Education is a shared responsibility of the Australian (Federal) Government and the individual state and territory governments. The Federal Government mainly provides funding for schools while the states and territories are responsible for the administration of that funding plus developing and implementing legislation and regulation governing areas such as assessment and accreditation of senior school qualifications.
Like many other areas of the law, the states and territories vary on their approaches to education and its various components, including the compulsory school age and the terminology used to describe school year levels.
The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) website is a useful national resource for school terminology. ACARA states for “school level and school year”:
- Typically, schooling commences at age five, is compulsory from age six until at least the completion of Year 10 and is completed at age 17 or 18. Primary education, including a preparatory year, lasts for either seven or eight years and is followed by secondary education of six or five years respectively.
- The preparatory year (first year of full-time schooling) is known as Preparatory in Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania, Kindergarten in New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory, Reception in South Australia, Pre-primary in Western Australia and Transition in the Northern Territory.
- For national reporting purposes, primary education comprises a pre-Year 1 year followed by Years 1–6 in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, Tasmania, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory. Primary education comprises a pre-Year 1 year followed by Years 1–7 in South Australia.
- Senior secondary education comprises Years 11 and 12 in all states and territories.
That is a lot of variation!
What is the Impact of the Different Approaches?
Essentially, the impact of having such different approaches to terminology and compulsory age requirements across Australia is confusing for any parent who moves interstate and seeks to enrol their child in a school in a jurisdiction where the requirements are different to the parent’s state of schooling. Similar confusion may be experienced by overseas parents investigating the Australian school system.
The variation in school starting age between states is listed below (primary source this ABC article):
- WA — It is compulsory for students to attend the first year of schooling (Pre-primary). Children must be enrolled if they are five or turning five by June 30 of that year. (Age range of children starting school: four-and-a-half to five-and-a-half).
- NSW — Up to parents to decide when children start school (Kindergarten) but all children must be in compulsory schooling by their sixth birthday. (Age range: four-and-a-half to six).
- Victoria — Up to parents to decide when children start school (Prep) but children must be in school the year they turn six. (Age range: four years and nine months to six).
- Queensland — Parents can delay entry for school (Prep) but children must be enrolled by the compulsory school start age of six-and-a-half. (Age range: four-and-a-half to six-and-a-half).
- SA — Children must be at school (Reception) by their sixth birthday. (Age range: four years and eight months to six).
- Tasmania — It is compulsory for students to attend school (Prep) if they have turned five by January 1 of the school year. (Age range: five to six).
- ACT — It is compulsory for students to be enrolled at school (Kindergarten) by the age of six. (Age range: five to six).
- NT — It is compulsory for students to be enrolled at school (Transition) by the age of six. (Age range: five to six).
As explained later in this article, there is an ongoing debate regarding whether or not the starting age should be standardised across Australia.
Parents Who Want to ‘Hold Their Child Back’
A recent ABC article has called attention to the challenges some parents face when wanting to ‘hold their child back’ from starting school at the compulsory school age. A Perth mother wants to hold her son back from starting Pre-primary because he is “not ready” and “won’t cope”. WA has the youngest compulsory school starting age in the country at four-and-a-half years, with enrolment in Pre-primary mandatory for children who turn five by June 30 unless there are “exceptional circumstances”.
The boy in question was born on June 23, 2015, a week before the cut-off date of June 30 — meaning he would be one of the youngest in his year throughout his school life if he started Pre-primary as the law requires next year.
As reported by the ABC, The Australian Childcare Alliance (ACA), which represents day care centres, has called on the WA Government to lift the minimum school starting age from four-and-a-half to five. The article quotes ACA WA executive officer Rachelle Tucker as saying: "I also think we need to raise the school age, make it consistent across all of Australia."
Introducing a nationally consistent starting age may help parents who are concerned about their child’s capacity to start school by the legally required date if:
- the standardised age reflects a best practice approach from experts across all states and territories
- policy around the starting age is enforced consistently
- parents receive support including being provided with information on child maturity and additional childcare options if a child is ‘held back’.
The debate around a national school starting age is a common topic in the media, as demonstrated by this May 2019 news.com.au article. According to the author of that article: “... there’s little to no appetite for a simple standardisation of a school starting age across the country, a move that would lessen confusion and anxiety for parents, make it easier for teachers to prepare for the age of the children they’re teaching and improve learning outcomes overall.”
This SMH article also calls for a national school starting age, arguing that:
“The absence of a nationally consistent school starting age means that funding and programs for the two years before school do not go far enough because they have to cover such wide variances in age and development milestones.
This impedes the measurement of learning outcomes to compare against global data on educational achievement.”
If a national review of school starting ages was to occur, it would be useful to also develop a nationally consistent term for the first year of “school”.