Aboriginal students reap great rewards from boarding school – but face unique challenges

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Many Indigenous students from remote areas overcome unique challenges to attend boarding school, and in doing so, reap clear benefits including employability, access to positive social networks and an improved sense of empowerment according to new ECU research.

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.

The study involved nine school leaders and 25 Indigenous secondary students across seven Western Australian schools. The boarding students came from a range of communities, many very remote, who attended boarding school in larger urban centres.

Positive benefits

Dr Macdonald said Aboriginal students, families and communities are seeing the benefits of boarding school including employability, access to positive networks and improved agency.

“Students are saying boarding school is a really valuable life changing opportunity,” she said.

Many 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 background.

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“Some students are coming from very remote backgrounds. They and their families are seeking high quality education where Indigenous success is promoted, Indigenous role models are available and academic achievement is facilitated so they can really open their horizons,” Dr Macdonald said.

Using funding wisely

Over the past ten years great improvements have been observed in the Year 12 attainment rate of Indigenous Australians.

Dr Macdonald said this has been due in part to government funding of programs aimed at improving education opportunity, including funding of scholarships for students from remote areas to attend boarding schools. However, she said it’s important to make sure that any funding is being used wisely and benefits are being obtained.

“Schools need to ensure that they are providing a culturally welcoming and respectful environment for Aboriginal students with teachers who understand how to academically support Indigenous students,” Dr Macdonald said.

“Pastoral care programs need to pay attention to the particular challenges Indigenous students face in comparison with other boarders,” she said.

Unique challenges

Dr Macdonald said that Indigenous boarders 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?” she said.

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And linguistic differences can be difficult to overcome.

“Students in a mainstream school who may be coming from a remote community where English is not the first language might be a couple of years behind academically and some can believe that their Aboriginality is the reason they’re not achieving at school, rather than their set of unique experiences.”

“Some schools deal with these obstacles well and provide the right support, and some schools don’t seem to be very aware of what makes boarding school challenging,” Dr Macdonald said.

(Source: Edith Cowan University, Australian Journal of Education)

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Date Created: July 25, 2018