School boarding houses and boarding facilities have changed dramatically for the better since I first did boarding house duty in the 1980s as a young teacher. I recall that although the meals were average, they were basically ‘hot and brown and plenty of it’, with limited choice available for students who had specific dietary requirements. The showers had little privacy and the rooms were mostly shared with single room privileges only for senior boarders. There were some specialist boarding staff however, the supervising staff were generally supplemented by teaching staff who, like myself, had little or no experience in caring for children outside of school classroom and playground environments.
Although this may sound a little Dickensian, at the time, in practice it was was actually far better than the norm, and certainly better than some of the stories from across the globe as noted in this article from the Daily Mail.
Today, modern boarding school facilities are light years ahead of the standards and norms of the 70s, 80s and earlier. Just as schools have progressed immensely in how they educate children, they have progressed exponentially in how they care for children - especially boarders.
These days, a school's duty of care is considered to be tantamount within a school’s obligations to its boarders. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has highlighted some of the assaults that took place in some boarding establishments including those noted in the media regarding independent schools, religious schools, systemic schools and government country hostels in the 1970s and 1980s.
Steve and Jenny Florisson, from Boarding Training Australia, in their paper ‘Preventing Sexual Abuse in the Student Boarding Industry’ note that:
‘However, what has not been reported is that boarding schools and student residences across Australia have been methodically and effectively putting practices into place to reduce the risk of students being sexually abused and they have been doing this for many years. It is on every boarding manager’s radar, and they are constantly aware of the risks and implement a range of strategies to ensure that the danger of their students being sexually abused is minimised.’
They go on to describe strategies and issues including school based policies and procedures, careful screening of staff, informing students, reporting processes, training and standards, vigilance and knowledge and sexual abuse of students by other students.
In August, 2015, School Governance reported on the release of the National Boarding Standard for Australian schools, AS 5725:2015 Boarding Standard for Australian schools and residences (the Standard). The Standard is a set of minimum requirements and it has been drafted around schools being able to show compliance in the following five areas:
- Governance and management - implementing policies and procedures to govern staff, records and financial management;
- Boarders – including safety, health and well-being (implementing policies and procedures to provide for their safety, welfare and development);
- Staff – including competence and professional development (implementing policies and procedures to provide for their health, safety and well-being, competence and professional learning and management in general);
- Parent, family and community engagement - implementing policies and procedures to develop partnerships between parents/families and boarding services management and staff and developing protocols to build positive relationships with partner schools, community services and organisations; and
- Facilities - implementing policies and procedures to ensure quality, safe, functional and comfortable facilities.
In addition, the overarching Scope and General section (Section 1), which contains the detailed definitions, has been given greater prominence in a diagram structure of how the Standard operates.
Of note in the Standard is an increased emphasis on the reporting of critical incidents and injuries to boarding service management, policies and procedures relating to the use of alcohol and drugs, a process to recognise and respect diversity and procedures outlining the manner and supervision of boarders in off-site or extra-curricular activities and excursions. In addition, there is a new requirement for policies and procedures in relation to the recruitment, employment and engagement of volunteers and a requirement that all relevant policies and procedures are provided to staff at commencement of employment.
Interestingly, in September 2016 School Governance reported on the inclusion of the Standard in the WA Registration requirements for 2017. This clearly indicates that government bodies are taking a more proactive stance in ensuring the safety of children who are being cared for in any non-government school boarding facility:
‘An interesting addition to the Guide is the requirement that schools with boarding facilities develop policies and procedures which are benchmarked against “contemporary best practice” such as AS 5725: Boarding standard for Australian schools and hostels (AS 5725 or Standard). Compliance with AS 5725 is not prescribed by Standard 10: Boarding, but the reference to this best practice guidance is instead a requirement set by DES.’
Although not a ‘legal’ document, the Standard, endorsed by the Australian Boarding Schools Association (ABSA) and Boarding Australia, is a document produced by the industry for the industry. Even though it has broad guidelines and some detailed sub-sections, it represents a national directive to ensure that schools and other organisations that run boarding facilities have learnt from the issues of the past and now are better prepared to care for their students. Compliance with the AS 5725 will enable schools to better identify and manage risks which may arise in relation to their boarders, which, if not identified and effectively controlled, could lead to a breach of their legal and regulatory obligations.
The Federal Government is also producing resources for schools including ‘What Works. The Work Program’ for indigenous boarding facilities. Dan Cox, CEO of Boarding Australia, was quoted as saying of the Standard; “The first thing it does is makes a really clear statement that all students have the right to be safe in a boarding environment, and that's paramount, even before they have access to a good quality education.”
Along with the opportunity for schools to implement the Standard, there have been massive ongoing changes regarding the care of boarders. There have been huge improvements in staff training and screening, residential facilities, parent involvement, academic support, wellbeing and meals. This is apparent with boarding school numbers on the rise after two decades ‘in the doldrums’ with an increase in the enrolment of day or week boarders rather than just the traditional term or annual boarders.
‘Boarding Australia and ABSA are optimistic that their members will continue to work to gain the confidence of students and families. “The regrettable incidents that have occurred in a minority of boarding schools in the past are not an accurate reflection of a sector that is committed to ongoing improvement with skilled staff providing an excellent experience for boarders and their families”, they said.’
Above all, ‘Governing bodies, principals and heads of boarding/managers will do whatever it takes to ensure the safety of students in their care while boarding’ (Florisson).