Participation in secondary school enables young people to develop their skills and knowledge, increasing their productivity and often leading to higher personal earnings and improved health and wellbeing outcomes. A highly skilled workforce also contributes to economic growth (World Bank 2005). In Australia, completing Year 12 or an equivalent qualification is an important milestone in the transition to adulthood (Liu & Nguyen 2011). Those who have completed Year 12 are more likely to continue with further education or training and have a more successful transition into the workforce (ABS 2011).

Are students staying in school?

The apparent retention rate to Year 12 is an estimate of the percentage of students who stay enrolled full time in secondary education from the start of secondary school (year 7 or 8, depending on the state or territory) to Year 12 (see glossary).

In 2018, the apparent retention rate to Year 12 was 85%, an increase from 75% in 2008 (ABS 2009, 2019).

In 2018, more females than males were staying in school until Year 12; 89% of females compared with 81% of males. Apparent retention rates for both sexes have increased since 2008, by 9 percentage points for females and 12 percentage points for males (ABS 2009, ABS 2019).

Attainment of Year 12 or equivalent

The attainment rate is the proportion of all estimated Year 12 students who meet the requirements of a Year 12 or equivalent qualification (see glossary) (SCRGSP 2018b). This rate has been steadily increasing over the last few decades.

In 2018, more than three-quarters (78%) of people aged 15–64 had attained Year 12 or equivalent or a non-school qualification at Certificate III level or above. This proportion rose slightly to 79% when including people with a Certificate II (ABS 2018).

In 2018, of people aged 20–24:

  • women (90%) were more likely than men (88%) to have completed Year 12 or a Certificate III or above, consistent with previous years
  • people living in Major cities (91%) were more likely than those living in other remoteness areas to have completed Year 12 or a Certificate III or above (Figure 1).

This horizontal bar chart shows that the proportion of persons aged 20-24 with Year 12 or equivalent, or non-school qualification at Certificate III level or above, varies by remoteness area. Major cities: 91.0%, Inner regional: 82.0%, Outer regional: 80.9%, Remote and Very Remote: 67.7%.

COAG attainment rate targets

The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) has endorsed national targets to increase the Year 12 attainment rate in Australia. These targets are described through national education (COAG 2016) and Indigenous reform agreements (SCRGSP 2018a).

The target to lift the Year 12 or equivalent (including Certificate III) attainment rate of those aged 20–24 to 90% by 2020 is on track (Productivity Commission 2017). The attainment rate increased overall between 2008 and 2018, from 83.2% to 88.8% (ABS 2019). However, the rate decreased from the peak of 89.2% in 2016 (Productivity Commission 2017).

The target to halve the gap for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians aged 20–24 in Year 12 or equivalent attainment is on track to be met by 2020. See Indigenous education and skills for more on this target.

Expectation of university study

A student’s expectations of future education can influence their motivation, behaviour and achievement in school. Students with higher expectations of future study, including those who expect to go to university, tend to perform better (Khattab 2015; Hillman 2018).

According to the Programme for International Student Assessment, in 2015:

  • 54% of Australian students aged 15 expected to continue their study at university when they finished Year 12. Another 3.2% expected they would study at a Technical and Further Education (TAFE) institution.
  • 60% of female students expected to complete a university degree compared with 49% of male students (Hillman 2018).

Between 2003 and 2015, the proportion of Australian students aged 15 expecting to study at a:

  • university declined from 63% to 54%
  • TAFE institution declined from 8.0% to 3.2% (Hillman 2018).

The total number of commencing undergraduate students in 2015 was 361,412 (DET 2016). This was a 67% increase from 216,559 in 2003 (DET 2013).

Marked disparities in educational expectations exist across different population groups, often reflecting wider patterns of disadvantage in Australia. In 2015:

  • only 28% of Indigenous students expected to complete a university degree, down from 43% in 2003
  • 39% of students in schools in remote areas expected to complete a university degree, compared with 59% of students in metropolitan areas
  • only 34% of students in the lowest socioeconomic quartile expected to complete a university degree, compared with 77% in the highest socioeconomic quartile
  • even among high achieving students, only 74% of those from low socioeconomic backgrounds expected to complete a university degree, compared with 92% from high socioeconomic backgrounds (Hillman 2018).

Of students born in Australia, only 48% expected to complete a university degree, compared with 70% of students born overseas (Hillman 2018).

International comparisons

In 2015, Australia ranked 11th (at 54%) out of 35 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries for the proportion of 15-year-olds expecting to complete university (Figure 2). This was below the United States (first at 76%) and Canada (sixth at 64%) but above New Zealand (15th at 45%) and the United Kingdom (17th at 42%; Figure 2). The OECD average was 44% (OECD 2015).

This horizontal bar chart shows the proportion of 15-year-olds expecting to complete university across 35 OECD countries. In 2015, the proportions ranged from 17.4% in the Netherlands to 76.0% in the USA.

Where do I go for more information?

For more information on school retention and completion, see:

References

ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 2009. Schools, Australia, 2008. ABS cat no. 4221.0. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2011. Australian social trends March 2011: Year 12 attainment. ABS cat no. 4102.0. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2018. Education and Work, Australia, May 2018. ABS cat no. 6227.0. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2019. Schools, Australia, 2018. ABS cat no. 4221.0. Canberra: ABS.

COAG (Council of Australian Governments) 2016. Report on performance 2016. Canberra: Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

DET (Department of Education) 2013. 2004 student summary tables – student numbers. TRIM reference D14/83107. Canberra: DET.

DET 2016. 2015 student summary tables. TRIM reference D16/1268925. Canberra: DET.

Hillman K 2018. PISA Australia in Focus no. 2: Educational expectations. Camberwell: Australian Council for Educational Research.

Khattab N 2015. Students’ aspirations, expectations and school achievement: what really matters? British Educational Research Journal 41:731–748.

Liu S & Nguyen N 2011. Longitudinal surveys of Australian youth, briefing paper 25: successful youth transitions. Adelaide: National Centre for Vocational Education Research Ltd.

OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) 2015. PISA 2015 Results, Students’ Well-being Volume III.

Productivity Commission 2017. Performance reporting dashboard. Viewed 23 October 2018.

SCRGSP (Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision) 2018a. National Agreement Performance Information 2017–18: National Indigenous Reform Agreement. Canberra: Productivity Commission.

SCRGSP 2018b. Report on Government Services 2018: School education. Canberra: Productivity Commission.

World Bank 2005. The importance of investing in secondary education. In expanding opportunities and building competencies for young people: a new agenda for secondary education. Washington: World Bank. Viewed 22 October 2018.

Alternative text for figures

Figure 1: Proportion of persons aged 20–24 with Year 12 or equivalent, or non-school qualification at Certificate III level or above, by remoteness area, 2018

This horizontal bar chart shows that the proportion of persons aged 20-24 with Year 12 or equivalent, or non-school qualification at Certificate III level or above, varies by remoteness area. Major cities: 91.0%, Inner regional: 82.0%, Outer regional: 80.9%, Remote and Very Remote: 67.7%.

Figure 2: Proportion of 15-year olds expecting to complete university, OECD countries, 2015

This horizontal bar chart shows the proportion of 15-year-olds expecting to complete university across 35 OECD countries. In 2015, the proportions ranged from 17.4% in the Netherlands to 76.0% in the USA.