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Boarding schools and Indigenous learners in the Northern Territory

A good boarding experience for Indigenous secondary school students from remote communities starts with better informed families, ACER research suggests.

In 2016 ACER was commissioned by the remote Australia research and innovation group, NintiOne CRC for Remote Economic Participation, to identify data related to Indigenous learners from the Northern Territory, and identify issues that confront students going to boarding schools, both from the point of view of the communities they come from, and the boarding schools and facilities they go to.

The research follows a recommendation by the NT government to phase out support for senior secondary education in communities, in response to the 2014 Review of Indigenous Education in the Northern Territory.

ACER Research Fellows Gina Milgate and Dr Bill Perrett found that quantitative data – such as the number of Indigenous students from the NT in boarding schools, at what year level and by gender – were not publicly available from the government and were difficult to obtain from the schools themselves. Many boarding facilities declined to participate in the study, and only three of the five participating boarding schools or facilities provided data, representing students from 44 remote/very remote communities.

Turning the focus of the research to qualitative data, participating boarding schools and facilities identified issues around children as young as 12 being away from community and fitting into a new educational environment, as well as friction between boarders from different communities.

Several providers noted the impact that one student’s good or bad experience can have on the enrolment of others from the same community. The boarding schools and facilities reported administrative issues around ABSTUDY and enrolment forms, and one school reported issues around staff recruitment and retention.

Feedback from government community school principals and other relevant school and community members who were involved in liaising with boarding schools revealed a number of common themes, starting with the need for effective communication between parents and boarding schools.

Community schools expressed a desire to be consulted about individual students’ suitability for boarding as, for some, community-based schools are the best option, while others go for the wrong reasons. Connected to this was the view that students and families have little idea about what boarding is like and, consequently, students sent to boarding schools were often inadequately prepared for the social, cultural and emotional transitions involved.

The community school principals interviewed saw this ill preparedness as a factor contributing to the impression that boarding schools are a ‘revolving door’, and shared the concerns of other community members about the disengagement from education of young people who leave boarding school without completing their schooling.

ACER’s report to NintiOne states that, in a broad sense, participants’ views, ‘present a picture more characterised by entrenched issues and prevailing challenges than successes’; however, participants also pointed to clear solutions, some of which are already being put into action.

Interviewees from communities believe that, once suitability for boarding school has been established, a good boarding experience must start with better informed families who are equipped with practical strategies for keeping some control over, and connection with, the processes of preparing for sending their children to boarding school. Suggested strategies include:

  • being present for and involved in the enrolment process, if necessary with another person;
  • identifying a person with whom they can communicate while the student is in the boarding school;
  • establishing whether the school is respectful of cultural issues; and
  • establishing whether the school has a second language support program.

It is hoped that the recently established Transition Support Unit within the NT Department of Education, the purpose of which is to help families transition their children to secondary school and re-engage students who have disengaged from boarding school, and the Remote Indigenous Parents Association, which works in collaboration with Boarding Australia to maintain and improve communication lines between boarding service providers and parents, will help address some of the issues identified. ■

Further information:
Findings from ACER’s report ‘Indigenous Students and Boarding Schools’ were presented at the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) Conference in November 2016. See ‘Boarding schools for remote secondary Aboriginal learners in the Northern Territory: Smooth transition or rough ride?’ by John Guenther, Gina Milgate, Bill Perrett, Tessa Benveniste, Sam Osborne and Samantha Disbray.

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