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International Practices in Special Education: Debates and Challenges

Margret A. Winzer and
Kas Mazurek, Editors

Part Six: The Pacific Rim—Changing
Paradigms and New Approaches

Current Developments in Education Policy
for Students With Disabilities in Australia

Joseph Zajda

Washed by the Pacific and Indian oceans, Australia has 34,218 kilometers of coastline and a landmass of 7,617,930 square kilometers. The nation is a federation of six states—Victoria, South Australia, New South Wales (NSW), Queensland, Tasmania, and WesternAustralia—and two territories—the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) and the Northern Territory.

Australia was claimed by Britain in 1778 and founded in 1788. The country was first settled through penal transportation to the Botany Bay colony of NSW. The gold rush in the early 1850s brought new immigrants and new prosperity to the various colonies. On January 1, 1901, the six colonies joined to become a federation and the Commonwealth of Australia was formed.

Australia is a constitutional monarchy with a federal division of powers. It uses a parliamentary system of government, headed by Queen Elizabeth II as the Queen of Australia. The Queen is represented by her viceroys in Australia: the Governor General of Australia and governors for each state.


Australia has over 22 million people. The urban population is nearly 90%, which makes Australia one of the most urbanized nations globally. All of Australia’s major cities rate very highly in global comparative livability surveys. Melbourne reached second place on The Economist’s 2008 World’s Most Livable Cities list (The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2009). Australia was ranked second in the United Nations (UN) Human Development Index (UN, 2009).

Almost 90% of the population is of European descent. Most Australians are descended from colonial-era settlers and post-Federation immigrants from Europe and other parts of the world. The vast majority of immigrants came from the British Isles, and the people of Australia are still mainly of British or Irish ethnic origin. In the 2006 Australian census, the most commonly nominated ancestry was Australian (37%), followed by English (31.7% ), Irish (9%), Scottish (7.6%), Italian (4.3%), German (4%), Chinese (3.4%), and Greek (1.8%).

Australia is a free market economy defined by a neo-liberal ideology. It has a high gross domestic product (GDP) per capita and a low rate of poverty. It was ranked third in the 2010 Index of Economic Freedom, and is globally the 13th largest economy out of 196 nations. Australia has the 11th highest per-capita GDP (similar to that of the United States).


Education in Australia is primarily the responsibility of the states and territories that manage the school system within individual states, provide funding, and regulate the public and private schools as well as postsecondary institutions. Both public schools and private schools exist in each state. While the curriculum taught in each state or school may vary, the learning areas are the same in all.

Education is compulsory between the ages of 5 and 15 to 17, depending on the jurisdiction. The academic year in Australia varies between states and institutions but generally runs from late January/early February until mid-December for primary and secondary schools. Postcompulsory education is regulated within the Australian Qualifications Framework, a unified system of national qualifications in schools, vocational education, and training (Technical and Further Education, or TAFE) and the higher education sector.

Schools in Australia are based on a three-tier structure: government schools, Catholic schools, and independent schools. Government schools educate about 65% of Australian students; some 35% attend Catholic and independent schools. Regardless of whether a school is part of the government, Catholic, or independent systems, it is required to follow the curriculum frameworks of its state or territory.

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