Author: Roger Cross, born in the UK, is an Australian citizen; he has a PhD in physical organic Chemistry, University of Adelaide. After spending time in research and industry he taught in schools for 10 years before becoming a science education lecturer. Prior to his retirement in 2003 he was senior lecturer, Department of Science and Mathematics Education, University of Melbourne. Now he researches science for citizenship. His most recent book is Beyond Belief: The British Bomb Tests: Australia's Veterans Speak Out

The education system in each of the Australian States and Territories has distinctive features.  This resulted from the autonomy of the States from each other prior to Federation in 1901.  There are six States and two Territories although both the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory now have parliaments of their own and are no longer administered by the central government. Consequently there are eight separate educational systems which, while they contain many common features, also have particular characteristics of their own. This makes it difficult to generalize, except to say the Australian educational system owes much to that of the United Kingdom, both in the structure of primary and secondary schooling and the mix of State Schools and private schools.

         One interesting feature is the strength of the Catholic segment of private schooling, which stems from the large predominantly catholic Irish and Italian immigration to Australia particularly in the State of Victoria.  The State Educational Authorities exercise different control over the curriculum in their schools to different extents, some very prescriptive and other giving control to the schools.  It is this latter type that is perhaps the most interesting and is seen to the greatest extent in the State of Victoria, the second most populous State. It should be noted that the Federal Government has been attempting to convince the States of the need for a common core curriculum across the States.  The rationale for this has been the difficulties children experience when they move from one State to another.  This has met with limited success at the moment because of the differing philosophical stances taken by States towards education.

The Example of Victoria 

Approximately one third of all children are in private schools; of these Catholic religious-based schools predominate.  Schools have total autonomy to set the curriculum for the first 11 years of schooling (called p-10), however the Ministry of Education has released Framework documents for the key subject areas which can be viewed as a retreat from this position.  It should be noted that the documents are in no way imposed on schools.  The political and educational debate surrounding the battle for autonomy was, I believe, lively and initiated by reformists in education in the 1960s and early 1970s.

         The schooling consists of:

         1. Kindergarten: optional for 4 year olds

         2 Primary School:  Seven years of schooling, classes Preparatory to grade 6.  Children enter at age 5.

         3. Secondary School (now called post-primary school): Six years of school, of which grades 7-19 are compulsory.

         The retention rate to year 12 is rapidly increasing and is now approaching 70%.  The retention rate has been steadily increasing from a rate of 45% and is expected to rise to 85% by the end of the decade.  Students can leave school at the end of year 10 (approximately 16 years).  Those students who complete post-primary school go on to year 12 and upon graduation receive the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE). This new policy requires all students to take four units of mathematics/science/technology studies.

Australian Science Education: The Case of the State of Victoria 

Primary school science (P-6) is quite variable.  Many schools run a completely thematic approach to teaching, although mathematics and language are separated out for special attention. The amount of science may vary from grade to grade as much as it varies from school to school.   A recent study by the Federal Government into Maths and Science has recommended an increase into the time devoted to science in pre-service training.  It is probably valid to say that few children receive what can be identified as science for primary children in a systematic way throughout their primary schooling.

         Secondary school science is quite a different story.  In the first 4 years of secondary school (years 7-10), science is a core part of the curriculum and is generally compulsory to year 10.  The allocation varies, but is normally in the order of 3 to 4, 50 minute periods per week (150-200 minutes).  Although there is autonomy and a wide range of textbooks to choose from, the curriculum doesn't vary a great deal from school to school. Students are involved in laboratory activities.  Students work in small teams to investigate phenomena related to the topic.

         Some schools organize each year of science around a theme, such as "Sun," or "Earth." By the use of the theme, Earth, as a unifying concept, it is believed that students will better appreciate that compartmentalization of science is artificial and unnecessary, and come to know and understand, just a little more about the "spaceship" or planet that hurtles earthlings through space.

         The science subjects for the last 2 years are part of the offerings of the VCE administered by the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Board.  The following subjects are available to students: biology, chemistry, geology, science, psychology, and physics.  Each subject is divided into 4 parts and counts 4 units of the 24-unit value VCE.  Students are expected to complete at least two of the four units of a course.  Some flexibility is built in allowing students to enter the beginning of unit 1, 2, or 3 of each course. 

One of the innovative attempts of the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Board is the science syllabus for each subject. There is a strong attempt to give students a picture of the role of science in society, thereby emphasizing an S-T-S approach. Central ideas or concepts are identified in the science syllabus, followed by very explicit contexts in which the ideas can be explored. The contexts involve the students in exploring science in everyday environments.