Of the over 25 million people living in Australia, 28 per cent (1) of the population live in rural or remote areas.
Away from the hustle and bustle of big, highly populated cities like Sydney and Melbourne, individuals from all walks of life reside in small-town Australia; perhaps they have lived there since birth, or maybe they relocated for a quieter life in retirement or for a different setting to raise their children.
Often with these more isolated locations, access to certain services can be tricky, including in-person education. That’s where boarding schools come in and play a crucial role in educating Australia’s youth.
With some rural locations only offering primary tuition, education to grade 10, or in extreme circumstances, no learning access at all, Australian Boarding Schools Association (ABSA) chief executive officer Richard Stokes said if young people wanted to finish school, boarding was mandatory.
“Australia is a really interesting country - we’re different from most of the world as 75 per cent of our boarding population come from rural or remote places, with no access to high school,” Mr Stokes said.
Although it is a big step for emerging pre-teens to leave the familiarity of their homes and move full-time on campus, Mr Stokes said that boarding schools provide a wonderful opportunity for students to live in a structured, disciplined environment.
“If you ask any boarder, ‘why do you like boarding?’, it’s because they’re living with mates - social connection,” he said.
“Students also develop independence and leadership in the space.”
As of a 2022 Census compiled by ABSA, the association have 201 member boarding schools located across Australia. However, a large majority of these schools are located in New South Wales and Queensland and are comprised of predominantly rural and remote students, as well as Indigenous and international students.
At the forefront of every educator’s mind is ensuring these students are fulfilling their learning potential. While this remains a key priority of boarding schools, there are other factors to consider, including on-site boarding staff providing support for students after the main eight-hour learning day concludes.
The 24/7 nature of being a boarding house staff member means they start work when most people are winding down for the day, and also includes weekend work - hours that Mr Stokes said can be difficult.
“Boarding staff are prepared to work when everyone else doesn't,” he said.
Across Australia, 40 per cent of boarding house staff are teachers and 60 per cent are non-teachers.
As a result, ABSA - which offers voluntary membership - provide extensive training to keep those entering (and continuing to work in) the profession up to date on key boarding issues.
‘“Boarding is a specialised field and we help staff do a specialised job,” Mr Stokes said.
Boarding schools are also feeling the impacts of Australia’s teacher shortage, with ABSA’s current job board the longest Mr Stokes said he has ever seen it. As of 2022, there are 3,958 boarding staff working across the nation at ABSA member schools.
“Being a boarding staff member is not an area that’s on top of or a well-known job,” he said.
The role not only comes with the need of having a diverse skill set, but also an understanding of the many issues faced by boarding students. These key issues are highlighted as part of ABSA’s training to ensure staff have the tools and knowledge to support students during challenging times outside of the learning day.
One of the major, ongoing issues faced by boarders (and all students) is mental health, which Mr Stokes said is being tackled by boarding schools.
“Staff are trained and students being surrounded by other kids is helpful,”
As many boarding school students travel from rural and remote areas of Australia where mental health support can be limited and harder to access, it is imperative that schools offer the support they need to succeed both academically and socially.
Students struggling with their mental health are not limited to boarding schools, but due to the very nature of boarding and the arrangement of living on campus, staff should be equipped with the skills and understanding to support students in their care.
But mental health support is not the only topic boarding staff should be informed of as part of their duty of care. Training also includes child protection, updates on how to help students with modern technology and using their devices for the right purposes, social media use, online/internet safety, and security and supervision, which is critical to workplace health and safety.
“What one student faces, 25,000 other boarders face as well,” Mr Stokes said.
National Boarding Week
Every year during May, boarding schools across Australia celebrate National Boarding Week; seven days dedicated to acknowledging the people involved in this unique line of education, from teachers and principals to students and parents.
Mr Stokes said that the event started six years ago as an opportunity for boarders to celebrate their schools and boarding culture.
“The big picture is that the week gives boarding schools permission to celebrate,” he said.
“This may also involve inviting teachers and day students to celebrate as well to see what the boarders do day to day.”
In 2023, the theme of National Boarding Week is ‘the patchwork of boarding’. As boarding schools across the nation are located in every state and are individually defined by the students and staff, these schools are a patchwork in their own way - of colours, styles and symbols, according to Mr Stokes.
“A number of boarding kids, at times, feel like they are an add-on at the edge of schools,” he said.
“This week lets them be important and recognises their importance.”
Sharing a story from this year’s National Boarding Week, Mr Stokes said at a girls' school in Sydney, a boarder from out West talked about what life was like on her property. This served to educate the Sydney school’s day students about life living rurally, and also provided space for the girl to share an experience that is key to her identity.
“This week allows boarders to celebrate their heritage,” he said.
Learning at boarding schools
The format of the boarding day suits the needs of students, where they are taught exceptional leadership and independence.
Australia’s youth grow up quickly in this environment as they are not only equipped with the necessary education, but essential life skills.
Given that students live at school for forty weeks of the year, the life skills they learn within the school learning program carry enormous weight for their post-schooling lives.
Therefore, some of the students’ most critical learning comes from a curriculum that covers topics like ironing and sewing, changing car tyres, managing money, clues on how to rent, and staying mentally healthy.
Overall, boarding schools play an important role in Australia’s varied education system. They provide learning opportunities to young people with limited access to these opportunities in rural and remote areas, supporting their curriculum learning as well as their wellbeing needs outside of the classroom.
ABSA’s membership is comprised of a diverse patchwork of schools that make up the identity of boarders nationwide - celebrated by students and staff and their part in making these schools a reality.
About the Australian Boarding Schools Association
ABSA is the leading authority in Australia on boarding for school-aged children. It promotes the interests and wellbeing of boarders, boarding staff, boarding parents and boarding institutions across the nation.
1. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2022). Rural and remote health. https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/rural-remote-australians/rural-and-remote-health