In this series, we’ll discuss whether progress is being made on Indigenous education, looking at various areas including policy, scholarships, school leadership, literacy and much more.
Every year, over 3,000 Indigenous students leave home to attend boarding schools. While many consider Indigenous boarding programs a “solution” generally aimed at remote students who don’t have access to local high schools, most Indigenous students at boarding schools are not from remote Australia.
Some come from cities, but the majority of Indigenous boarders come from regional and rural Australia.
With the government spending millions of dollars each year to encourage Indigenous students to attend boarding schools, what is the true cost of Indigenous boarding on regional communities, Indigenous families and students?
Many more will leave remote areas
By 2026, only 8% of all Indigenous Australians are projected to be living in remote Australia.
Huge amounts of government and state funding continue to be spent on boarding programs that enable students to leave their home communities and attend boarding schools in major cities and large towns.
While the government financially supports individual scholarship foundations and providers, private schools often fund their own scholarships.
Students and boarding schools can also access funding from the government’s ABSTUDY initiative. Figures specific to boarding schools have not been released, but in 2015-16 ABSTUDY payments to secondary school students alone cost around $145 million.
Little research on impact of Australian Indigenous boarding
During my years coordinating an Indigenous program for boarding students at a private girls’ college, I struggled to find data and research related to the experiences and outcomes of Indigenous boarders in Australia.
Boarding better option than local school?
The majority of students in my study explained that they had chosen not to attend their local school because, based on their own and others’ experiences attending such schools, they believed the teaching and management to be of poor quality.
Students spoke of wanting better educational opportunities, as well as access to extracurricular activities, which were not provided at their local school.
They also described how local schools in their home towns, mostly in regional and rural Australia, struggled to keep teachers for longer than a year. They said that learning often consisted of copying down lines from a whiteboard or “mucking around” in unruly classrooms.
Students saw this as an example of “the teacher not caring”, “not trying” and “not thinking Aboriginal kids deserve a good education”.
But a few students I spoke to were attending boarding school in the city they lived in, and were able to catch the train home to visit their families. Some saw boarding school as opening doors to better opportunities in the future, by being able to put the name of a “big school” on their resume.
Having a good education was seen as a stepping stone toward a better life, even if students felt their education did not support their Indigenous identity and culture.
The pull between wanting a good future and wanting to maintain their identity was palpable, and unresolved. This was often the reason given for Indigenous students dropping out of boarding school.
Statistics show that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in non-remote areas are more likely than those in remote areas to have completed Year 12 or equivalent (28% compared with 18%).
And while boarding school is a way for students from remote areas to move to regional and urban schools, the completion rates of remote students in boarding schools are unclear.
Recent research indicates that in some remote towns where secondary schooling is unavailable, up to 50% of secondary school aged students who are supported to attend boarding school return as a result of de-enrolling (through self-exclusion, withdrawal, exclusion or cancellation of enrolment).
Other reasons for attending boarding school
Students choose to attend boarding for individual reasons. In my research, one student spoke of leaving home because her mother was in a violent relationship, and she wanted to move away to escape the hurt of watching her mother being bashed after letting her boyfriend return each time he left her, bruised and crushed.
Another student spoke of how she and her mother had often searched for boarding scholarship advertisements in the hope of a “better education” and “making her family proud”. The same student told me that getting into boarding school granted her grandmother’s dying wish.
Impact on communities
Three in four students in my study said they had been subjected to racism and discrimination while at boarding school.
This included name calling, taunts based on being scholarship recipients, and social isolation by non-Indigenous students.
Many of the events students described were not heard, but were felt. “You just know,” one student said, “it’s the way they look at you”.
Students also described problems with feeling homesick; a lack of understanding of Indigenous content in classwork; their need for Indigenous teachers – who comprise of just 1.2% of the Australian teaching workforce. They also wanted more access to Indigenous support people in schools.
They talked about feeling disconnected with family, culture and identity when they returned home after boarding. They also retold painful stories of feeling lost and trapped, not knowing who they were when they returned home after changing to fit in at boarding school.
Desire to stay in city in further education
Despite this, the majority of Aboriginal students I spoke with said that they planned to remain in major cities and regional centres, to go to university or in getting a job after boarding school.
They saw this future, away from their communities, as bright, exciting, and worth it as an “end goal”.
While scholarships are providing students with opportunities to attend boarding schools that are well out of reach for most families, the cost to identity, culture and connection to community has not been fully explored – and is rarely discussed with students and families before they embark on such journeys.
Boarding scholarships worthwhile?
What is clear is that boarding school is not for everyone. Some students will thrive, and others will not, regardless of whether they are Indigenous or non-Indigenous. Indigenous boarding school scholarship foundations openly state this to potential applicants.
It’s also a reality that a small number of Indigenous students must leave their homes if they wish to receive a high school education in Australia.
More data, however, must be collected if the government is to continue to spend millions on sending Indigenous young people to boarding school.
More research into boarding school models, more discussion around the aims of such initiatives, and an understanding of the true cost of boarding school on students, and their communities, is also required.
• Read more articles in this series.