Australian schools v US schools
Differences between America & Australia, Posts

Mind, body & spirit: the difference between Australian & American private schools

I’ve been trying to articulate the difference between Australian and American private school and couldn’t seem to put my finger on it.  Until now. So I thought I’d take a stab at comparing school in Australia to LA.

If you’re moving (anywhere but especially overseas) and you’ve got kids then school is possibly the biggest factor to nail down.

One of the questions I often get asked is how schools here in the US compare to Australia (and some ask how they compare to International School in Shanghai).  The immediate assumption is that schools are better here (or maybe there’s a bit of colonial paranoia creeping in?) .  I, of course, beg to differ.  Here are some examples of the differences in the systems.


Australia adopts an all-encompassing approach to education, ie they offer art, drama, music, maths, english, science, geography, PE AND sport.  Boys schools even offer woodwork and Design & Technology (D&T) and the girls schools also offer Home Economics and D&T.

America adopts an all-encompassing approach to education in that they offer art, drama, music, math, english, science and geography.  But you have to choose two electives out of art, drama or music.  There are many more great electives to choose from like Theatre, Dance and Video Production but you still have to choose.

America’s school mantra is: Academics are king.  Must.  Get.  Into.  Good. College.

Australia’s school mantra is to produce all-rounded kids (except where schools have an academic leaning and they say so).  My son’s school refers to it as mind, body & spirit.  Many schools mean the same thing but just articulate it differently but I think it sums it up perfectly: Challenge their minds, build their bodies and develop their spirit. The bottom line is by the time they leave school they have produced a well-balanced young man.


The typical school day in Australia is 8:30 – 3:30 (or combinations around that).  In America my kids start school at 8:30 and finish at 3:00.  On Fridays they finish at 2:00.


In Australia, sport is not PE.  PE–otherwise known as PDHPE (Physical Development, Health & Physical Education) as the name suggests encompasses lots of things, not just physical education.

Sport is sport.  Time set aside for this too–often more at a boys’ school because of the need for them to run around–but it involves choosing a competitive sport.  They train once or twice a week during school (sometimes after or a combination of both) and there’s a “no-cut” policy (a term I’ve only just really learnt) in that everyone gets to–has to–compete against another team (hopefully) on their own level.  Here Sport is part of the PE timetable.

(I met a lady who left our school here in the US because she didn’t like that our school has a no-cut policy.  She wanted her kids playing among the best competing among the best.  I challenged her asking why sport could not be played by everyone as long as 1) they played sport and 2) they played on a level similar to their own.  We never did finish that conversation.)

Everyone’s games are on Saturday.  As much as we bitch and moan about it it’s easy to work a schedule around keeping Saturdays free for sport (and, for a large part, club sport works around this too).  Here the games are all over the place at different times so if you have commitments outside school it makes it tough.


This is possibly where schools are closest: they have band, choir and orchestra and schools put on plays (and musicals here).  But for boys many of the private schools in Australia offer Cadets.  It’s a military thing through and through.  I remember the boys going home in their cadet uniforms when I was growing up and I wasn’t sure about it but now that I have a young teenager I mourn his absence from the program.  It not only teaches discipline but it gets them out in the great outdoors cooking for themselves and to quote the boys, “fending off brown snakes”.  There are so many elements to this one program that teaches so much.

Both my kids had top-class swimming programs at their schools where they swam before or after school for a nominal fee as often as they wanted.  I would drop them to school at 6:00 and 7:00am and once they’d finished their training they’d head to school via the cafeteria for breakfast.

While we’re lucky enough to have a great after-school swimming program here I have to pay for it.  There’s no thought-process that offering programs like that here produces good swimmers that would be good for the school’s reputation.  To promote their schools in Australia they use academic results and sporting achievements; in America it’s which (Ivy-League) Colleges graduates get into.

Great promise of opportunities

One of the thought processes when we decided to move here was to give the kids a great experience and be able to participate in a whole host of activities.  You know? Like on TV?  I’ve watched Glee and 90210, there’s something for everyone in America.  Pitch Perfect was on TV the night we had to make our final decision whether or not to move and there’s the “fat Australian” girl doing good in her American College.  I want to sign up for that.  I want my kids to have that opportunity.

But I had my doubts American schools could live up to the all-rounded approach of Australian schools and sadly, as always, I’m right.  Don’t get me wrong I think the kids’ school is great and a really good choice for us.  It’s probably (sport aside) the best choice for us and our needs.

So, in a word how do I sum up the difference between American and Australian schools?  Choice. Flexibility.  All-encompassing.  OK that’s three (technically four).

But, that’s not it.  That’s not what I was looking for.  It hit me this morning as I was going through my morning routine of checking social media and emails.

That’s when it hit me. Like a light bulb moment.  It was photos from my son’s school’s Facebook page of the Track & Field House Championships.  Aha!  They don’t have that here.  They don’t have an outlet for kids to race each other in a swimming carnival at one end of the year and participate in track & field events at the other end of the year.  That’s the best bit about being at school.  It’s Teamwork.  Pride.  Competition.  Bonding.  Participation.  (Another dimension to “spirit”).

The number one difference between American private schools and Australian private schools is that American schools don’t provide an opportunity for kids to don a yellow, teal, blue, red or purple (or whatever other colour parents have to go searching all over town for) and compete against each other.  For kids of all ages to share one thing in common: to win for their house.

I feel better now.  Let me leave you with the top three reasons why (private) school is better in Australia:

  1. The (compulsory) swimming carnival and track & field carnival.  Being part of a house and competing for your house’s name on that shield. (Spirit).
  2. You get to start school* doing a whole host of subjects and you don’t have to choose electives til later on in your school life (somewhere around year 10).  (Mind).
  3. You have to compete in a sport whether you’re good or bad or somewhere in between.  Sport (especially team sport) teaches so much about winning and losing, teamwork, sporstmanship, pride and healthy competition.   (Body).

I can’t speak for public schools as neither the kids or my husband and I have ever attended a public school.  That’s why this article is specifically about private schools ( I should probably go further and say private schools in LA).  When we went to make an appointment to visit a public school we were told there was an information night offering tours of the schools and that’s all their resources would allow.  Never mind we weren’t in the country when those nights were on.  I wonder if American public junior/middle high schools are the same as the private schools.  Being part of the LA Unified School District I’m not about to find out.

BUT… Colleges here tend to be more like private schools in Australia.  I think.  I haven’t got that far yet.

Ahhh … LA.  Let’s see if we’re here long enough to find out.

xx It Started in LA xx

* High School or Years 7-12 as it is in Australia, known here in America as Middle School & High School. Struggling to know what the grade levels in America are all about? I’ve got the answer here for you!

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  • Reply April September 10, 2017 at 4:40 pm

    This is very interesting read. My husband and I have thought of moving. To Australia for a better work:life balance. I am also a teacher so very interested in the education system.

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      Thanks April. There’s a lot to be said for the lifestyle in Australia, I miss it so much! Good luck with whatever you decide to do.

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