Conference PaperPDF Available


  • Central Queensland University Adelaide
  • Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education, Darwin, Australia
  • Australian Orthopaedic Association National Joint Replacement Registry


Despite numerous reviews, strategies and programs, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students still have lower academic achievement levels than non-Indigenous Australian students (as measured by NAPLAN). Educational research suggests that parental involvement in their children’s education significantly contributes to improved academic, social, personal and professional outcomes for students, parents, and educators alike. However, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students from remote and very remote communities are educated at boarding schools or colleges in larger cities or regional areas, with a recent push to expand this. The limited ability for parental involvement for such students has largely been ignored, yet requires detailed consideration. The purpose of this paper is to highlight this need by defining and exploring the barriers to, and potential improvements for, parental involvement and the role of parent- school communication in educational outcomes. The paper is written as part of a PhD research project that considers the importance of cultural and educational contexts in parental involvement and communication, especially for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families.
Out of sight, out of mind? Author Name: Tessa Benveniste
Contact Email:
Tessa Benveniste
CQUniversity, Appleton Institute, Adelaide
Cooperative Research Centre for Remote Economic Participation
John Guenther
Flinders University, Cooperative Research Centre for Remote Economic Participation, Alice Springs.
Drew Dawson
CQUniversity, Appleton Institute, Adelaide
Sophia Rainbird
CQUniversity, Appleton Institute, Adelaide
Despite numerous reviews, strategies and programs, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
students still have lower academic achievement levels than non-Indigenous Australian
students (as measured by NAPLAN). Educational research suggests that parental
involvement in their children’s education significantly contributes to improved academic,
social, personal and professional outcomes for students, parents, and educators alike.
However, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students from remote and very
remote communities are educated at boarding schools or colleges in larger cities or regional
areas, with a recent push to expand this. The limited ability for parental involvement for
such students has largely been ignored, yet requires detailed consideration. The purpose of
this paper is to highlight this need by defining and exploring the barriers to, and potential
improvements for, parental involvement and the role of parent- school communication in
educational outcomes. The paper is written as part of a PhD research project that
considers the importance of cultural and educational contexts in parental involvement and
communication, especially for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families.
An abundance of literature demonstrates the complex realities of education in Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander contexts within Australia. A persistent gap exists in educational outcomes for
Indigenous Australian students, demonstrated in the 2011 Census, with less than 30% of young
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders completing school to year 12, as opposed to more than 70% of
non-Indigenous Australian students (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2011). The difference between
outcomes for very remote students and others is even greater (Australian Curriculum Assessment and
Reporting Authority, 2013). In recent years the focus in Indigenous education has started to shift from
a deficit-based model to recognising the strengths and abilities of Indigenous students, and examining
educational systems and their role in this gap, rather than blaming the students or their circumstances.
Schools that can approach Indigenous students with responsive and positive environments for their
learning and educational progress have the potential to contribute to a positive change (Godfrey,
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Partington, Richer, & Harslett, 2001; Nelson & Hay, 2010). The premise of non-deficit based
programs is that when provided with resources, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students achieve
at levels comparable to students who already have access to these resources. Resources may be
financial (e.g. scholarships), physical (e.g. sporting academies, laptops) and human (e.g. tutors,
mentors and role models) (Maughan, 2010). Alongside this shift has been an increase in funding and
support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to attend boarding schools in urban areas so
they can ‘access high-quality education in culturally inclusive environments, giving them the tools and
confidence to take full advantage of the opportunities before them’ (Australian Indigenous Education
Foundation, 2014). In addition to the small percentage of students receiving such scholarships, many
other Indigenous students across Australia are attending boarding schools or residences away from
their home community to access or complete high school. Examples of boarding facilities include
residential colleges, family group homes, and youth hostels.
The dispersed nature of the Australian population renders boarding necessary for many remote
families, where typical school options are not available. Of the Australian Indigenous population,
standing at over 548,400 in 2011 (approximately 3% of the total population), 24% of people live in
remote or very remote areas (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2011). Schools in remote Australia face
multiple challenges associated with distance including access to high speed internet, availability of
infrastructure, and quality teachers and school leaders who will commit to the long term (O'Keefe,
Olney, & Angus, 2012; What Works, 2011). In light of the challenges in remote education contexts,
many parents choose to send their children to major cities or urban centres to board, with some
advocates suggesting that they should go away (ABC, 2013; Pearson, 2013). The recent ‘Indigenous
Education Review’ in the Northern Territory (Wilson, 2014) details recommendations for increased
numbers of boarding facilities across the Territory, yet little is known about the long-term effects and
outcomes of boarding for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, families, and communities.
Boarding facilities can provide a more stable and consistent environment for their children, with better
access to educational opportunities that are not hindered by the constraints of remoteness. However,
the boarding context presents complex factors that work against family involvement and
communication with the school. This is concerning, as the literature on Indigenous Education clearly
demonstrates that it is vitally important to bridge the gap between boarding facilities and family. In
order to do so, perspectives must be gained from all involved in and affected by boarding, including
parents, teachers, boarding staff, and of course, students. Parent perspectives are particularly important
considering the literature on parental communication with schools.
Parental involvement in their children’s education has been internationally shown to contribute to
improved outcomes for students, teachers, and parents alike (Berthelsen & Walker, 2008; Borgonovi
& Montt, 2012). However, few studies have examined parental involvement from Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander perspectives (some notable exceptions include Chenhall, Holmes, Lea, Senior, &
Wegner, 2011; Lea, Thompson, McRae-Williams, & Wegner, 2011). Through analysis of the
literature, this paper will define and explore the manifestations of parental communication and
involvement in their children’s education. Although studies vary in these definitions, commonalities
exist and will be summarised. Barriers to parental involvement exist in almost all school communities,
and these have also been identified and discussed in the literature. The potential implications for, and
the similarities or differences amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations will be
explored. Furthermore, this paper aims to highlight the compounded complexity of the boarding
situation, in which large distances may separate children and their schools from parents for long
periods of time. The questions raised will inform the direction and data collection of the doctoral
research being conducted by Tessa Benveniste.
Parental communication with schools
Benefits of parental communication
A large body of literature has developed over several decades that identifies and acknowledges the
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influence of the link between home and school. Extensive evidence reported in reviews and meta-
analyses of the international literature reports the effectiveness of parental involvement in facilitating
children’s academic achievement (Cox, 2005; Froiland & Davison, 2014; Jeynes, 2012). Benefits have
not only been demonstrated for children, but also for parents, teachers, and overall school management
(Christianakis, 2011; Rege & Almeida, 2013). For children, involvement of their parents is reported to
lead to improvements in attitudes, mental health, behaviour and attendance at school (Christenson,
2003; Hornby & Witte, 2010). Furthermore, higher test scores, student learning and achievement,
positive social and emotional behaviours, motivation, aspirations, social competence and peer
relationships have also been linked to increased parent involvement for children (Christianakis, 2011;
Rege & Almeida, 2013). These findings are consistent with Vygotsky’s argument that learning does
not occur in isolation within an individual but takes place in socially mediated contexts (McCormick
& Ozuna, 2012; Vygotsky, Cole, John-Steiner, Scribner, & Souberman, 1978). Bronfenbrenner and
Morris further argue through their bio-ecological model of human development that the family system
and the relationship between the family and school also provide important developmental contexts for
youth (Froiland & Davison, 2014). For parents, the benefits from involvement in their children’s
education include increased confidence and satisfaction in their parenting, and increased interest in
their own education (Hoover-Dempsey et al., 2005; Hornby & Witte, 2010). Benefits to families
overall include better connection between parents, children and communities, and an increase in
support and services to families (Rege & Almeida, 2013). For teachers and schools, improved parent-
teacher relationships, higher ratings of teachers by parents, teacher morale, better school reputations
within the community, better performance of school programs, and an improved overall school climate
have all been reported as a result of effective parental involvement (Hornby & Witte, 2010; Mutch &
Collins, 2012; Rege & Almeida, 2013). Programs that engage parents and families in supporting
learning at home are also linked to higher student achievement (Mutch & Collins, 2012). Thus, as
would be expected, the better the engagement between the parents, families and schools, the greater
the positive impacts for all involved.
The cultural context
The positive outcomes outlined above have been documented in families across diverse cultural,
ethnic, linguistic and socio-economic backgrounds, demonstrating the universal importance of parent
and familial involvement in a child’s learning. A New Zealand study by Mutch and Collins (2012)
identifies an important consideration in discussions of ‘parental involvement’ in modern society,
which contains a range of family configurations; noting that family members beyond a child’s parents
often have a role as a child’s caregiver. This is particularly relevant in many Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander cultures, where a child may have a number of familial or community caregivers.
Grandparents, aunties, uncles, sisters, brothers and other members of Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander kinship systems can all be vitally important to a child’s upbringing and community life.
Therefore, it is acknowledged that despite the consistent focus on ‘parents’ in the literature, focusing
solely on a child’s biological parents is not always appropriate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander families. Both in Australia and internationally, the literature indicates that schools that
employ models of shared governance between the school (principals, teachers, students), the
community (parents, Elders, wider community), and others (education department personnel and
researchers) result in improved outcomes for Indigenous students (Maughan 2010). In light of the
complexities of Indigenous education in Australia, and the strong focus on ‘improvement’,
researchers, educators and governments alike should take into consideration the strong evidence that
the involvement of parents, families and communities in schools is important. However, for
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander boarders, being schooled in major cities or regional centres can
mean isolation from family structures, a fundamental part of Indigenous life. These extended
networks, if severed or weakened, may leave students no family support system (Sonn, Bishop, &
Humphries, 2000). When Indigenous children are so far away from home and separated from direct
cultural influences and education, it is left to the boarding environment and school to facilitate the
maintenance of a connection to this aspect of their Aboriginality. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
history and cultures are taught in schools across Australia as part of the curriculum of each state and
territory. However, a large amount of variation exists between states, territories and schools in how
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strongly cultural identity is embedded throughout the school and curriculum. When people are striving
to maintain and transmit to future generations their cultures and languages in a modern, global world,
the less economically relevant those cultures and languages are to the imperatives of the modern,
global world, the more serious the effort needs to be made to communicate the importance of such
cultures and languages (Noel Pearson, 2009). It is therefore pertinent that the ability of boarding
schools to transmit such knowledge needs to be assessed, and that the involvement of parents and
communities in this cultural education and connection must be optimised.
What is parental communication/ involvement?
Before discussing in finer detail the implications of parental involvement for Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander parents of boarders, it is necessary to first define it. In addition to cultural nuances,
parental or family communication and involvement is an ambiguous concept, which has many possible
manifestations. School communication with families usually comes in written (memos, lists, forms,
permission notes, report cards, school calendars, notices of special events) or oral (parent-teacher
conferences, open days) form. Through such communication channels, teachers and families tend to
exchange information and ideas about a child’s development or progress both at school and at home
(Symeou, Roussounidou, & Michaelides, 2012). In addition to formal communications, informal
contact and communication also provides teachers and parents opportunities to gain insight into the
other’s perspective. These informal communications can occur as casual conversations before or after
school, meetings after school, emails, or telephone calls. Such informal communications imply the
ongoing and easy presence of parents in the school, which does not occur in the boarding model. They
are less likely to be spontaneous, and often have an ulterior motive behind them, occurring due to a
problem or incident. Boarding also presents a unique situation in which parents have two sets of carers
(teachers and boarding staff) to communicate with. Not only do parents need to be informed of their
child’s academic life, but also their home life in the boarding residence. Some studies have begun to
discuss forms of communication between families of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander boarders
and schools, (Perso, 2012; Perso, Kenyon, & Darrough, 2012), however a more focused and extensive
discussion needs to be developed, incorporating perspectives from parents, families, schools and
communities. Invitations from schools for parent participation and communication can both be
presented explicitly, with open school nights and parent-teacher conferences, as well as implicitly,
through written communication being presented in accessible language to the parents, providing
welcoming greetings when parents drop their children off, and otherwise creating a comfortable
environment for parents and family members (Green, Walker, Hoover-Dempsey, & Sandler, 2007).
Implicit invitations from boarding residences should also be investigated, such as allowing family
members to feel comfortable visiting the boarding house if they wish, and potentially providing
consistent staff at the boarding house, so there is always a familiar face for parents to recognise on
such visits. However, parent and boarding staff views and definitions of what they believe the best
forms of communication and involvement in the boarding house are currently missing but needed in
this discussion.
McKenna and Millen (2013) define parent or caregiver engagement as encapsulating both ‘parent
voice’ and ‘parent presence’. Their term ‘parent voice’ implies that parents naturally both have ideas
and opinions about their children, but that educators must be receptive to this voice for an open,
multidirectional flow of communication to occur (McKenna & Millen, 2013). Defined in McKenna
and Millen’s study as ‘the right and opportunity for parents and caregivers to express their thoughts
and understandings of their child’s experiences in and out of school’, it is believed that parent voice
must hold weight within educational settings in order to be able to positively influence their child’s
educational experience. A large scale review of research into Indigenous education by ACER further
emphasises the importance of finding a means to include Indigenous voice and conversation into the
wider educational policy and research literature (Mellor & Corrigan, 2004). If these voices are purely
heard and not listened to, we are at serious risk of perpetuating attitudes from the past that disempower
Indigenous Australian families (Hayes, Johnston, Morris, Power, & Roberts, 2009; T. Lea, A. Wegner,
E. McRae-Williams, R. Chenhall, & C. Holmes, 2011). ‘Parent Presence’ refers to the actions that are
associated with the voices of the caregivers, and unfortunately can be misconstrued or misjudged by
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teachers and other school personnel. Assumptions derived from perceptions of parental involvement
can be quite harmful when put into the context of low-income or minority parents, as in many cases,
these children have fewer opportunities to prove such assumptions wrong (McKenna & Millen, 2013).
Parent presence can be complicated for Indigenous families, as the idea of the school as a
‘community’ is difficult to convey when Aboriginal parents are only invited into discussion to support
and become involved in schools that run based on existing structures, and based upon decisions they
were not involved in making, in largely assimilationist environments (Hayes et al., 2009).
Furthermore, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parents, given the historical legacy of the
stolen generations and racial discrimination in school, may not trust schools or school systems
entirely. It is thus imperative that in understanding parent presence and involvement, schools must
employ an expansive appreciation of the nuances that varied cultural, economic and geographic
circumstances present (Jeynes, 2012).
Other studies discuss parent-school interactions or parent presence as ‘parent involvement’. Certain
parental behaviours and types of involvement have varied levels of importance at different times
across a child’s education. Parental involvement with a younger child is more likely to involve home
literacy and cognitive stimulation such as reading with a child, counting objects, or playing with
puzzles, and has shown positive effects on children’s development (Froiland & Davison, 2014;
Powell, Son, File, & San Juan, 2010). For most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island families from
remote and very remote communities, the opportunity for parental involvement is much greater in
these younger years, where access to primary schooling is more widespread and delivered locally.
With an older child approaching middle and high school, certain types of parental involvement, such
as checking on grades, helping with or checking on homework have been shown to have a negative
rather than positive impact on some adolescents, who are more likely to find this involvement
overbearing. Whilst traditional parental involvement activities include helping with homework,
attending school events, responding to notes or queries from teachers, or committee membership, it is
important to acknowledge unconventional, less visible and more personal spaces of parental
involvement in school life. This can include finding ways of engagement despite language barriers,
cooking food or volunteering behind the scenes at school events, or simply negotiating safe living and
transportation options related to schooling (Carreón, Drake, & Barton, 2005; Goldkind & Farmer,
2013; McKenna & Millen, 2013). Additionally, Lea and colleagues (2011) found that some of their
participants (Aboriginal parents) believed that getting the child up and ready for school was sufficient
involvement, and that they were satisfied to only engage in contacting the teacher to discuss concerns
about student achievement or behaviour. The sheer act of enrolling their child in a boarding program
may be the clearest indictor of an Aboriginal parent’s involvement in their education. Parental
involvement with children who are boarding is less likely to be obvious and visible to boarding and
teaching staff. Inability to see their children on a daily basis restricts the ability of a parent to perform
some of the more ‘traditional’ tasks of involvement, however there are likely to be many other ways
that these parents find to keep connected to their children and their schooling. Some parents may find
this more difficult than others, or be unaware of the need for them to remain closely involved, yet as
discussed, this is yet to be made clear through empirical research.
Christianakis (2011) investigated teacher’s perceptions of parental involvement at an inner city school
in Northern California with a culturally diverse population. She found that teachers believed various
types of help to represent parent involvement at school, identifying particular ‘helpful’ parents (who
were able to act as pseudo-teaching assistants during school hours) as more involved; those who were
unable to help carry out tasks in the classroom were not described as helpful. In fact, negative
assumptions were placed upon such parents. This is unfortunately evident to be common in other
studies and schools (Bloom, 2001). Of course, parents who are able to help out during class hours or
even have a stronger presence outside school hours at functions are parents who have the capacity to
be available, generous and flexible with their time. In today’s society, this does not describe the
majority of parents, especially from lower-income households; therefore teachers may be imparting
unreasonable expectations upon parents with limited access to financial and familial resources that
facilitate involvement (Christianakis, 2011). Furthermore, cultural and personal nuances may
influence a parent’s perception of what their level of involvement should be. Teacher perceptions are
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particularly important to note in the boarding context, due to potentially less understanding of the time
and financial cost to parents of travelling to the child’s school. The less a parent may be available to
attend school events, the less likely the teacher will have the opportunity to create stronger
connections and understandings of a family’s situation.
What are the barriers to communication/ involvement for boarding schools?
Despite the overwhelming evidence that parental involvement at home and school benefits students,
parents, and schools alike, actively involving parents, particularly in lower-income communities, has
been one of schools’ greatest challenges (Williams & Sanchez, 2013). Teachers and administrators,
with increasingly diverse student and family populations, find building partnerships with families to be
an important issue (Lim, 2012). Although lower-income and cultural minority families are frequently
mentioned in the literature as being more difficult to engage with, research and discussions have
moved beyond the ‘blame game’ which often claimed that these families care little or less about their
children’s formal education than majority or higher income families (Christianakis, 2011). Authors
such as Biddle (2001) and Yosso (2005) have challenged such deficit approaches by illustrating the
Eurocentric cultural interpretations of families that have dominated the literature on parental
involvement. Recent, more culturally relevant discussions propose more focus on how and why
minority or lower income parents may come to feel isolated, ignored or unwelcome in the school
environment (Lawson, 2003). Such discussions refrain from making white middle class families the
standard of comparison; such a comparison, in effect, perpetuates tacit structural classism and racism
through ignorance of cultural and ethnic diversity (Christianakis, 2011). Despite this
acknowledgement in the literature, many home-school engagement practices can often seem
predicated on the notion that parents do not naturally operate in ways that are caring and involved with
their children. Perpetuation of common assumptions that educators must ‘teach’ parents how to be
involved and ‘train’ them in ways to care for their children is not only insensitive and insulting, but
does not acknowledge the realities of different parenting styles. Ultimately, this approach is
completely unproductive to the development of successful models of engagement (McKenna &
Millen, 2013). One study in particular found that teacher’s assumptions can extend beyond what
parental involvement should look like, to why parental involvement appears inhibited in remote
Aboriginal communities. This study, by Lea, Wegner, McRae-Williams, Chenhall & Holmes (2011),
found that in one instance, a teacher had assumed the school fence to be intimidating and a deterrent
for Indigenous parents to visit the school, whereas the parents emphasised the benefits of the fence in
its added security. This further highlights the need for comprehensive and localised understanding of
the needs and perceptions of families and school personnel.
Furthermore, McKenna and Millen (2013) performed a qualitative study that found that educators
often lose opportunities that would allow them to more fully understand and relate to students,
particularly when perceptions of parental involvement are based on assumptions or inaccurate
representations that do not acknowledge the nuances of varied cultural, economic or geographic
circumstances. This is an important point to acknowledge in the context of boarding, as parents and
students are likely to be from towns, communities, or remote properties that are large distances from
the boarding residence. This makes it particularly hard for staff to truly understand the context of the
child’s home environment, or the constraints that may be placed upon parents in being involved in the
child’s school or boarding life. Inaccurate assumptions or representations of any family, whether they
are lower income, minority, or boarding families, can consequently mean they are assumed to have the
same resources and life experiences as white, middle class, local families. Educators and researchers
alike must move beyond stating that parents from economically disadvantaged or ethnic minority
groups are the least likely to become involved in school activities, into more useful and productive
discussions of what their limitations may be, and how schools can reduce or acknowledge the effects
of such limitations. This can and must be applied to parents of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island
boarders as well, despite the complexities of distance.
Williams and Sanchez (2013) have begun this process, and identified five key factors that may be
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attributed to lower parental or familial engagement with schools; limited knowledge and resources,
time poverty, lack of access, lack of financial resources, and lack of awareness. In addition, studies
have found that despite many schools attempting to establish practices that facilitate effective two-way
communication, it is actually more likely that the school largely dominates the flow and content of
information to families (Epstein et al., 2002; Symeou et al., 2012). Goldkind and Farmer (2013) also
identify that the structure and quality of the school environment is believed to play an important role
in facilitating opportunities for parental involvement, with large, impersonal schools believed to
present many barriers to involvement. The physical structure of the school may not be as much as a
deterrent for Aboriginal parents as some propose, with Lea and colleagues (2011) finding their
informants (Indigenous parents) to not be intimidated at all by this. This should be explored further in
the boarding context, however, as boarding parents may have limited opportunities to become familiar
with the boarding environment and this may yield different perspectives.
How can parental communication/ involvement be improved in the boarding context?
Successful partnerships between parents and teachers require the development of common
understandings and expectations of the benefits as well as challenges of parental engagement. Mutch
and Collins (2012) isolated six factors in particular that are crucial to effective engagement;
leadership, relationships, school culture, partnerships, community networks and communication.
These six factors should be analysed in the context of boarding, in order to establish whether they are
all as relevant, as well as to identify any further factors that apply solely to boarding. Those believed
to be particularly relevant in the context of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families are
community networks and communication. Perso (2012) highlights that good communication between
schools and Indigenous communities is key to cultural responsiveness throughout the whole school
environment. One suggestion for including Indigenous communities include potentially establishing
an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Committee or council to assist in embedding
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives within the curriculum and school programs (Perso,
2012). Despite most State and Territory education departments recognising the importance of parental
involvement and community engagement as strategies for improving Indigenous education, the precise
means by which this should take place are rarely articulated. Beyond department funding for non-
curricular personnel, such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education workers, strategies for
engaging with parents and communities are left to the individual school (Lea, Wegner, McRae-
Williams, Chenhall, & Holmes, 2011). Some suggestions for this include the setting up of relaxed
parent areas in schools to enable discussion and informal meetings of parents, teachers and
administration staff (such as barbeques with guest speakers) (Appleyard, 2002).
Effective communication was also identified by Williams and Sanchez (2013) to be crucial in
facilitating parental involvement, with open door policies at schools, parents informing schools of
changes to home life, and parents and teachers sharing mobile phone numbers or email addresses
suggested as ways to expand communication channels. As Osborne (2014) discusses, however,
listening, hearing and understanding in the complex environment of remote Aboriginal communities
takes more than a single visit or conversation, thus this needs to be recognised and appropriately acted
upon. Perso, Kenyon, and Darrough (2012) found that one staff member was particularly effective in
their communication with families, phoning them frequently, concerning both positive and negative
behaviours, or to simply update them. This staff member also took the opportunity to visit families of
boarders whenever possible, showing genuine interest in her students and their lives outside school,
while valuing the input of their families.
Goldkind and Farmer (2013) found that smaller schools are more effective in providing opportunities
for parental participation than larger schools, however it is often the case that boarding residences are
part of the latter, therefore this is a potential barrier to parental communication and involvement with
boarding schools. Low-cost interventions such as Bennet-Conroy’s (2012) study to engage parents in
parent-teacher communication have demonstrated that parent involvement can be improved and is
feasible in some cases with simple homework tasks that require parental interaction, as well as with
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teacher outreach to initiate communication with parents. While this may be effective in regular
schools, the boarding situation once again is in need of a different solution. An interesting aspect of
boarding houses is that students often receive homework help from tutors or boarding house staff. The
relationship between the students and such staff is not that of a parent and a child, however it may be
possible that this assistance is contributing to improved academic outcomes at a higher level than what
could be achieved with parental homework help. Further research into staff and student relationships
and the potential benefits/ downfalls is also required in the boarding school space.
Parent partnership and parent empowerment models also aim to improve parental involvement in
schooling. Parent or family empowerment models may be particularly useful in improving
communication and trust between schools and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families of
boarders, as they seek to neutralise the power imbalance that is generally in favour of schools, whilst
anticipating misunderstandings and building on children’s home cultures, giving families the ability to
contribute to and participate in school decision making. Partnership models generally recommend that
schools shape and influence home practices and rely heavily on collaboration between parents and
teachers, therefore are less likely to be as effective in the boarding environment, especially for
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families. Empowerment models, however, ask that parents not
only collaborate to meet school requirements, but also define their community needs by assisting to
shape school practices, policies and pedagogies. Thus, empowerment models move beyond
partnerships that simply accomplish school goals by supporting parents to influence policies, practices
and power structures (Christianakis, 2011). However, parent enactment is not without complications,
and requires a high degree of social interaction and networking, often necessitating onsite community
liaisons to assist parents in advocating for their children (Christianakis, 2011). Such models also
require parents to use their time and social capital to negotiate school spaces such as conferences,
events and meetings (Calabrese Barton, Drake, Perez, St. Louis, & George, 2004).
It is evident in the educational and psychological literature that parents and family play a significant
role in children’s academic potential. Parental communication and involvement in school has been
shown to improve outcomes for children, parents and schools alike, across culturally and economically
diverse backgrounds. Studies have examined parental communication and involvement in regards to
defining and identifying their forms, as well as acknowledging the barriers that can prevent parents
from optimal involvement and communication with schools. This has led to identification of strategies
to break down such barriers and strategies, with the ultimate goal of improving outcomes for all
involved. Whilst continuing these discussions is vital in improving educational outcomes and
wellbeing for parents, children and schools globally, two particular groups have been so far excluded
from the research field. Through examination of the literature it has become clear that for parents and
families of boarders, parental communication and involvement in schooling will look different to that
of local parents. In Australia this is particularly important to acknowledge, due to the geographical
distances and high percentage of rural and remote areas, which are often where boarders come from.
The mechanisms by which parents and schools communicate in light of this distance should be
assessed in order to identify any improvements that must be made. The effects of parents being unable
to remain consistently involved with their child’s schooling, such as helping with homework, should
also be examined, as well as the ways in which boarding houses compensate for this.
Families from cultural minority groups as well as lower socio-economic backgrounds have
consistently been identified in the literature as having lower levels of parental involvement and
communication. This paper has discussed this in relation to current evidence, and that which is yet to
be established. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, a large amount of pressure is placed
upon them in contributing to ‘closing the gap’ and improving ‘educational outcomes’. Unfortunately,
the sole measure of ‘educational outcomes’ in Australia is the NAPLAN, which arguably does not
accurately reflect upon Indigenous student’s achievements. Prominent Aboriginal lawyer and activist,
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Out of sight, out of mind? Author Name: Tessa Benveniste
Contact Email:
Noel Pearson, has previously called for Indigenous parents to ‘step up their game’;
To parents, we can’t tell our kids to do well in school and then fail to support them when
they get home. You can’t just contract out parenting. For our kids to excel, we have to
accept our responsibility to help them learn. (Pearson, 2009)
However, more recently, as the chairman of the Cape York Partnership, Pearson has been advocating
for improved access, uptake and achievement in education, including the promotion of secondary
education through boarding programs. Interestingly, these two concepts are conflicting. While
boarding is purported as enabling children to be bi-cultural, improving competency in their own
community and in the mainstream world, there is no acknowledgement of parent or family role in this
process. Beyond the application for and agreement to send their children to board, what does Pearson,
who has specifically addressed the need for parental involvement, suggest this looks like once your
child is halfway across the country? How can parents still engage at the level he is implying? Pearson
is just one example of many voices that are recommending boarding programs, without engaging in
the deeper and more complex discussions required of this educational model.
Of course, the responsibility does not lie completely with the parent. Outlined in the South Australian
Government’s ‘Aboriginal Education Strategy’ (2013), recent studies also suggest many teachers want
improved pre-service education and professional development to assist their work with Aboriginal
students and families. High expectations for Aboriginal students must be accompanied by specific
knowledge and skills that inform classroom practice. A lack of confidence in mainstream services held
by some Aboriginal communities, combined with evidence of systemic racism towards Aboriginal
people not only in education, but in welfare, public housing, healthcare and the criminal justice
system, turns the spotlight to non-Aboriginal service providers to contribute to closing the gap
(Herring, Spangaro, Lauw, & McNamara, 2013). It is vital that all schools and boarding residences
build bridges between culture of home, the school or residence, and educational research (Hayes et al.,
2009). Unfortunately, dominant cultures in society are widely seen as possessing the most social and
cultural capital; therefore purposeful engagement can often have assimilationist undertones. If schools
are simply reaching out to or valuing cultural beliefs of families and communities in a tokenistic
manner, they are still perpetuating dominant cultural beliefs. Many schools in Australia, New Zealand
and the US that have high participation, retention and academic achievements of Indigenous students
have embedded cultural identity throughout the school and the curriculum. This whole-school
philosophy, embracing Indigenous values and ways of working, should be extended beyond the school
into the boarding house, and should have synchronisation between the school and boarding residence.
The cultural, social and cognitive resources that Indigenous children naturally possess should not only
be recognised but capitalised on (Nelson & Hay, 2010). Traditional educational pathways and
trajectories need to be challenged so as to celebrate the cultural wealth of these young people, their
families and their communities, in order to avoid isolating or marginalising Indigenous students within
education and boarding systems.
Finally, difficulties for parent enactment and participation in school decision making are likely to be
exacerbated in boarding environments, where rules, regulations and ‘traditions’ have formed and often
remained largely untouched since the schools’ conception. Tradition is a large component of many
prestigious boarding schools, many of which are based on the English Public School (boarding)
system (White, 2004). Therefore, the ability for any parents at such schools, let alone parents from
minority cultures, to engage with school policy and enact change is likely to be limited. Ironically,
these are precisely the kinds of policies and practices that have prevented or prohibited disadvantaged
students and students from lower socio-economic backgrounds accessing and successfully navigating
such school environments, thus contributing to intergenerational underachievement. Furthermore, the
motivations of such schools for engaging with and providing scholarships to Indigenous Australian
students should be explored. While merit should be attributed to boarding schools and scholarship
funding organisations for their effort to provide equal opportunity for and access to education for
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, their motivations may not be purely altruistic. Boarding
schools who provide places to these students also stand to gain financial support and status from
‘helping children in need’. Schools should be made accountable to their motivations, as they are likely
Joint AARE-NZARE 2014 Conference, Brisbane 2014 Page 9 of 10
Out of sight, out of mind? Author Name: Tessa Benveniste
Contact Email:
to affect their willingness and capacity for reflexive engagement with parents in shaping school
policies and practices. Understanding this and engaging schools in genuine conversations and
development of practical strategies to overcome such issues is vital, and the parents and families of
students absolutely need to be part of such discussions. It would be a worthwhile exercise for boarding
schools to consider the practical ways that parent empowerment might be achieved for families of
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, whether this purely allows schools to gain an
understanding of these families’ perspectives on expectations of the boarding experience, or leads to
effective shared governance in development of policies and practices within the boarding school or
Given the above discussion highlighting the need for engagement between parents/carers and boarding
school staff, it would be helpful for all boarding school stakeholders to understand how the
relationships between parents and boarding schools can be strengthened. How can effective
communication be fostered when the distances between home communities and schools are great?
Should we consider some of the following strategies?
More effective use of mobile and video technologies to link students, families and teachers;
Regular visits from teachers/boarding staff to remote communities;
Regular, planned visits from parents and carers to schools;
Use of social media to connect schools and families;
Language or cultural competency training for boarding staff;
School exchanges to communities where students come from;
Regional hostels or residences—perhaps as annexes of boarding schools in urban areas.
Each of these strategies contains individual potential benefits and limitations, which, while touched on
briefly above, are largely beyond the scope of this review to discuss in detail. More importantly, while
we can hypothesise about what might work best for remote students, the real challenge lies in
understanding what parents and carers want or need and advocating for including them in decisions
that affect their children. Once their perspectives are heard and understood, collaboration with school
and boarding staff and administration boards can begin to explore and implement such strategies, and
better align school practice with students, parents, families and communities needs.
Australian Bureau of Statistics (2011). Characteristics of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
Australians (Population and Housing) ABS, Canberra.
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... Most of the research has focused on boarding school options and a lot has been learned from this research (Australian Indigenous Education Foundation 2015; Benveniste, Dawson and Rainbird 2015;Benveniste, Disbray and Guenther 2014;Benveniste, Guenther, Dawson & Rainbird 2014;Guenther, Disbray and Osborne 2016;Mander 2015;Mander, Cohen and Pooley 2015a, b; Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Education Committee 2008; Queensland Indigenous Education Consultative Body 2007. However, boarding school options have specific contextual details not shared with the other options usually, including more stringent selection procedures, often smaller groups of Indigenous students at any one time, higher socio-economic status schools, and the presence of the accommodation on the school property in most cases (English and Guerin 2017). ...
... In support, the study by Mander and Fieldhouse (2009) identified that family involvement can assist the student to deal with issues like homesickness. The ability to connect with family was obviously important to the students and it confirms findings in other studies (Benveniste, Guenther, Dawson & Rainbird 2014;Lloyd 2003;McGinty 2002). These researchers found that reconnecting families using modern technology, for example emailing or phoning could reduce the feelings of homesickness, and as a result assisted students to cope at the boarding facility. ...
... Alternatively, students relied on family and friends when they were feeling homesick. This finding was also supported by the literature, for example Lloyd (2003;Benveniste, Guenther, Dawson & Rainbird 2014) identified that reconnecting students with their families can reduce the feelings associated with homesickness. Consequently the findings from this study suggest that while there are issues with residing at the residential college that these issues can be overcome. ...
Full-text available
To receive a secondary education, many Australian Indigenous students relocate to a metropolitan city and reside in a residential college. A recent review, however, found that there is little systematic research on the outcomes of boarding options (English and Guerin 2017). This study, therefore, aimed to broaden our knowledge of the features Indigenous students identify can assist them in such residential colleges. Thirty-one female Indigenous students from Wiltja, an Adelaide-based residential college for Anangu secondary students from Central Australia, were informally interviewed (usually more than once) about the features of the program that assisted or hindered their ability to reside at the facility. The results indicated that the students were motivated to be in the program, and that they enjoyed the activities and the new friendships. Evidence that the program was effective was reflected in positive changes in the students' development. Issues that hindered the ability to stay at the residence included homesickness, conflicts, and lifestyle restrictions. However, students also reported a series of support mechanisms that assist them to overcome these concerns. This study provides clarity and further depth to a previously neglected area of research. The findings have implications for the further development of quality and sustainable boarding facilities in the future.
... The Queensland Indigenous Education Consultative Body (2007) found that such support programs included pastoral care programs. In addition, Craven (2006) highlighted that successful implementation of programs required support from community and parents (Benveniste, Guenther, Dawson & Rainbird, 2014). Therefore, the literature suggests that programs which are implemented with the support of family can assist the Indigenous students to cope with life at the residence. ...
... Coupled with this, these students also reported how their family dynamics and relationships with friend back home also gradually changed. Mander (2015) found that parent involvement in learning about and communicating with the boarding school was important (Benveniste, Guenther, Dawson & Rainbird, 2014). McRae (2007) identified that those Indigenous students enrolled at a boarding school residence without immediate family or members of their community rarely stayed. ...
... A possible solution to providing a balance between exposure to mainstream society and maintaining cultural identity is a sixth factor; that of the involvement of parental and community members at the boarding school (Benveniste, Guenther, Dawson & Rainbird, 2014;Doecke 2004;Wardell 2006). Wardell (2006) reported on a boarding school and identified that the parental involvement at the residence was a good and necessary addition. ...
Full-text available
Indigenous Australian students in remote communities are usually encouraged to relocate to a metropolitan city or rural town to pursue a quality secondary education. The aim of this paper is to compare four models of boarding deemed suitable for Indigenous students: hostels, family group homes, boarding schools, and residential colleges. Research specifically on the different types of boarding facilities available in Australia was reviewed to compare the features of each. It was found that hostels and family group homes commonly facilitated home-like environments that Indigenous students favoured. Boarding schools and residential colleges commonly utilised a series of supportive programs in a setting that sometimes emphasised family and community involvement. Residential colleges were also able to implement programs that enhanced the student's educational achievements. Significant overlap was identified, in that all options could provide a safe, secure and caring environment. There were also limitations with each option: hostels and family group homes sometimes implement ineffective behaviour management strategies; and boarding schools and residential colleges were sometimes reported to have overly rigid practices. Possible solutions are suggested which incorporate supportive and culturally appropriate programs but in a home-like environment.
... Working with indigenous and cultural minority families should be an important part of teacher education. A study conducted in Australia (Benveniste et al., 2014) concluded that many teachers wanted improvement in their teacher education programs to be well-prepared for working with Aboriginal families. Sukhbaatar's study (2018a) noted that pre-service teachers suggested teacher education should consider herder families as an important group to deal with as working with herder parents would be more challenging than working with other parents. ...
Full-text available
This study developed a partial ecological model of contextual factors impacting school and pastoralist family communication at the primary school level in rural Mongolia based on Bronfenbrenner's ecological model. To develop the model, we interviewed 10 classroom teachers and 10 pastoralist parents from two remote county schools in eastern Mongolia. During our interpretative phenomenological analysis based on semi-structured interviews, we found eight contextual factors impacting rural school and pastoralist family communication located at the exosystem and the macrosystem levels. The partial ecological model can be used in teacher education programs providing a greater insight into the contexts of school-family communication for pre-service and in-service teachers and for teacher educators and policy makers. The model could also be a foundational model for communication training in teacher education courses. In this respect, the current study may help inform researchers and education policy makers not only in Mongolia but also in other settings.
... Despite the association in Australia between residential education and assimilationist child removal policies (Benveniste et al., 2014, p. 1), boarding school has long been a defining feature of 'remote' Indigenous education. Approximately 4,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are sent away to boarding school each year, often at great distances from their communities (Benveniste et al., 2014;Guenther & Fogarty, 2018). From the 2000s, elite sources and journalists used boarding school education to promote a powerful discourse of 'mobility', whereby relocation away from community combatted the fragility of Indigenous identity by marking out those who could straddle the non-Indigenous and Indigenous worlds (Pearson, 2000). ...
This article presents a time sensitive critical text analysis of Australian news reporting that has identified, mapped and analysed news reporting about Indigenous education from 2008 to 2018. Three key themes were identified: school attendance; performance as measured by national testing, and boarding school education. A braiding metaphor is introduced to illustrate how the three themes operated independently over time, intersected and together wove a discursive braid steeped in deficit. The analysis is an act of ‘unbraiding’ that aims to reveal how news media coverage was integral to constructing Indigenous education as an unquestioned problem for society, a policy problem for governments to solve and an intractable pedagogical conundrum.
... Hodges et al. (2016) suggested that more skills-based training was needed for boarding staff, especially in areas of relationship development. Furthermore, the implications of physical distance (remoteness) for staff who are working with students from very remote communities should be considered, in that connection and knowledge of their home life can be limited (Benveniste et al. 2014). In exploring the transition of Western Australian male Aboriginal secondary students to boarding, Mander (2012) found that if staff allocated time to build rapport, trust and to foster relationships with students, positive impacts were seen for the students' transition to boarding life. ...
Boarding schools have been increasingly championed in strategies to move closer to educational equality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. However, there is a significant lack of research and evidence on the implications of the boarding environment for Aboriginal students, families and communities. This paper presents a study of an Aboriginal residential program in South Australia. Semi-structured and narrative interviews with 55 participants (including residence staff, family, and past students) reveal the centrality of rules and relationships within this setting. Consideration of these themes from a Critical Race Theory perspective provides a sociocultural basis to analyse the implications of race, racism and power. In doing so, the underlying implications of the boarding model that should be acknowledged, explored and applied in this setting are identified. Implications for policy and practice are discussed.
... Since that report there has been a mini-explosion of new research that highlights boarding school issues related to remote First Nations students. Most of the research is qualitative, reporting on the risks and challenges of boarding in social, psychological and emotional terms Benveniste, Guenther, Dawson, & Rainbird, 2014Mander, Cohen, & Pooley, 2015a, 2015bMander, Lester, & Cross, 2015;O'Bryan, 2016;Redman-MacLaren et al., 2017) not just for the students, but for parents and community members as well (Benveniste, Dawson, Guenther, Rainbird, & King, 2016;Mander, 2015). The emerging body of research does not include quantitative findings about the effectiveness of boarding in terms of academic outcomes, or retention, or pathways from education. ...
In Australia, boarding schools and residential facilities for remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (First Nations) students have long been part of the educational landscape. Policy settings are paying considerable attention to boarding schools and residential colleges as secondary schooling options for First Nations students, particularly for those from remote areas. Further, First Nations education is seeing increased investment in scholarship programmes, transition support services and establishment of national boarding standards. There is an emerging body of qualitative evidence about the experiences and outcomes of boarding for remote First Nations students. However, in Australia there are no publicly available evaluations showing quantitative impacts of boarding. In this paper, the authors critically examine boarding using three capital theory lenses: social/cultural capital (based on Bourdieu), human capital (based on Becker), and identity capital (based on Erikson). Using these lenses we intend to go beyond an understanding of impact on individuals towards a more nuanced consideration of the social, cultural, health and well-being consequences of pursuing boarding as strategic policy for First Nations students in Australia.
... Despite the push to have remote Indigenous students board in metropolitan areas, there is not a clear message from research. There is some research on the experiences of moving from a remote community into a city (Mander 2015;Mander, Cohen and Pooley 2015a;Stewart 2015), some on the experiences of boarding for remote Indigenous students (Australian Indigenous Education Foundation 2015; Benveniste, Dawson and Rainbird 2015;Benveniste, Disbray and Guenther 2014;Guenther, Disbray and Osborne 2016;Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Education Committee 2008;Queensland Indigenous Education Consultative Body 2007), and on the role of parents and communities in this (Benveniste, Guenther, Dawson & Rainbird 2014;English and Guerin 2017). A recent review compared four different types of boarding options (English and Guerin, 2017). ...
Full-text available
In an attempt to bridge the educational gap, more boarding school options have been proposed by both government and private initiatives but much more research into the specific details is needed (English & Guerin, 2017). The focus of this study was to describe the experiences of 8 key staff at a boarding school collected via a method of repeated informal chats or yarning. The key staff perspectives identified several successful teaching strategies, numerous barriers which prevented student achievement, and a variety of opinions on ways to manage the programs. Increased communication, support and additional training were identified as important factors to prevent staff burnout. Identified themes were subsequently translated into recommendations that were presented to the school in the aim to improve educational outcomes.
For many remote Aboriginal Australian students, periods of time during their secondary education are spent living away from home at a boarding school. While financial, political and community support is burgeoning for boarding models that provide scholarships, sports programs or accommodation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, very little academic research or evidence exists that examines the experiences of students post-boarding. This paper forms part of a broader doctoral research study, but specifically focuses on how past students, families and communities from remote South Australia view the outcomes of boarding. Using a Grounded theory design, thematic analysis of 32 semi-structured interviews with past students, families and community members led to the identification of three main themes: connections (early exits), community (re-engaging in education), and context (employment in remote communities). Findings indicated that outcomes are not linear nor easily defined. Developing a theory of change was recommended as a future approach to help families, students and remote schools to clearly define goals and measures of success for each student, recognising a range of interpretations and conceptions of ‘success’, and adapting these goals as necessary.
One important group of people living a special lifestyle in Mongolia is mobile pastoralists. Requirements from the government of Mongolia push pastoralist parents to send their children to schools in settled areas far from their camps. This interpretative phenom- enological study explored primary school classroom teachers’ experiences in communicating with pastoralist parents during the school year. In-depth interviews were conducted involving six class- room teachers from a rural primary school in eastern Mongolia. We applied Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model to organise our findings in our interpretative phenomenological analysis. The findings indi- cated that classroom teachers had difficulties in communicating with pastoralist parents. The school and teachers heavily relied on a very few traditional forms of communication which was not appropriate given the pastoralist parents’ unique situation. This suggested the need for preparing pre-service teachers better for partnering with pastoralist families and their extended family mem- bers, and the need for further professional development on this topic for both teachers and school leaders. Our findings were also related to some contextual factors impacting teacher communica- tion with pastoralist parents besides teacher education. This study highlighted the implications for teacher education and school pol- icy. Potential directions for future research were recommended.
Full-text available
This presentation was given to a Boarding Australia forum as a keynote address in Darwin on 30 May 2018.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any references for this publication.