Learning in the “Land Down Under": Education in Australia

By Guest Blogger — February 25, 2019 5 min read
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Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj is an associate professor at Seton Hall University. She’s the author of the book Unaccompanied Minors and her research has been featured in popular outlets like the New York Times and the Huffington Post. She’s spending the year as a visiting researcher at Australia’s University of Sydney, so she’ll explore how issues of school choice, rural education, and teacher recruitment get tackled down under. Today she’s joined by coauthor Matthew A.M. Thomas, an American senior lecturer at the University of Sydney.

Australia. For many Americans, this distant country conjures up images of kangaroos, crocodile hunters, and Vegemite sandwiches courtesy of the pop culture that found its way to American soil. This superficial knowledge of the vast “land down under” belies the country’s rich and complex history and its interesting educational context that is ripe for comparison with the U.S.

So, in the next three guest blog posts, we’ll highlight a few key aspects of the educational landscape in Australia that we’ve found particularly notable as American academics living and working in Australia (one temporarily as a visiting researcher on sabbatical and one permanently, as a senior lecturer, both at the University of Sydney). We’ll describe the extensive system of school choice and controversial funding policies, and explore some of the initiatives in place to try to attract and retain strong teachers in rural and remote areas.

Before we dive into the nitty gritty of schooling in Australia, it is helpful to understand more about the country itself (i.e., no one actually drinks Fosters Beer), and to outline some core tenets of the educational system. Australia is simultaneously the world’s largest island and smallest continental land mass, and the sixth largest country in the world. It is only slightly smaller geographically than the USA, which is the fourth largest in the world. Despite similarities in land mass, these two countries have drastically different populations: Approximately 25 million people live in Australia (spread across six states and two territories) whereas the U.S. is home to more than 300 million.

Both countries have complex histories of migration, although the nature and impetus for new arrivals landing on Australian shores in the 1800s were quite distinct, as many of the early immigrants were British convicts and therefore migrated involuntarily. Moreover, the horrific mistreatment of indigenous communities in both the U.S. and Australia reflect shared sources of national shame.

To this day, migration remains an important feature of Australia’s demography. As of the latest census (in 2016) nearly half of people in Australia were either foreign-born (28.4 percent) or had at least one foreign-born parent (20.9 percent), with nearly one-fifth of the foreign-born population arriving since 2012. While migrants from the United Kingdom and New Zealand comprise the largest share of the foreign-born population (21 percent combined), there has been measurable growth in both Chinese and Indian migration in recent years, a trend that is poised to continue.

The growing diversity of Australia’s population is mirrored in its schools. In New South Wales, for example, the most populous state that is home to the largest number of foreign-born families, roughly a third of students in public schools come from language backgrounds other than English. Of these students, 15.9 percent come from Chinese language backgrounds followed by 13.9 percent of students where Arabic is the dominant home language. Much like the U.S., people (and students) are not evenly distributed across Australia. More than 9 million people live in Melbourne and Sydney alone, contributing to the 86 percent urbanization rate. But Australia’s comparatively smaller population means that the population density in some areas is extremely low, creating a unique challenge for staffing public schools in rural and remote areas (see this coming Friday’s blog post).

There are approximately 9,400 schools in Australia comprising three basic types: government (public), Catholic (private), and independent (private). With more than 275,000 full-time teachers in these schools, the system-wide student-teacher ratio is 13.7 to 1, with independent schools having the lowest ratio at 11.8 to 1 and Catholic schools the highest at 14.4 to 1.

As in the U.S., much of the educational decision-making in Australia occurs at the state/territory level, though funding for education is shared between the federal government (28.4 percent) and states/territories (71.6 percent). In general, the Commonwealth is the “majority public funder” for private, non-government schools (shocking, we know!), while states and territories are the majority public funder for public, government schools. This unique system exists largely for historical and political reasons, and remains a topic of intense debate (see this coming Wednesday’s blog post).

Several recent national innovations—including the National Assessment of Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) and MySchool—have likewise proven controversial. NAPLAN is a series of tests administered in grades 3, 5, 7, and 9 (akin to NAEP in the U.S.). Critics argue that NAPLAN has failed to improve assessment results while increasing time spent on test preparation.

Meanwhile, MySchool is an online database available to parents/guardians interested in reviewing the performance and funding levels of individual schools. It’s been attacked for promoting competition among schools and parents and reinforcing market ideologies among citizens.

In sum, in some ways educational policy in Australia is quite similar to the U.S., while in others it strays widely. In the blog posts that follow we will explore issues relevant to both contexts, while drawing comparisons that hopefully leave you wanting to learn more about Australia, to discover its educational challenges and successes, and to take a long plane ride to come see it all for yourself. Plus, koalas.

—Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj and Matthew A.M. Thomas

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.