Education in Australia - from abc to A’s, B’s and C’s

Using 2021 Census data to examine the journey of students through school and beyond, and the characteristics of teachers


Who’s learning? – About students

On the day of the Census, 10 August 2021, there were approximately 6.2 million people across Australia attending an educational institution. This includes people who were engaged in education remotely due to COVID-19 restrictions, as well as those undertaking study online or via correspondence.

Of the current students:

  • 11.4% were aged 3-5 years
  • 71.5% were aged 6-24 years
  • 17.1% were aged 25 years and over
  • 79.3% were studying full-time.

While attendance at educational institutions follows a strong age-based trend, there are some ages that mark a transition point between different types of education. This includes:

  • ages 3, 4 and 5 (as children transition through preschool into primary school)
  • ages 11, 12 and 13 (as children transition from primary to secondary school)
  • ages 16, 17 and 18 (as young people transition out of secondary school).
  1. Age is shown as age on the day of the Census, 10 August 2021.
  2. Excludes people whose educational institution was not stated.
  3. Other includes Primary schools not further defined, Secondary schools not further defined, Tertiary institutions not further defined and Other educational institutions.

More than half of children aged 5 years were attending primary school (58.7%), with 36.7% of 5-year-olds in preschool.

Around two-thirds of children aged 12 at Census time were attending secondary schools (64.1%).

While a small proportion of students were undertaking tertiary study at 15 years of age (0.6% of all 15-year-olds), this transition became more common at 18 years of age, with 42.3% of 18 to 24-year-olds attending vocational education, university or another tertiary institution.

Starting the education journey - Preschool

Preschool is a structured, play-based learning program delivered by a degree-qualified teacher. It is aimed primarily at children in the year or two before they commence full-time schooling. Preschool programs are delivered in different ways across Australian states and territories and have varying age requirements.

In 2021, around 484,000 children aged 3-5 years were attending preschool.

At Census time in 2021, of children aged 3, 4 and 5 years, 53.8% of males and 52.3% of females attended preschool. This does not represent the proportion of children overall that attend preschool as the calculation of these proportions includes some children that have not yet attended preschool and may in the future, as well as some children that have left preschool and are now in primary school.

53.7% of children aged 3-5 years living in greater capital city areas were attending preschool, compared with 51.8% of those living outside of greater capital city areas.

Primary and secondary school

In 2021, 2.1 million students were attending primary schools around Australia. Most primary school students (98.9%) were aged 5-12 years. 1.5 million students attended secondary schools with most students (93.9%) aged 12-17 years.

A larger proportion of people reported completing a higher level of schooling in 2021, compared with 20 years ago. In 2021, 58.4% of people 17 years and over reported completing year 12, compared with 39.1% in 2001.  

Government and private schools

The majority of students in Australia attended a Government school. In 2021 this was almost two-thirds (63.6%) of primary and secondary students.

The largest provider of non-government schooling in Australia is Catholic education. Since the first Catholic school was founded in Sydney in 1820, the number of Catholic schools in Australia has grown to over 1,700[1]. In 2021, 20.7% of primary and secondary students attended Catholic schools.

Overall primary school students were more likely to attend Government schools than secondary school students. In 2021, 68.5% of primary school students and 57.3% of secondary students were attending Government schools.

Students who attended a Catholic or Other Non-Government school were more likely to have a religious affiliation. In 2021, 71.9% of children who attended a Catholic or Other Non-Government school had a religious affiliation compared to 44.1% of students who went to Government schools.

In 2021, students who were attending Catholic schools were most likely to report being Catholic (61.1%), while almost one in five (19.9%) had no religious affiliation.

While most Other Non-Government schools in Australia were affiliated with a religion[2], 35.1% of students in 2021 had no religious affiliation. The most common religious affiliations of students attending Other Non-Government schools were Catholic (12.5%), Anglican (11.6%) and Islam (8.4%).

And onwards – Tertiary education

In 2021, there were 1.8 million tertiary students aged 15 years and over (9.7% of the total population aged 15 years and over).

Of tertiary students:

  • over 600 thousand (33.6%) were undertaking vocational education
  • 1.2 million (66.2%) were in university or other higher education.

Health and non-school education

People with long-term health conditions or a need for assistance were less likely to be studying at the tertiary level than people without those conditions.

Of people in the most common age bracket for tertiary study (18-24 years):

  • 17.6% who needed assistance with core activities were currently undertaking tertiary study, compared with 42.9% of people who did not need assistance.
  • 39.1% of people with one or more long-term health conditions were undertaking tertiary study, compared with 43.3% without. The likelihood of studying decreased with the number of health conditions, with 28.7% of people with three or more long-term health conditions studying.
  • 37.9% of people with a mental health condition were undertaking tertiary study, compared with 43.1% without a mental health condition.

Who’s qualified? – Qualifications in education

An increasing proportion of the Australian population are obtaining a non-school qualification. In 1981, just under one-quarter of people aged 15 and over (24.2% or 2.6 million people) had completed non-school study. By 2021, this had risen to 54.7% (11.4 million people). 


  1. People aged 15 years and over.
  2. Does not include inadequately described and not stated.

The gap between males and females with non-school qualifications has diminished over time to be almost the same in 2021, with 5.6 million males and 5.7 million females aged 15 years and over having non-school qualifications.

In 2021, qualifications at the certificate level continued to be the most common non-school qualification for males, with 42.8% (2.4 million) of males who reported having a qualification having a certificate. The most common non-school qualification for females was a bachelor level degree, which has been the case since 1996. In 2021, over 1 million females reported having a postgraduate qualification compared with 830,000 males.

  1. Males aged 15 years and over.
  1. Females aged 15 years and over.

When looking at the field of highest qualification, differences can be seen when comparing males and females. Qualifications in Business and Management, Accounting, Food and Hospitality, and Teacher Education were popular fields of highest qualification for both males and females. Qualifications in Construction, Engineering and IT were more popular for males, and qualifications in Nursing, Human Welfare, and Behavioural Science were more popular for females.

Top 10 qualifications by sex, 2021
 Males Females
1Building566,332Business and Management669,578
2Business and Management474,510Teacher Education644,694
3Electrical and Electronic Engineering and Technology401,202Nursing551,761
4Engineering and Related Technologies, nfd338,761Human Welfare Studies and Services481,641
5Mechanical and Industrial Engineering and Technology336,820Accounting297,379
6Accounting232,933Personal Services233,080
7Information Technology, nfd230,908Food and Hospitality172,607
8Food and Hospitality215,219Sales and Marketing166,102
9Automotive Engineering and Technology211,986Office Studies141,248
10Teacher Education191,718Behavioural Science109,938

Who’s teaching? – About teachers

In 2021, there were 519,000 people currently working in teaching occupations.

The Census reports occupations according to the Australian and New Zealand Standard Classification of Occupations (ANZSCO). The ANZSCO is hierarchical allowing users to analyse broad categories or delve into detailed levels of the classification. At the most detailed (six-digit) level, the following table identifies the teaching occupations examined in this article. For this analysis, education support workers and private teachers/instructors were not included as teachers.

Selected teaching occupations by sex, 2021
 OccupationTotal (count)Proportion male (%)Proportion female (%)
School Principal2432334.765.3
Faculty Head523341.858.2
School Teachers nfd1364027.572.5
Early Childhood (Pre-primary School) Teacher300122.497.6
Primary School Teachers16489114.985.1
Middle School Teacher60434.864.7
Secondary School Teacher15584237.862.2
Special Education Teachers nfd9918.276.8
Special Needs Teacher2297714.385.7
Teacher of the Hearing Impaired6719.291.4
Teacher of the Sight Impaired18511.487.6
Special Education Teachers nec158227.173.3
Tertiary Education Teachers nfd130450.249.8
University Lecturers and Tutors nfd101240.958.9
University Lecturer3953650.249.8
University Tutor947546.553.6
Vocational Education Teacher3016550.549.5
Teacher of English to Speakers of Other Languages534620.579.4
Education Professionals nfd1185037.662.3

Of the 19 teacher occupations included in this analysis, females accounted for more than half of the workforce for 16 of these occupations, the exceptions being tertiary education teachers, university lecturers and vocational education teachers where there was an even split between males and females. Females accounted for over 97% of all early childhood (pre-primary school) teachers.

In 2021, almost three-quarters (73.1%) of all people in teaching occupations were female. This proportion has increased over the past four decades, up from 59.5% in 1981.

While females are in the majority for all occupations within the teaching workforce, this proportion decreases as the age of the student increases.

In 2021, females made up:

  • 85.1% of primary school teachers
  • 62.2% of secondary school teachers
  • 50.2% of the tertiary educator workforce.

Despite the proportional reduction of males in teaching occupations, secondary teaching remains a popular choice of occupation for both males and females in the workforce. In 2021, secondary and middle school teachers combined was the 12th most common occupation for males and 7th most common occupation for females.

Primary school teaching was less popular with males than secondary school teaching. In 2021, primary school teacher was the 4th most common occupation reported for females and 51st most common occupation reported for males. 

In 2021, one in every fifteen females aged 18 years and over (6.5%) was working as a teacher, compared with one in forty (2.4%) males.

How old are our teachers?

Like the Australian population, the teacher workforce is ageing. In 1981, more than half (54.2%) of the teacher workforce was under 35 years old. By 2001, this had dropped to just over a quarter of teachers (27.2%), rising slightly to 28.8% in 2021.

In contrast, the proportion of teachers aged 55 years and over almost doubled in this time, rising from 11.8% in 1981 to 22.7% in 2021.

The median age of female teachers increased from 32 years in 1981 to 42 years in 2021. For male teachers, the median age was 35 years in 1981, rising to 44 years in 2021. 

Cultural characteristics

Over three-quarters (77.2%) of teachers reported being born in Australia, compared with 66.6% of the general population aged 18 years and over. The next most common countries of birth were England (4.2%), New Zealand (1.6%) and India (1.6%).

When looking specifically at primary and secondary teachers, 82.5% were born in Australia, while 58.7% of tertiary educators were born in Australia. Of the 41.1% of tertiary educators born overseas, the most common countries of birth were England (14.6%), China (9.2%) and India (7.8%).

Across Australia, around 1.5% of teachers identified as being of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander origin. This was a similar proportion for both primary and secondary teachers, as well as tertiary educators.

Most people working as a teacher (85.2%) primarily used English at home. This was particularly true for primary and secondary teachers, where 88.7% used English as their main language at home. Of the 14.6% of all teachers who used a language other than English at home, 12.2% used Mandarin, 7.0% used Greek and 6.7% used Arabic.

Of the one-quarter (25.8%) of tertiary educators who reported using a language other than English at home, 17.2% used Mandarin, 4.6% used Bengali and 4.4% used German.

Working hours

More than three in five (62.9%) people working in teaching occupations reported working full-time hours the week before Census, with 31.2% working part-time and 6.0% away from work.

This compares with the 60.3% of people working full-time in all other occupations, 31.2% working part-time, and 7.7% away from work the week before Census.

Male teachers were more likely to work full-time than female teachers (72.8% and 58.9% respectively).

Working hours differed for primary, secondary and tertiary educators, with university lecturers and vocational education teachers most likely to work part-time. 29.4% of male tertiary educators worked part-time, compared with 43.7% of female tertiary educators.

Primary school teachers were more likely to be part-time than secondary school teachers:

  • 21.7% of male and 34.7% of female primary school teachers worked part-time
  • 17.4% of male and 26.5% of female secondary school teachers worked part-time.

The median weekly hours worked by full-time teachers was 40 hours, similar to people in other full-time occupations. 85.2% of school principals reported working more than 40 hours in the week before Census. School principals had one of the highest median weekly hours worked (50 hours) compared to other occupations.


People working as teachers were more likely to volunteer than the general population. In 2021, around one-quarter (24.6%) of people working as teachers reported that they were volunteers, compared with 14.4% of people working in other occupations, and 14.1% of the total population aged 18 years and over.


  1. National Catholic Education Commission, 'Catholic Education - Celebrating 200 years',, last viewed 6 December 2022
  2. Independent Schools Australia, Independent School Enrolments: Deep Dive,, last viewed 6 December 2022
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