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International Practices in Special Education: Debates and Challenges
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Preschool (also known as kindergarten) is relatively unregulated and not compulsory. Preschools are run by the state and territory governments, except in NSW, Victoria, and South Australia where they are administered by local councils, community groups, or private organizations. Fiscal and administrative responsibility for preschools in NSW and Victoria rests with the Department of Community Services and the Department of Human Services, respectively. In all other states and territories, responsibility for preschools rests with the relevant education department (The Structures of Preschool Education in Australia, 2007).

Preschool is offered to 3- to 5-year-olds. Attendance numbers vary widely between the states. In general, some 86% of children attend preschool centers.

Primary and Secondary Schools

Primary schools cover 7 years, or 8, if one includes the prep grade, or preschool for 5-year-olds. The name for the first year of primary school varies considerably between the states and territories. For example, what is known as kindergarten in ACT and NSW may mean the year proceeding the first year of primary school or preschool in other states and territories. Some states vary as whether Year 7 is part of the primary area or not.

Secondary schools cover 6 years for 12- to 17-year-olds. More than 74% of students stay at school until Year 12, the final year of secondary schooling. Year 12 examinations are externally administered by the relevant states and territories. All students who sit for the final Year 12 examinations are ranked. These scores are used for university admission (99.9 score for medicine or 95 for the commerce faculty at the University of Melbourne). The score of 95 means that the candidate, ranked against some 60,000 students who sat for the Year 12 examination, placed in the top 5% in the state.

The 2006 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) ranked the Australian education system as 6th for reading, 8th for science, and 13th for mathematics on a worldwide scale including 56 countries (Australian Council for Educational Research [ACER] 2009). The 2008 Education Index, published with the Human Development index (United Nations [UN], 2009), listed Australia as 0.993. This is one of the highest in the world, tied for first with Finland and Denmark.

Higher Education Sector

There are 38 government and 2 private universities in Australia. The federal government funds the public universities but is not involved in setting curriculum: Each higher education institution designs its own programs and curricula. A relevant professional body must endorse a course for it to run. Typically, a university degree takes 3 or 4 years to complete, followed by master’s (1 to 2 year) and doctoral (2 to 4 year) programs.


Students meeting Australian government criteria for disability status are referred to as students with a disability. The term disability includes individuals with cognitive and intellectual disabilities, physical disabilities, vision impairments, hearing impairments, language disorders, autism, pervasive developmental disorders, chronic medical conditions, and multiple disabilities. Some students also have other forms of disadvantage, whether it is isolation, poverty, being indigenous, social deprivation, and so on.

There are about 100,000 students with disabilities in Australian schools, both special schools and regular schools. Some students with disabilities are educated in special schools that provide a very important educational environment for those students. There are about 20,000 students in these separate special schools—that is, about 15 to 20% of all children with disabilities. The remainder—about 80%—attend our regular primary and secondary schools.

Recent years have seen a very significant increase in the number of students with disabilities being mainstreamed into government schools. Interestingly, about two-thirds are in primary schools (Australian Human Rights Commission, n.d.).

The identification and assessment of students with disabilities play an important role in the initial stages of pedagogy. Clearly, the identification of a child with a disability or a learning difficulty needs to occur at an early stage to maximize cognitive developments and social benefits to the individual and the family. In Australia, access to specialist resources addressing special needs is available at the school level. During the identification and assessment stage of students with disabilities, schools use specific disability criteria. An example from the state of NSW is shown in Table 1.

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