Boarding schools are now seen as caretakers of boarder wellbeing, with the non-academic program including the values, lessons, approaches, relationships, and communications that occur, becoming more important, especially for boarders who are far from their homes and/or cultures, like rural boarders and Indigenous boarders.
The Boarding Community
The Oxford Dictionary provides several definitions for the word ‘community’:
- a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common
- the people of a district or country considered collectively, especially in the context of social values and responsibilities
- a society, and
- the condition of sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common.
Schools are often being defined as ‘learning communities’ and boarding schools are reflected within most of the definitions above. Boarding schools are composed of a group of young people living in the same place with a particular characteristic in common (students of the school); they should have common and shared social values and responsibilities and they should share common attitudes and interests.
From a school perspective, where a school has a boarding facility, it is simply not suitable nor valid to assume that the boarding house is able to run independently of its associated day school. However, boarding houses are very specific and quite unique in how they care for, and work with, students, specifically in the provision of pastoral care to rural and Indigenous boarders.
The Australian Boarding Standard
The National Boarding Standard for Australian schools, AS 5725:2015 Boarding Standard for Australian schools and residences (the Standard) is a set of minimum requirements for boarding schools. Compliance is voluntary in all states and territories except for Western Australia where mandatory compliance is required in relation to registration. The Standard covers 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.
The Standard makes it abundantly clear that it is the responsibility of a boarding facility to provide adequate policies and procedures to manage and protect boarder safety and welfare. Section 3.7 (a) of the Standard refers to requirements to provide for boarders with particular needs.
Rural Boarders – The Unique Drought Challenge
Section 3.7 (a) (iii) of the Standard requires boarding facilities to implement policies and procedures for the induction and care of boarders from isolated country areas (which may also include Indigenous boarders), including acknowledgement of their culture and heritage. The Standard outlines the necessity of building key partnerships, especially with the student’s parents or guardians, and comprehensive induction practices to combat feelings of isolation and homesickness.
As recently reported by ABC News, with 100 per cent of New South Wales in drought and 57 per cent of Queensland, few farming families have escaped the extreme dry. While farmers face what some are calling the worst drought in living memory, many of their children grapple with the dry from boarding schools hundreds of kilometres from their homes.
According to the Independent Review into Regional, Rural and Remote Education, given the significant number of regionally based, particularly farming families, that use boarding schools, conditions such as low commodity prices, low economic growth or downturns, drought, and other natural disasters, can leave these families and therefore their children vulnerable and in need of particular attention in relation to a school’s pastoral care. A rural boarder’s connection to variations in seasonal farming and their family’s welfare, particularly mental health issues, should also be taken into account when a boarding facility is developing policies and procedures for the welfare of rural boarders.
Indigenous Boarders – Isolation from Culture and Heritage
Section 3.7 (a) (iii) of the Standard requires boarding facilities to implement policies and procedures for the induction and care of Indigenous boarders (which may also include rural boarders), including acknowledgement of their culture and heritage. Indigenous boarders may need special assistance with a range of services beyond those required to provide a quality boarding education to address a range of health, wellbeing and pastoral care issues before students are able to learn.
Dr Mary-anne Macdonald from Edith Cowan University’s (ECU’s) Kurongkurl Kattitjin, Centre for Indigenous Australian Education and Research, explored the perspectives of school leaders and Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander secondary students on the utility and impact of boarding school. She stated that many Indigenous boarding students valued the opportunity to access vocational training, pathways to employment, and preparation for university. For some families who came from disadvantaged backgrounds, boarding also provided the opportunity to improve social connections and provided a positive peer network for their child.
However, Dr Macdonald said that Indigenous boarders also face unique challenges including homesickness, language barriers, racism, discrimination, culture shock and post-school transitions, “Having a remote home can mean that students are very conflicted about what they’re going to do post Year 12. Do they pay the social cost of staying in the city far removed from community, language, culture and experience, or do they go home?”
Schools should look towards utilising the strengths of the Indigenous worldview and focus on family connections and work with boarders and their families to identify meaningful ways in which the education system can enable closer family ties and a stronger future for their community.
Boarders far from Home and Culture – Practical Steps for Schools
Rural and Indigenous boarders each have unique challenges in relation to student welfare in a boarding facility. Schools should have policies and procedures that enable each student to be provided with holistic development, acknowledging their culture and heritage. Schools should also acknowledge that boarders can be both rural and Indigenous and this also creates a unique set of challenges in relation to their welfare and the school's pastoral care.
For both groups, comprehensive induction practices and partnerships with key family or community members can lessen feelings of isolation and homesickness. For rural boarders, schools should be keeping their finger on the pulse of the land including our current drought, while for Indigenous boarders, language barriers, cultural shock and post-school transitions should be a focus.
Above all, the safety and welfare of boarders at the school should be the paramount concern.