Canberra's classrooms

Like any town, the education institutions across Canberra have good and bad reputations that fluctuate over time. Particular schools are renowned for their sporting teams, others for their extra-curricular offerings, or their depth of available courses and teaching staff in a field of study. At the end of the day, it’s about finding the best match for the students in your family. Whether you prefer private over public, single-sex over co-ed, or you’re looking for a Defence-specific or bilingual program, there are many schools on offer to choose from. I won’t get into the rivalries and arguments of which school is best, simply because it’s a moot point. There is no one single school that is best for every student. I hope that this article will help highlight some key facts about schooling in the ACT for you, and help you understand the Canberra system. If you need any assistance, my services provide you with guidance on school selection and placement.


The ACT has many excellent schools and we enjoy a high standard of education across the board. The Government and private systems are both of high quality, with school fees ranging from voluntary contributions of a few hundred per annum per child, to over $20,000 at present. Some schools are single-sex, however many of those are co-ed for the earlier years of schooling. Most schools in the ACT are co-educational (boys and girls attend together). Some schools are bilingual, with the majority of teaching done in the non-English language.

Schools in the ACT operate on a term basis, usually commencing in the first week of February of each year. School terms last ten weeks, followed by two weeks of school holidays. The longer Summer break begins just before Christmas, allowing families an extended break to enjoy the warmer weather. Tertiary institutions operate on a semester or trimester basis, with Summer School offered over the longer break for those who wish to continue their studies.

Many private schools provide education from the age of 3 until Year 12, with fees increasing with the child’s age. Almost all private schools provide religious education, from Anglican, Christian, Catholic or Islamic teachings. There are also a small number of schools in Canberra offering Montessori and Steiner schooling. A full list of Canberra’s private schools can be found here. Boarding is provided by the Grammar schools for secondary school students, the annual cost is currently around $20,000. Wait lists can be the largest barrier to gaining admission to the private school of your choice. Some have specific intake years, and some restrict tours of the school to set times throughout the year. If you are considering private schooling in Canberra, I would suggest putting your name on a number of waitlists immediately. There is a small fee for doing so, but the sooner it is done the greater your chances become.

For families who move regularly, it may help to find a school that has formal support programs and an understanding curriculum in place. There are sixteen schools at present that provide assistance aimed at Defence families. They have at least one DSTA (Defence Service Transition Aide) on hand to help when needed, and there are often many other Defence families attending the school. The majority of such schools have ongoing support programs, which can be advantageous to all members of those families who move regularly.

Enrolments to Government schools in the ACT are now done online; full details can be found here. The Australian school system terminology, cut-off dates and tertiary entrance scoring methods vary across the country. This table may help you better understand the ACT system in comparison to other States and Territories.


Early Years Learning

Schooling starts at the age of 4 (a select number of schools offer 3-year-old preschool), with children who will have their 4th birthday by 30 April of that year being able to start preschool. In the ACT, preschool is free of charge at all Government preschools. Preschool operates for 15 hours per week, with most offering a rotating attendance schedule of 3 days one week, 2 days the next. I say most, because it is worth checking at each preschool as it varies from year to year as well as from school to school! Many provide integration to the adjacent primary school, providing youngsters with an opportunity to get a taste of what lies ahead.


Primary School

Primary schools operate from Kindergarten (5 year olds) through to Year 6, although a few of the newer Government schools carry through from Preschool until Year 10, they are listed here. Government Primary schools provide language and music lessons alongside the standard curriculum. More information on the ACT Government teaching curriculum can be found here.

There are a variety of Government specialist schools for students with special needs, and a number of mainstream schools have dedicated teachers and aides with their own resources for special needs children within a mainstream school.


High School and College

Canberra’s High schools provide education for Years 7-10, where most children are 16 upon finishing Year 10. Government High schools are generally of excellent quality, however there are a few with lesser reputations than others.

The college system is unique to Canberra, with students attending these Government-funded schools to complete Years 11 and 12. At this stage, the choice of college can be an important factor as each tends to have its own speciality, with a couple of Government colleges offering the International Baccalaureate program (IB) as well as most private schools. Students are delighted to learn that no subjects are mandatory at college, they are free to choose their courses with assistance from career counsellors. Attending a college that aligns with their field of interest is an important consideration. Many units of study are now being recognised by the tertiary sector, and can provide an easy pathway to first-year tertiary studies. Choosing the correct college for your child can make the transition to higher education much simpler, as entry to University is offered on the basis of your child’s ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank) score. In Canberra, this is determined by their grades achieved across Years 11 and 12, subtly influenced by the college’s overall performance and the units studied. Some colleges’ median scores are higher than others, and this may influence your choice of college. The student’s own results are supplemented by a grading exam known as the ACT Scaling Test (AST). There is no HSC exam in Canberra, with one or two exceptions at select private schools. The absence of the pressure of the HSC can be a great opportunity for those students who may perform poorly in one single exam.


Tertiary Education

Vocational courses are offered at CIT (Canberra Institute of Technology) which has a number of campuses across Canberra. This is similar to TAFE in other parts of Australia. Many of these courses also provide advanced standing to related University degrees.

Canberra has four universities, the Australian National University (ANU) which spans across its own suburb of Acton; the University of Canberra (UC) in Bruce; the Defence-specific Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) in Duntroon; and the Australian Catholic University (ACU) located in Watson. Each provides internationally-recognised qualifications from bachelor to post-doctorate degrees. The graduation ceremonies are usually held in significant buildings around Canberra, my own was at Parliament House which made for some beautiful photos!


Canberra enjoys a great number of quality schools, providing an excellent standard of education overall. The broad variety of subjects and specialities available to students is expected in any modern city, bringing every possible career opportunity for the aspiring student. Alongside this, Canberra still manages to retain the country-town feel usually reserved for regional Australia. Students know one another, well beyond those students in their own school. The universities are highly regarded both within Australia and internationally, and the standard across the majority of Government schools and private schools is consistently high.


Quality of education is often at the top of the list of priorities for families arriving in Canberra. Should you be considering a move to the nation’s capital city and require assistance with the selection and enrolment process, I am always available to help. Your suburb of residence is frequently determined by zoning areas to gain priority enrolment at your chosen school. As a local Canberran who was schooled here (albeit some time ago) and who now has children attending school, I am well placed to match your needs to the ACT school system. Feel free to contact me if you need some local insight and ready assistance with your move to Canberra. 


Best wishes for your house-hunting,

Claire Corby