International locum tenens 101: Navigating Australia’s school system

Young Australian female student studying

Many locum tenens physicians who go to Australia move to the Land Down Under with their families, and an important part of any relocation is finding appropriate schooling for the kids.

Education in Australia is largely governed by the country’s individual states and territories, so children may have fairly different learning experiences depending on where they live. No matter which state they are in, however, all schools follow a curriculum that highlights the following eight key learning areas: English, math, societal and environmental studies, science, the arts, foreign languages, technology, and health.

If you’re a physician interested in locum tenens assignments in Australia, here is your comprehensive guide to Australia’s schools.

A brief overview of the different school systems in Australia

Families should be prepared for a different approach to education in Australia than what they’re used to back home. For instance, semesters are called “terms,” and instead of two, there are four. As well, the school year starts in late January or early February rather than what is late summer in the U.S.

But not all things are different. Students can expect to attend 13 years in total — from kindergarten to Year 12. Compulsory education starts at six years old; however, children normally attend a foundation year called Preparatory year at age five. Currently, children in all Australian states are eligible to enter non-compulsory education programs at age four.

Students enter primary school, which runs for seven or eight years, starting in kindergarten through to Year 6 or 7; they then progress to secondary school, which runs for three or four years, from Years 7 to 10 or 8 to 10; and finally, they enter senior secondary school — which typically runs for two years, Years 11 and 12.

Here are some more details of what you and your school-aged children can expect from the Australian school system.

Public versus private schooling

Australia’s public schooling system guarantees a place for every school-aged child — including new migrants — at their local public school. School placement is determined by a “catchment zone” or “district system” that are determined by each state’s Department of Education.

Tip: Parents can send their children to a public school outside their designated catchment zone, but each individual school can determine policies related to accepting out-of-one applicants.

Non-government schools in Australia are more commonly known as independent, or private, schools. Independent schools and Catholic schools comprise this option and make up approximately 1,187 of the 9,679 schools in Australia (12%). Similar to private schools in the U.S., Australian independent schools don’t typically have geographic boundaries; instead, they have other self-determined criteria by which they select which students to enroll. Example criteria may include preferential feeder primary schools, religious affiliations, or waiting lists. In contrast to public schools, private schools can choose their students.

Learn more about different schooling options available for your family here.

Opportunities for students with special needs

In Australia, special education can be delivered in multiple ways:

  1. In a regular classroom with a modified curriculum and/or additional teaching support.
  2. Within a regular school but in special, smaller class units.
  3. Via placement in special schools, which are available for students with disabilities requiring intensive support.

Special-needs education in Australia has an inclusive approach, where a child attends a mainstream school whenever possible. Because of this, the bulk of special education is provided in general schools with additional support services.

Before enrolling a child with special needs in an Australian school, you will need to contact the intended school’s principal and set up a consultation. Exact enrollment criteria vary across states and should be reviewed prior to your move.


Public schools are free to attend for Australian citizens and permanent residents, while independent and religious-affiliated schools usually charge attendance fees.

As a locum tenens in Australia, you may be on a temporary work visa. If your visa type is Temporary Skilled Shortage (TSS) 457 or 482, you will need to pay additional fees for school enrollment. The maximum fee you’ll pay for each student in 2023 is $5,900 for primary school and $7,000 for high school, but these vary across states. Other temporary work visas will not need to pay out of pocket for schooling.

Find more details about fees, circumstances that require payment, and more here.

The length of Australia’s school year

In most of Australia, the primary and secondary school year lasts between 175 to 200 days, on average, from late January or early February to early or mid December.

Summer is considered Terms 4 and 1, whereas winter is 2 and 3. This is relevant for uniform standards (stay tuned for more details) and for sports if your children are student athletes.

Australian state and territories’ school systems

Different Australian states have different fee requirements for dependent children of immigrants and expats. If your partner or spouse is pursuing higher education while you work locum tenens, you are more likely to have the costs of enrolling your children in public education waived.

Here’s a snapshot of how these fee systems vary, broken down by state or territory.

  1. Australian Capital Territory (ACT): In ACT, which includes the capital city of Canberra, some children are eligible to have their school fees waived. This includes those who are dependents of international students studying for higher degrees (masters and doctoral), as well as holders of some other temporary visas.
  2. New South Wales (NSW): School fees apply to most children of temporary residents; however, there are some exceptions. Sydney is the biggest city in NSW.
  3. Northern Territory (NT): Dependents can expect to pay full fees for schooling. An example city in NT is Darwin and Alice Springs, the gateway to the Outback.
  4. Queensland (QLD): Fee exemptions are available for eligible dependents whose parents are studying in Queensland tertiary institutions. Popular cities among expats in QLD include Brisbane, Gold Coast, and Cairns.
  5. South Australia (SA): Dependents of Higher Degree of Research students studying at South Australian universities, which includes institutions like The University of Adelaide and the University of South Australia, who meet the necessary criteria, are eligible to enroll in school without paying out of pocket.
  6. Victoria (VIC): Tuition fees are the same for all Victorian Government schools, but discounts are available for students who have a parent studying at a Victorian tertiary institute. Melbourne is a popular locum tenens destination in VIC.
  7. Tasmania (TAS): Most dependent students are required to pay tuition fees to attend a public school in TAS.
  8. Western Australia (WA): Subsidized education fees are available for children of individuals pursuing an international higher degree here, which includes popular destinations like Perth.

Research additional information about education variances across Australian states here.

Applying to schools in Australia and transferring credits from U.S. schools

Enrolling in school is a process that should be started as early as possible in your move abroad, as attending school is a requirement for children between six and 17 years in Australia.

If you plan to attend a government (public) school, where you live will determine which school your child can attend. Your enrollment process will depend on your child’s visa subclass number.

  • Category 1: Your child holds a permanent visa or is an Australian citizen. Your child will be accepted at school unique to your catchment zone and you will not need to pay school fees.
  • Category 2: Your child holds a specific temporary residence visa. Your child will have the same education options as Category 1 visa subclass holders.
  • Category 3: Your child is a dependent of a Temporary Skilled Shortage (TSS) 482 visa holder. Your child can attend the local public school but will need to pay school fees. This is the most likely scenario for a locum tenens in Australia.
  • Category 4: Your child is a temporary resident that does not fall into Categories 1, 2, or 3. Your child can enroll in a public school, but their place is not guaranteed. You will need to pay school fees.

Further, enrollment procedures will vary widely from school to school. Collecting and providing adequate supporting documentation will be a priority for your school application.

Since Australian schools follow a calendar that is different from the U.S., it is not uncommon for students to place in advance or behind their equivalent year in the U.S. school system.

What supporting documentation parents need in order to register their children for school

Despite enrollment requirements varying across state lines and individual institutions, families should prepare the following documents for your application, which are generally required regardless of enrollment.

  • Birth certificate
  • Passport with visa status
  • Emergency contact details
  • School reports, including examination results and work samples
  • Evidence of residency
  • Australian Childhood Immunisation Register (ACIR) immunization history statement. This can be retrieved via your Medicare online account, myGov, or the Medicare mobile app. Get more information here.

How school uniforms work

Many locum tenens workers in Australia are surprised to learn that even in public schools, Australian students are required to wear a school uniform. Wearing a uniform is compulsory in most Australia independent and Catholic schools, but it is required in most public schools as well.

Generally speaking, uniforms are designed with a color scheme in mind that is based on the school colors. Typically, schools will require a summer uniform, winter uniform, and sports uniform, and sometimes even winter jackets.

Tip: Australian schools generally have strict policies about sun care; a “no hat, no play” rule is widely adopted and strictly enforced.

School uniforms can be extremely expensive in Australia and enforcement varies from institution to institution. That said, you can purchase items from stores of your choosing. Required clothing items may include button-up shirts, tailored trousers, pleated skirts, and black leather shoes.

Australian schools for international locum tenens assignments, recapped

A transpacific move is a big deal, even more so if you’re bringing your school-aged children along for the ride. Enrolling your child in school should be an early priority as you plan your time Down Under. Determining your child’s school is easy due to catchment zones, but private schools can also be considered. Regardless of if you choose government or non-government schooling, you will likely need to budget for school fees — these are visa-dependent and waived in certain circumstances.

Applying to schools is a straightforward process but requires many steps. Communicate frequently with the administration of your intended school to ensure you pack the right documentation to ensure smooth enrollment.

And don’t forget to mentally prepare your kiddos for school uniforms, including hats.

Interested in learning more about practicing medicine in Australia? Give us a call at 1.800.760.3174 to learn more about locum tenens opportunities in Australia or view today’s physician jobs.