Higher levels of education are associated with increased likelihood of being employed, being in good health and reporting life satisfaction (OECD 2016a, 2018). In Australia, children must attend school until they complete Year 10. They then can participate in full-time education, employment or training (or a mix) until they are 17. This page presents national statistics to provide an overview of Australia’s performance in education for these compulsory schooling years.

The impact of COVID-19

School students and teachers across Australia were severely impacted by the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic in 2020. It disrupted teaching and learning across all states and territories. Each state and territory experienced and responded to the pandemic differently. Some were able to maintain a capacity for classroom learning, while others had to quickly adapt to an entirely online learning environment for an extended period of time. Similar impacts are also likely to occur during the outbreaks of the Delta variant of COVID-19 in Australia in 2021.

Due to the impact of COVID-19, school attendance data, usually published on an annual basis, are not available for 2020. Similarly, the National Assessment Program literacy and numeracy tests scheduled to take place in 2020 were cancelled. Preliminary NAPLAN results for 2021 suggest that the pandemic had no significant impact on students’ literacy and numeracy overall (ACARA 2021a), however the full impact of COVID-19 on learning and teaching is yet to be fully understood and is likely to be a focus of research well into the future.

School attendance

Attendance is an indicator of a child’s participation in school. Each day of attendance in school contributes towards a child’s learning and there does not appear to be a ‘safe’ threshold for which school absences do not have an impact (Hancock et al. 2013).

Student attendance rates refer to the number of days school was attended as a percentage of the total number of possible school days (see Glossary).

As 2020 attendance data are not available, data from 2019 has been used for analysis. In 2019, student attendance rates were:

  • 92% for all students in years 1–6 and 90% for all students in years 7–10, remaining fairly stable since 2015 (94% and 91% respectively)
  • lower in later year levels (88% in Year 10) than in earlier year levels (92% in Year 7)
  • higher in non-government schools (93%) than government schools (91%) for years 1–10
  • lower for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australian children than for non-Indigenous children in years 1–10 (82% and 92% respectively). Attendance rates for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous children remained relatively stable between 2015 and 2019
  • higher in Major cities (92%) compared with Inner regional (91%), Outer regional (90%), Remote (86%), and Very remote (71%) areas for years 1–10 (SCRGSP 2021).

Literacy and numeracy

The National Assessment Program—Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) is an annual assessment of students in years 3, 5, 7 and 9. NAPLAN assesses the types of skills essential for every child to progress through school and life:

  • reading
  • writing
  • language conventions (spelling, grammar and punctuation)
  • numeracy (ACARA 2019a).

NAPLAN results provide data to assess achievement against the national minimum standard and mean score (see Glossary).

NAPLAN mean scores generally range from 0–1,000 points, with higher scores indicating better performance, and are equated so that a score of 700 in Reading has the same meaning in 2009 and 2019 (ACARA 2019b).

A review of NAPLAN was commissioned in 2019, with results published in August 2020. The review considers whether NAPLAN remains fit-for-purpose, and makes several recommendations for future versions of the national standardised assessment.

NAPLAN 2020 Cancellation

Education ministers made the decision to cancel NAPLAN in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This meant students in years 3, 5, 7 and 9 in 2020 did not undertake the assessment. The decision to not proceed with NAPLAN in 2020 was taken to assist school leaders, teachers and support staff to focus on the wellbeing of students and continuity of education, including online and remote learning.

In May 2021, NAPLAN was undertaken in schools across the country, with national summary preliminary results released in August 2021.

Trends

From 2008 to 2021, national mean NAPLAN scores have generally improved across all domains, except Writing (Figure 1).

The largest improvements were in the Reading domain at Year 3 (37 points) and Year 5 (27 points). The greatest reductions in skill were in Writing for Year 9 (15 points) and Year 7 (7 points).

National mean scores on NAPLAN domains in 2021 did not change substantially from 2019 results. 

 

This graph shows national mean scores on the NAPLAN domain by year level in 2008, 2011 and 2021. Performance on the Reading, Spelling, Grammar and punctuation, and Numeracy domains was generally higher in 2021 than in 2008. Performance on the Writing domain was lower in 2021 than in 2011 for years 5, 7 and 9 and higher for Year 3.

Table 1 shows significant changes in NAPLAN domain scores between 2008 and 2021.

Table 1: NAPLAN mean scale scores in 2021, with significance of change between 2008 and 2021(a,b), by year level

 

Year 3

Year 5

Year 7

Year 9

Domain

2021

Change

2021

Change

2021

Change

2021

Change

Reading

437.3

arrow pointing up

511.6

arrow pointing up

542.4

577.5

Writing(c)

425.4

480.0

522.2

550.7

Spelling

421.0

arrow pointing up

504.5

arrow pointing up

548.7

580.1

Grammar and punctuation

433.2

arrow pointing up

502.8

533.4

570.9

Numeracy

403.4

495.2

arrow pointing up

550.6

587.9

arrow pointing up Statistically significant increase from base year.

arrow pointing down Statistically significant decrease from base year.

↑ Increase from base year (not statistically significant).

↓ Decrease from base year (not statistically significant).

  1. Significance testing calculated by ACARA.

  2. NAPLAN data for 2021 are preliminary summary results.

  3. Due to changes in the Writing assessment in 2011, the earliest year against which 2021 results on the Writing domain can be compared is 2011.

Source: ACARA 2021b.

In 2018, 2019 and 2021, NAPLAN tests were completed by students either online or in a paper format. By moving NAPLAN online it is hoped that the assessments will be more precise and more engaging for both schools and students.

The NAPLAN 2021 summary report combines both the online and paper results to allow year to year comparisons to be made. Results should always be interpreted with care, as students may have experienced connectivity issues while undertaking the online test.

Population groups

The latest NAPLAN data on population groups is from the 2019 NAPLAN National Report. In 2019:

  • across all assessed year levels, female students attained a higher mean score than males in Reading, Writing, Spelling, and Grammar and punctuation. On the Numeracy domain, females attained a lower mean score than males
  • children whose parents had attained a Bachelor degree or higher returned the highest mean scores
  • students from Very remote areas scored lowest across all NAPLAN domains when compared with students in other remoteness areas (ACARA 2021b).

International comparisons

Some international studies monitor the performance of primary and secondary school students around the world. These can be used to compare Australian students with their peers in other countries.

Programme for International Student Assessment

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a triennial survey of 15-year-old students around the world. It focuses on the core school subjects of science, reading and mathematics. The performance of Australian students was highest at the first year of measurement (2000) and has since declined across reading, science and mathematics (Figure 2). While Australian students have performed above the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average on all three measures, the difference between Australia and the OECD average has been decreasing (OECD 2016b).

 

This line graph shows the mean performance on the PISA scales, comparing Australia with all OECD countries. Mean performance on the reading literacy scale fluctuated, with an overall decline in Australia (2000: 528, 2018: 503), and in all OECD countries (2000: 500, 2018: 487). Mean performance on the Mathematical literacy scale declined between in Australia (2000: 533, 2018: 491) and in all OECD countries (2000: 500, 2018: 489). Mean performance on the Scientific literacy scale fluctuated, with an overall decline in Australia (2000: 528, 2018: 503) and in all OECD countries (2000: 500, 2018: 489).

Progress in International Reading Literacy Study

The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) assesses reading literacy in Year 4 students across 50 countries. The latest available data from the PIRLS comes from the 2016 report (Thomson et al. 2017a):

  • Australia’s average reading score (544) was significantly higher than 24 participating countries and significantly lower than 13 countries.
  • Australia scored similarly to the United States (549) and Canada (543), significantly higher than New Zealand (523), and significantly lower than Ireland (567), Northern Ireland (565) and England (559). The Russian Federation was the top scoring country (581) and South Africa the lowest (320) (Figure 3).
  • Australia’s mean reading score improved by nearly 20 points since 2011 (527 points in 2011).

The next PIRLS is scheduled to be undertaken in November, 2021.

 

This horizontal bar chart shows the mean scores on the PIRLS reading literacy assessment across 50 countries. Australia was ranked 21 with a score of 544. The scores ranged from 320 in South Africa to 581 in the Russian Federation.

Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) has internationally compared the performance of Year 4 and Year 8 students in mathematics and science since 1995. In the 2019 TIMSS report, of the 64 countries that participated, Australia was outperformed by 22 countries in Year 4 mathematics, 6 countries in Year 8 mathematics, 8 countries in Year 4 science, and 6 countries in Year 8 science (Thomson et al. 2020).

Where do I go for more information?

For more information on overall education, see:

References

ACARA (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority) 2019a. NAPLAN achievement in reading, writing, language conventions and numeracy: national report for 2019. Sydney: ACARA. 

ACARA 2019b. Score equivalence tables. Sydney: ACARA. Viewed 7 July 2021.

ACARA 2021a. NAPLAN 2021 summary results data. Media release. 25 August 2021. Sydney: ACARA. Viewed 25 August 2021. 

ACARA 2021b. NAPLAN results. Sydney: ACARA. Viewed 31 March 2021.

Hancock KJ, Shepherd CCJ,  Lawrence D & Zubrick SR 2013. Student attendance and educational outcomes: Every day counts. Report for the Department of Educations, Employment and Workplace Relations, Canberra. 

OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) 2001. Knowledge and skills for life—first results from the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2000. Paris: PISA, OECD Publishing.

OECD 2004. Learning for tomorrow’s world—first results from PISA 2003. Paris: PISA, OECD Publishing.

OECD 2007. PISA 2006: Science competencies for tomorrow’s world (Volume I: Analysis). Paris: PISA, OECD Publishing.

OECD 2010. PISA 2009 Results: What students know and can do—student performance in mathematics, reading and science (Volume I). Paris: PISA, OECD Publishing.

OECD 2014. PISA 2012 Results: What students know and can do—student performance in mathematics, reading and science (Volume I). Paris: PISA, OECD Publishing.

OECD 2016a. How are health and life satisfaction related to education? Education Indicators in Focus no. 47. Paris: OECD Publishing.

OECD 2016b. PISA 2015 Results (Volume I): Excellence and equity in education. Paris: PISA, OECD Publishing.

OECD 2018. Country Note; Australia. Paris: PISA, OECD Publishing

SCRGSP (Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision) 2021. Report on Government Services 2021. Canberra: Productivity Commission.

Thomson S, Hillman K, Schmid M, Rodrigues S & Fullarton J 2017a. Reporting Australia’s results PIRLS 2016. Camberwell: Australian Council for Educational Research.

Thomson S, Wernert N, O’Grady E & Rodrigues S 2020. TIMSS 2019: Volume 1: Student performance. Camberwell: Australian Council for Educational Research.