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An electronic journal for leaders in education
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Australian Certificate of Education: Exploring a Way Forward

Special report

This article is an excerpt from the Executive Summary of the report Australian Certificate of Education: Exploring a Way Forward, Australian Council for Educational Research, May 2006. Copyright Commonwealth of Australia. Reproduced by permission.


In May 2005 the Department of Education, Science and Training (DEST) commissioned the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) to investigate and report on models and implementation arrangements for an Australian Certificate of Education (ACE) for the final years of secondary school.

A key question in this investigation was whether an Australian Certificate of Education would best be introduced as a new certificate that would sit alongside existing State and Territory senior secondary certificates, or whether the objective should be to establish in this country a single Australian Certificate of Education for the final years of secondary school. We have investigated both these possibilities. Within each possibility there are alternative ways of proceeding, and we have investigated and reported on some of the more obvious alternatives.

On balance, we have reached the conclusion that the most desirable long-term outcome would be the emergence of a single Australian Certificate of Education awarded by each of the Australian States and Territories in place of the existing nine certificates. We believe the framework of a single senior certificate is more likely to promote consistency in senior secondary arrangements, to provide comparability of student results across Australia, and to ensure nationally consistent high standards of curriculum provision. The addition of a tenth senior certificate is unlikely to address concerns about inconsistencies, lack of comparability and unnecessary duplication among the existing nine certificates or schools’ concerns about the likely complications and resource implications of offering yet another senior certificate. A single certificate also is more likely to be consistent with, and to support, the broad purposes of senior secondary schooling than a certificate designed for only some students during these years.   

We recognise that achieving a single Australian Certificate of Education may be more difficult than introducing a tenth certificate to sit alongside existing State and Territory certificates. A single national certificate inevitably will require time to implement, and may have to be achieved in stages. Nevertheless, we believe the introduction of a single Australian Certificate of Education is a desirable long-term objective, and in the course of our investigations we have explored ways of implementing such a certificate.

A number of considerations have shaped our recommendations. Foremost among these is our belief that the final years of secondary school should provide students with a high-quality education that equips them for learning, work and life beyond school. All students stand to benefit from high expectations. Throughout Australia, curricula in the final years of school should be of the highest calibre internationally, and students’ levels of achievement should be benchmarked against international standards of excellence.

We also recognise the challenges in providing quality learning experiences for the broad range of students now participating in the final years of secondary school. The keys to increasing student participation and engagement in senior secondary education are quality curricula appropriate to students’ talents, interests and needs. For many students, learning now takes place not only in classrooms, but also in workplaces and other community settings. Curriculum and assessment arrangements of the future must be designed to meet the diverse needs of senior secondary students, at the same time keeping open and facilitating pathways to further education, training and work.

Senior secondary arrangements of the future also must allow the development of local curriculum solutions. Diversity of provision, innovation and experimentation will be important not only in meeting local student needs, but also in ensuring continuous improvement in curricula, teaching and learning. An Australian Certificate of Education must provide a framework within which diversity, innovation and local responsiveness are possible and encouraged. 

Nevertheless, our analyses of existing senior secondary arrangements have convinced us that many current differences across Australia are difficult to explain or justify. It is clear that present differences between States and Territories do not reflect differences in student needs and are not always in students’ best interests. In some cases these differences—for example, differences in the ways in which results are reported in different States and Territories—may disadvantage some students. Added to this, there is significant duplication of effort across bodies responsible for senior curricula and assessment. It is not difficult to imagine ways in which less duplication and more collaboration could lead to more efficient uses of national resources.
Finally, we believe that any planning for the future must recognise and build on to excellent practices that already exist within the various senior certificates. Any future arrangements must add value to what exists and certainly must not lead to any reduction in quality or standards. It also is important that future arrangements do not impose unnecessary additional demands on students, teachers and schools.


Our vision is for a single Australian Certificate of Education, undertaken by senior secondary students throughout Australia and within which students are able to pursue a range of pathways, including academic and vocational studies in schools, workplaces and other community settings. We envisage this national certificate being awarded by all State and Territory authorities (the ACACA agencies).
An essential feature of the proposed ACE would be the development of nationally consistent high standards. We are proposing that a national standards body be established to set nationally consistent standards of several kinds. First, the national standards body would set minimum requirements for the award of the Australian Certificate of Education. Second, curriculum essentials would be established in key subject areas. Curriculum essentials would spell out a core of curriculum content (fundamental knowledge, principles and skills) to be taught in an ACE subject across all awarding bodies offering that subject. We envisage curriculum essentials being established in the first instance for a number of nominated senior school subjects. Third, achievement standards would be set in these nominated subjects. Achievement standards would provide a nationally consistent framework of levels (we are recommending five levels labelled A to E) against which students’ performances would be reported, thus allowing results in a subject to be compared across awarding bodies.
Under the Australian Certificate of Education, schools and awarding bodies would be encouraged to develop, assess and report on general skills required for life and work beyond school. The employability skills framework of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Business Council of Australia identifies eight such skills. We are recommending the introduction of a national test of a small number of these skills: initially, reading literacy/verbal reasoning, mathematical literacy/quantitative reasoning, written English and ICT literacy. We are proposing that this component of the ACE be known as the Key Capabilities Assessment (KCA).
Because the Australian Certificate of Education would be a broad certificate available to all students in the senior secondary school, we see value in recognising and rewarding excellence within the ACE. We are proposing the introduction of an ACE Award of Excellence: a certificate awarded to students throughout Australia who meet high standards of achievement in their studies.

Further details on the recommendations are provided in the remainder of the Executive Summary and in chapters 9–14 of the report.


Subject Headings

Educational certificates
Educational planning
Curriculum planning
Educational evaluation
Federal-state relations
Senior secondary education
Education policy