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Independent Schools Overview

Independent schools are a significant, large and growing component of the Australian schooling system. They have a reputation as providers of quality education and are recognised for their leadership and innovation in school education. Including independent Catholic schools, 1,104 of the 9,414 schools in Australia are in the Independent sector. In 2016, they enrolled over 594,200 students, 16 per cent of the Australian student population.

Catholic systemic schools make up the remainder of the non-government school sector, enrolling 19 per cent of students, and government schools account for the remaining 65 per cent of students. Like both Catholic systemic and government schools, Independent schools are diverse, in terms of the communities they serve, their student population, their size and nature. This diversity has long been considered a major strength of the Australian schooling system, serving well the needs of a geographically dispersed, socially mixed, multicultural and multi-faith population.

Independent schools are located in all states and territories. The majority – 69 per cent – are in metropolitan areas, although there are also many Independent schools, including Aboriginal community schools, located in rural and remote areas. Independent schools in the city also attract many students from rural and isolated areas. Independent schools include small and large day schools and boarding schools, co-educational and single-sex schools.

Many Independent schools are affiliated with a particular religion or promote a particular educational philosophy. Some schools with common aims, affiliations or educational philosophies are governed and administered as systems. Within the sector, systems – which account for 15 per cent of Independent school students – vary in size from as many as 37 schools to as few as .

All recognised government and non-government schools in Australia operate within the bounds of state and territory and Australian Government legislation which together impose requirements in relation to financial operation, accountability, the curriculum, assessment and reporting. What distinguishes Independent schools from other non-government and government schools is their independence of operation within these boundaries. Apart from systemic schools, where the system authority has a management role, Independent schools are set up and governed on an individual school basis, connected directly to their community and answerable to their own governing board or management committee.

In 2016, the Independent school sector enrolled 594,200 students, representing 16 per cent of total school enrolments in Australia.

The Independent sector’s enrolment share is more significant in the later years of schooling, as the table below shows. While 11.5 per cent of primary students attend Independent schools, this proportion rises to 18.2 per cent at the junior secondary level and to 19.0 per cent at senior secondary.

Full-time equivalent (FTE) enrolments by sector and level, 2016*

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics
*The ABS classifies independent Catholic schools as Catholic, rather than Independent.

Over the past 45 years the Independent school sector’s share of Australian full-time school enrolments has grown, from 4.1 per cent in 1970 to 14.5 per cent in 2016 although the rate of growth has slowed in recent years.

Growth in both the number and diversity of Independent schools over time has resulted in greatly increased access to Independent schooling for a wider section of the population. In the last decade, the average annual increase in full-time enrolments in the Independent sector, at 2.1 per cent, has consistently exceeded the average growth at Catholic systemic (1.2 per cent) and government (0.9 per cent) schools. Much of the growth has been in low fee schools serving disadvantaged communities.

Independent schools are a diverse group of non-government schools serving a range of different communities.  Many Independent schools provide a religious or values-based education. Others promote a particular educational philosophy or interpretation of mainstream education. Independent schools include:

  • Schools affiliated with Christian denominations, for example Anglican, Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Lutheran, Uniting Church, Seventh Day Adventist and Presbyterian
  • Non-denominational Christian schools
  • Islamic schools
  • Jewish schools
  • Montessori schools
  • Rudolf Steiner schools
  • Schools constituted under specific Acts of Parliament, such as grammar schools in some states
  • Indigenous community schools
  • Schools that specialise in meeting the needs of students with disabilities
  • Schools that cater for students at severe educational risk due to a range of social/emotional/behavioural and other risk factors

School systems bring together schools with common aims, affiliations or educational philosophies and account for some 18 per cent of the Independent sector’s students. Independent sector systems are predominately state or territory based. Some systems represent a loose collection of schools, while others possess stronger systemic arrangements with greater central influence and provision of services.

The largest systems within the Independent school sector are the Lutheran, Anglican and Seventh Day Adventist school systems. There are also numerous other groupings of Independent schools throughout Australia that are not formal systems but which provide member schools with support.

The 594,200 students attending Independent schools come from all socio-economic backgrounds. As a sector, Independent schools provide for students of all abilities, including students with special needs, and serve a wide range of communities from remote and disadvantaged indigenous communities to socially, culturally and ethnically diverse communities in capital cities.

The majority of schools in the sector are co-educational although single-sex schools remain a feature of the sector, with 21 per cent of boys enrolled in boys-only schools and 23 per cent of girls attending girls-only schools. In 2016, 78 per cent of Independent school students attended co-educational schools.

The Independent sector differs from the Catholic and government schools in the proportion of enrolments in primary and secondary education. In the Independent sector, primary schooling accounts for just under half the total student population, 46 per cent, whereas in Catholic and government schools, primary students account for 53 per cent and 61 per cent respectively. Conversely, secondary students make up 54 per cent of Independent school students, compared with 47 per cent of Catholic school students and 39 per cent of government school students. This appears to be largely due to a cohort of students that switch to an Independent school for secondary or senior secondary education, although this pattern differs across jurisdictions.

The Independent sector also differs from Catholic system and government schools in the prevalence of combined schools which offer both primary and secondary schooling in the one school. Sixty-six per cent of all Independent schools are combined schools. A number of Independent schools also offer middle school programs, designed to meet the specific developmental needs of early adolescence.

Some 12,618 Indigenous students were enrolled in Independent schools in 2016. Many of these students attend one of the 33 Majority Indigenous Student Schools in the sector, which are mostly located in remote areas. Indigenous enrolments in Independent schools over the past decade have been increasing at an average annual rate of 6 per cent, same as the increase in Indigenous enrolments in Catholic systemic schools and compared with a 4 per cent increase in government schools. In 2016, they represented 2 per cent of the Independent school student population, compared with 3 per cent of Catholic systemic school students and 7 per cent of government school students. More information on Indigenous students is available in Independent Updates.

There were 21,530 students with a disability enrolled in Independent schools in 2016, representing 4 per cent of the Independent school student population. This is more than double the number of students with disability enrolled in 2006. Most of these students attend regular Independent schools although more than 3,400 attend one of the 92 special schools in the sector.

The Independent school sector has considerable involvement in providing education opportunities for overseas students, mainly at the secondary level. More than 6,820 overseas students attended Independent schools in Australia in 2016. This represents the second consecutive increase in enrolments for several years.

In 2016, Independent schools employed 17,881 full-time primary and 28,476 full-time secondary teachers. This represents 17 per cent of the Australian teaching workforce. Independent primary and secondary schools also employed 24,741 non-teaching staff.

Student-teacher ratios in the Independent sector have reduced over time, from the 1973 levels of 17.1 for primary and 14.2 for secondary to 14.0 and 10.4 respectively in 2016. As can be seen from the table below, student-teacher ratios in the Independent sector have been consistently lower than the Catholic and government sectors.

Student-teacher ratios 1973 – 2016

Year Government Non-Government
Catholic Independent
Primary Secondary Primary Secondary Primary Secondary
1973 25.1 16.2 29.6 22.2 17.1 14.2
1980 20.2 12.2 23.9 16.6 17.3 13.3
1990 17.9 12 21.1 14 16.9 12.2
2000 17.1 12.6 19.1 13.4 15.7 11.4
2010 15.4 12.3 17.6 12.8 14.9 10.5
2016 15.3 12.7 16.9 12.8 14.0 10.4

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics
*The ABS classifies independent Catholic schools as Catholic, rather than Independent.

The Independent school sector contains some of Australia’s largest schools and a significant number of smaller schools. Nineteen Independent schools (2 per cent) have more than 2,000 students, while at the other extreme, about 118 schools (11 per cent) have fewer than 50 students. Thirty eight per cent of Independent schools have fewer than 200 students, and 43 per cent have enrolments between 200 and 1,000.
The average size of an Independent school is 525 students. This compares with the average size for a Catholic school of 441 and for government schools of 373.

Survey research shows that the main driver of school choice is the desire of parents to match the school with the individual needs of the child and the values of the family. Other reasons parents choose an Independent school for their children include religious affiliation, academic outcomes, particularly at Year 12, quality teaching, a supportive caring environment, the physical environment and facilities, the content of the curriculum, quality leadership and extra-curricular opportunities. See Parents and school choice for more information.

Independent schools are funded by a combination of parental contribution and Australian Government and state and territory government funding. The majority of funding for the sector – 58 per cent of recurrent income and 90 per cent of capital income – comes from parents and other private sources.

The willingness and commitment of Independent school parents to pay school fees is estimated to save governments approximately $4.4 billion a year in schooling costs, based on a calculation of the additional funding that would be required if all Independent school students attended government schools where they would be fully publicly funded.

In the shared responsibilities for education between the Australian Government and the states and territories in Australia’s federal system, the Australian Government is the major source of government funding for non-government schools, while state and territory governments are the main source of funding for government schools. For the Independent sector as a whole, the Australian Government provides 75 per cent of government recurrent funding and the states and territory governments provide the remaining 25 per cent.

A new approach to funding non-government schools commenced in 2014, under the Australian Education Act 2013 which resulted from the ‘Gonski’ Review of School Funding commissioned in 2010. The legislated funding model, based on a Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) with additional loadings to address disadvantage, is being phased in over the next several years and applies to each of the approximately 900 non-systemic Independent schools. For the 8,500 systemic schools, including systemic Independent schools, system authorities can decide how to distribute Australian Government funding to individual schools as long as it is according to an approved needs-based methodology.

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