Billeting and homestays: Do schools have a duty of care while students are at home?
Billeting and homestay defined
Billeting and homestay are largely interchangeable terms which involve students staying with host families for accommodation purposes. Stays may be part of a cultural exchange program or during an overnight excursion. Students can stay with host families intra-state, in another jurisdiction or even overseas.
The term used most frequently is homestay, defined by the Australian Taxation Office as “accommodation provided to local and overseas students studying or training at Australian universities or other educational institutions”. While this definition encompasses both local and international guests, homestay organisations normally present it as a type of longer-term accommodation arrangement for international guests.
The term billeting applies to any temporary assignment of accommodation, but in the school context, usually covers local and short-term lodgements of students. Billeting also appears to involve a wider variety of activities such as school sport, whereas homestay usually corresponds with exchange/study programs.
While this article draws a geographical distinction between homestay and billeting, the terms overlap both practically and legally.
The legal issue
The educational and cultural benefits that these accommodation arrangements present come at a cost: most jurisdictions consider them to be higher risk than regular accommodation arrangements. Schools will have significant difficulty monitoring students and providing supervision, and there is the potential for students to be placed in unsafe situations or which leave them vulnerable to inappropriate behaviour.
Schools should note that the potential extent of their obligations in these circumstances is generally to ensure they are able to take all necessary steps to minimise the risks presented to students. A school’s duty of care is non-delegable, meaning it cannot be assigned to a third party (i.e. a host family). The scope of a school’s duty of care is not confined to school hours and premises, extending to any situation in which it has undertaken responsibility for the supervision and care of students. Therefore, if a school enables and facilitates a student staying with a host family as part of an excursion, or has organised for international students to participate in homestay, they have likely undertaken a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect students from reasonably foreseeable risks of harm in this context.
More specifically, state and territory legislative requirements (for example child protection and overseas student legislation) must be considered for the homestay and billeting environments.
Issues for homestay
Because of their interrelationship with migration law and requirements related to overseas students, homestay arrangements attract a number of regulatory requirements.
An overseas student will need to apply for a student visa if they are intending to study in Australia and are under the age of 18. For the Department of Immigration and Border Protection to approve such an application, they need to be satisfied that the student will be well looked after while in Australia. There must be acceptable arrangements for the student’s accommodation, support and general welfare for the duration of their visa (or until they turn 18).
If the student is not approved to live with a parent/custodian or adult relative, then accommodation arrangements will need to be approved by the student’s education provider – the school. To do this, the school will need to issue a welfare letter or a Confirmation of Appropriate Accommodation and Welfare (CAAW) form for the student.
Under the National Code of Practice for Providers of Education and Training to Overseas Students 2017 (the National Code), Standard 5 states that to meet this requirement, a school must, among other things, have documented procedures for checking the suitability of a student’s accommodation, support and welfare arrangements. What exactly a school’s procedures need to monitor is unclear.
Australian Government Schools International (AGSI) sets procedural rules around residence standards which government schools are expected to follow. Under these Homestay Standards, a school’s obligations include:
- ensuring all adults residing at homestay premises have relevant working with children clearances;
- assessing whether the premises are compliant, including whether the student has a private bedroom, and whether there is access to kitchen facilities and other shared areas of the home; and
- ensuring host families have appropriate insurance policy cover for residing students.
While these Standards do not apply to non-government schools, many such schools are partnered with commercial homestay providers to find accommodation for international students. These providers will often either comply with AGSI Standards (such as Oz Homestay) or will have their own criteria/requirements in place of which schools need to be aware (such as the Australian Homestay Network).
Issues for billeting
School obligations in relation to billeting domestic students are largely addressed by state and territory-specific government school policies on excursions and homestays. For example, under the NSW Department of Education’s ‘Good practice in billeting’ (which is also used in the ACT), schools are encouraged to establish a clear timeline throughout the billeting process by providing a billeting program to all participants, ensuring there is effective management of consent and medical information and ongoing communication. In jurisdictions such as NSW and Queensland it is also a requirement for the school’s risk management plan to take into account the particular risks associated with billeting.
While all jurisdictions consistently refer to the need for host families to understand and comply with school obligations in relation to child protection, schools are provided with inconsistent guidance on what this means in practice.
In Western Australia, working with children checks are required by all volunteers on overnight camps or participating in billeting programs, explicitly including parent volunteers involved in billeting arrangements. All non-government schools in South Australia are required to conduct criminal history checks on all persons in regular contact with children or work in close proximity to them on a regular basis. These persons can be volunteers, including people engaged in any school sleep-overs or billeting arrangements. The Northern Territory has similar requirements in place. In Tasmania, working with vulnerable people registration is mandatory for all staff and volunteers who assist with student billeting.
Outside of these jurisdictions, billeting is not explicitly mentioned in the context of child protection requirements, with hosting arrangements relying largely on trust and goodwill to operate successfully. However, best practice would dictate that schools should undertake some form of screening of volunteer host families to provide accommodation services in order to meet their duty of care obligations.
What should schools do?
The inability to provide constant supervision does not mean that there isn’t a duty to mitigate against reasonably foreseeable risks whilst students are participating in billeting/homestay, regardless of whether the students are hosted domestically or internationally. There are also legal obligations which must be met depending on the type of student (domestic or overseas) and the jurisdiction (child protection laws).
There are a number of procedures schools may implement to provide greater safety and oversight of billeting and homestay, including:
Integrating billeting/homestay into an accommodation strategy
Unless there are particular educational/excursion goals (e.g. part of an exchange program), a school should first consider catering for accommodation in their own boarding facilities. If this is not appropriate or applicable, other accommodation should be considered, such as hotels or youth hostels, particularly where a large student group requires lodgement. If there are concerns for a student’s safety or well-being, alternative arrangements will need to be made in consultation with parents.
Providing comprehensive monitoring/communication and record keeping procedures
Aside from parental consent, schools should collect medical requirements and other special needs of students and implement strategies to manage these throughout their stay. The school should be in regular contact with the host family and arrange regular private communication with the student to monitor their well-being. A billeting/homestay coordinator could be appointed to manage the student’s activities and welfare, even if third party providers are used for host selection.
Stipulating guidelines/requirements for host families
The school should place clear conditions on families hosting domestic/international students, including that the home is accessible and has particular amenities and that students will have a safe, secure and private bedroom. All adult residents should also undergo relevant screening and be provided with training and briefings by the school in their welfare expectations.
By complying with their legal obligations and having clear procedures for billeting and homestay, a school will be able to balance the risks these accommodation arrangements present against their educational and cultural benefits.
About the author
Kieran Seed is a School Governance Reporter. He can be contacted here.