BOARDING SCHOOLS FOR REMOTE SECONDARY ABORIGINAL
LEARNERS IN THE NORTHERN TERRITORY. SMOOTH TRANSITION
OR ROUGH RIDE?
Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education and Ninti One Limited
Australian Council for Educational Research
Australian Council for Educational Research
Central Queensland University
University of South Australia
Charles Darwin University
After the 2014 Northern Territory Wilson Review of Indigenous education, the NT
Department of Education committed resources support secondary aged students to take up
boarding options. The basis for this was firstly, low retention rates of students to Year 12,
and secondly, difficulties associated with providing quality secondary education in remote
communities. Beyond the Review, the Department’s policy had a small evidence base. It did
not know how many young people were attending boarding schools, where, how long they
were attending or what the impact of the strategy would be for students or communities.
In response, the Cooperative Research Centre for Remote Economic Participation’s
Remote Education Systems project commissioned the Australian Council for Educational
Research to uncover the missing evidence. It became apparent that finding data to fill the
gap would be a challenge. Nevertheless, the project revealed findings following interviews
with community stakeholders, principals and heads of boarding schools.
While the research project itself cannot fill all the gaps it can offer an independent critique
of a strategy designed to increase boarding school participation. It also poses questions
for further research in a field where transformative impact is assumed to be positive, but
where evidence for transformation is limited.
The Cooperative Research Centre for Remote Economic Participation’s Remote Education Systems
(RES) project ran for five years to 2016 examining ways that outcomes for remote Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander students could be improved. The research uncovered a significant array of
findings that challenge assumptions while offering solutions to existing problems. The project
produced over 70 peer reviewed publications and a number of other publicly accessible resources that
could be used by practitioners, policy advisers, universities supporting the development of graduate
teachers as well as community members.
During the course of the project, boarding schools came up repeatedly in the media, advocated by
prominent Aboriginal leaders and others, as a way to address the problem of failing remote schools.
As we investigated this issue it soon became apparent that there was little in the literature to provide
an evidence base, despite the media attention. To address the gap, the RES team brought together
interested stakeholders to discuss what would be needed to fill the evidence gap.
We concluded that several issues needed addressing. Firstly, there was no data. We could not find how
many young people were going to boarding schools, where they were going, how long they were
attending or what the transformative impact (positive or negative) of boarding is for students, families
The team started with a relatively simple exercise of finding answers to the quantitative questions of
how many students come from which communities and go to which boarding schools—just for the
Northern Territory. To do this, Ninti One Limited commissioned the Australian Council for
Educational Research to provide answers to the following questions.
From where in the Northern Territory do boarding schools and other educational facilities draw their
remote and very remote students?
How many Indigenous students from the Northern Territory are in boarding schools?
In what year levels are Indigenous boarding students?
What is the gender breakdown of these students?
It soon became evident that finding answers to these questions would not be as easy as we had first
thought. Consequently, the project shifted in focus to more of a qualitative study that sought to
understand the dynamics of boarding for remote students in the Northern Territory.
Before considering what the project did find, it will be important to gain an understanding of the
policy context from which boarding school strategies are generated. Secondly, while limited, we will
explore the emerging body of contemporary boarding school research as it connects with remote
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. We are mindful of the significance of different
histories, experiences of colonization, assimilation, protectionism, and stolen generations but for the
purposes of this paper we set those important issues aside in favour of the contemporary issues.
Policy context for remote boarding in Australia
In response to frustrations with progress in remote education, some commentators have implied that
governments are not capable of providing an adequate secondary education in remote locations. For
instance, in his article published in The Australian on 5 November 2004, Director of the Cape York
Institute for Policy and Leadership, Noel Pearson wrote: ‘There is not sufficient scale, and the
teachers and specialisations required to provide a proper secondary education are impossible with
small student populations’ (Pearson, 2004). The same perspective was outlined in Wilson’s (2014)
Review of Indigenous Education in the Northern Territory, suggesting the apparent lack of alternatives
for remote secondary students:
The only way to meet the needs of a small and thinly distributed student population for
substantial secondary education including a breadth of options in the senior years is to
aggregate students into larger groups (p.143)
In an ABC Lateline interview, Professor Marcia Langton (ABC, 26 February 2013) acknowledges a
broader debate that boarding school education represents a new policy of removal of children from
families such as the stolen generations. Langton disputes this, but accepts the inability of government
education provision as a given, stating:
It’s quite wrong to refer to this as the Stolen Generation, a new stolen generation, because
Aboriginal parents willingly send their children to these schools, they want their children
to have a good education. So the conditions are there for them to perform much better than
the children who don’t attend boarding schools. It’s a tragedy to have to say that, it's
heartbreaking, but those are the facts. (ABC, 2013)
The premise for the push for boarding schools, is largely based on the assumption that remote schools
for Aboriginal children are failing (Anderson, 2012), that there are inordinate obstacles to success
(O'Keefe et al., 2012), and that the best way (despite the allusions to Stolen Generation) to deal with
the problems is to send the children away (Mundine, 2014).
Having argued that local education provision is not a legitimate option for remote and very remote
secondary students, proponents quickly move on to discuss the various models of boarding. These
boarding models broadly fit into two main categories. The first category is provision of full or partial
scholarships to high-cost independent schools based in metropolitan centres. Through Abstudy funds,
the Commonwealth provides a significant portion of the per-student costs—the total Abstudy
secondary component is budgeted at $145 million this year (Commonwealth of Australia, 2016)—,
but also contributes through funding programs such as Yalari, the Indigenous Youth Leadership
Program (IYLP), and the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation (AIEF). In the case of the
latter, the Australian Government has committed $38 million to the AIEF’s Scholarship Fund
(Australian Indigenous Education Foundation, 2015a). These programs are also financially supported
through corporate and benevolent organisations. The second category is the development of
local/regional boarding programs in remote areas, generally for very remote students, although these
programs are still in the construction and development phase in the Northern Territory following the
recommendations of the 2014 Wilson review. Both options address themes of providing better
opportunities for students, building social capital, and practical reconciliation. Wiltja (wiltja.com.au)
and Yirara (yirara.nt.edu.au) are examples of boarding schools that are located away from
communities but provide free access to boarding programs for Aboriginal students. After the 2014
Wilson Review of Indigenous education in the Northern Territory, the Northern Territory Department
of Education committed significant resources to increase the proportion of young people of secondary
age who take up boarding options as part of its Indigenous Education Strategy (Northern Territory
Deparment of Education, 2015). The basis for these substantial investments was firstly, low retention
rates of students through to Year 12, and secondly the difficulties associated with providing quality
secondary education in remote communities. Beyond the Review, the Department made these
decisions largely without an independent evidence base. As part of the Strategy, the Northern Territory
Department of Education established a Transition Support Unit which has begun liaising and
brokering between target schools and families within the region to assist in placing potential boarding
enrolments (Northern Territory Deparment of Education, 2016).
The Inquiry into Educational Opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students has been
a useful opportunity for many organisations interested in the topic, to put forward submissions. The
submissions themselves represent a large body of knowledge and experience. In preparing this paper,
we analysed 63 submission documents that were available. The analysis shows that of the 63
submissions, 56 raised remote education as an issue. Of these, 54 discussed funding issues, 48
mentioned boarding, 46 talked about quality, 43 mentioned career pathways and post school
destinations and 42 discussed partnerships or collaboration. While there is not space here to discuss
the details of submissions, the confluence of these multiple themes points to a range of concerns that
stand out or need to be addressed in order to improve educational opportunities for Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander students. Further, there is a lot of overlap across these themes, pointing to the
complexity of the issues, and the need for whole system solutions rather than simple interventions.
Australian contemporary research on boarding schools for Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander students
There is a small but growing body of mostly qualitative research on contemporary boarding school
experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and their families, some of which is
focused on people from remote communities. Mander’s work on the transition experience of Western
Australian students attending boarding schools, based on his PhD thesis (Mander, 2012) is perhaps the
most extensive in the recent literature. His interviews revealed a range of influences that contributed
to their perceptions and highlighted the importance of family support, Aboriginal peers and the
perceived poor quality of locally available educational options. He notes that boarding school students
experienced higher levels of ‘emotional difficulties and greater levels of depression, anxiety and stress
than non-boarders’ (Mander, Lester and Cross, 2015, p. 131). Among the negative influences Mander
(2012) notes that: ‘issues such as prejudice and covert racism influenced the transition experience to
boarding school for Aboriginal boarding students’ (p. 248). In a more recent paper, Mander
commented on the experiences of parents: ‘all participants spoke about the heavy emotional toll that
sending a child away to boarding school placed on them as parents (for example feelings of guilt,
stress, sadness)’ (Mander, 2015). Elsewhere in an exploration of staff perceptions, Mander concludes
If boarding schools believe they have a social responsibility to offer an alternative
secondary education pathway to families in regional and remote communities, then they
must first ensure their schools are safe and inclusive places for Aboriginal students to
inhabit. (Mander et al., 2015, p. 324)
In other recent research conducted in South Australia, Benveniste et al. (2014b) highlight the need for
better school-parent communication as a key factor that could improve the experience of students and
parents. Benveniste, Dawson and Rainbird (2015a) also critique and question the ‘role of residence’ as
a vehicle for achieving beneficial goals such as self-determination or walking in ‘two worlds’.
Stewart, introducing his own PhD research on transition experiences in remote Queensland comments
that while ‘the supports are there to allow children from the community to access a quality secondary
education ‘down south’… a significant number of those who leave the community to be educated, exit
secondary school prematurely’ (Stewart, 2015, p. 15). One way of addressing this, O’Bryan (2015)
argues, is through intentional partnerships between remote schools and urban boarding schools, which
could mediate a number of cultural, personal and social benefits. Osborne (forthcoming), drawing on
his PhD findings of a study in central Australia, suggests that many families are open to boarding and
see it as holding possibilities for strengthening young people, but they tend to appropriate the various
opportunities available in response to the priorities and perceived needs of the family at the time. In
other words, they do not necessarily buy in to the argument that boarding is the single best avenue to
securing a successful future for young people, but it is not shunned either. The CRC-REP’s research,
while not specifically focused on boarding, concurs with much of the above
Boarding school is firstly seen as a transition space between community, school and a
career. However, respondents were also careful to say that the required processes for these
transitions are important—that students are offered appropriate support as they enter into
boarding and appropriate support as they emerge from that experience. The second major
cluster of responses were about the importance of the residential experience being
supported in terms of relationships, structures and environments which give young people
a positive experience. The third important point raised related to the significance of family
influence and support for young people going to boarding. (Ninti One Limited &
Cooperative Research Centre for Remote Economic Participation, 2016, p. 131)
There are several examples of partnerships between remote communities and urban schools that could
be cited, but few have been documented or independently evaluated/researched. One of the more
notable examples is the Yiramalay-Wesley partnership—a partnership which has a clear intent to
achieve a number of outcomes for Bunaba people of the Fitzroy Valley: ‘Expand the horizons and life
choice expectations of our youth; Enrich and enhance the whole of life experiences for both
communities; Develop cultural understanding and a capacity to relate to others; and Support to
enhance community cohesion (Drennan & McCord, 2015, p. 7). However, there is no independent
evaluation publicly available to show how well it actually works, to achieve what outcomes, and for
whom. There are many other uncritical examples of best practice (Australian Indigenous Education
Foundation, 2015b), ‘what works’ (What Works: The Work Program, 2007), ‘innovation’ (Wilson,
2016) and ‘culturally responsive’ boarding (Perso, Kenyon and Darrough, 2012). Reading these
exemplars, one would be excused for thinking that applying best practice principles to boarding would
fix the apparent problems of remote education (particularly in relation to attendance, academic
achievement and retention). The problem we see is that these best practice solutions treat complex
problems as simple, but they are not (Biesta, 2009).
The emerging academic work from Mander, Benveniste, O’Bryan and Stewart, as cited above, goes
some of the way towards offering a critical lens through which to view boarding outcomes. But even
these do not answer the fundamental quantitative questions we posed earlier. We are yet to understand
the outcomes of boarding for remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in Australia,
whether it be in terms of destinations, academic progression beyond schools, employment and career
prospects; or whether it be in terms of community leadership, community capacity or social cohesion.
ACER collected a range of qualitative and quantitative data throughout the course of the project.
Much of this information came from community schools and in particular school principals. ACER
also contacted boarding schools and other boarding facilities such as hostels and other residential
programs. Two of the schools which had enrolled students from remote Northern Territory schools
were located outside of the Northern Territory.
Phone interviews were conducted with school principals and other relevant school and community
members who were involved in liaising with boarding schools. The purpose of the interviews was to
gather qualitative data about Indigenous boarders’ and schools’ experiences with transition to and
engagement with boarding schools. Participants from community schools and boarding facilities were
asked a range of questions in interviews which focused on the process of recruitment and application
from the community schools’ and families’ viewpoint, the set-up of the boarding school, school-
community perspectives of the new Transition Support policy initiative, experiences of Indigenous
students’ readiness for and transition to boarding school. Some interviewees offered recommendations
for future improvements in the process, especially given the likelihood that under the new Territory
government policy boarding for senior school students from remote communities would become the
Figures provided by schools in 44 very remote communities suggest that in 2015, 228 students were
enrolled at a boarding school either in the Northern Territory or elsewhere. We know this is well short
of the figure for all very remote Aboriginal students, firstly because there are 89 very remote
communities that have schools, and secondly because these figures represent students that the
respondents were aware of.
In a public presentation early in 2016, a policy briefing suggested that across the Northern Territory,
1097 students were approved for Abstudy support, and of those approximately 350 were enrolled
interstate, leaving about 747 enrolled in Northern Territory boarding schools (Considine, 2016). The
briefing also suggested that enrolments declined from about 800 for Year 7, down to 120 for Year 12.
We estimate that capacity for very remote Aboriginal students in Northern Territory boarding facilities
is about 885, as shown in Table . The 747 enrolled students represents about 85 per cent of available
capacity. The table data is drawn from information available on websites associated with the facilities.
It is also possible that a number of very remote students live with families and attend day schools. We
also know that at any given time numbers will be less than official enrolments. For example, at Yirara
College, the actual capacity is about 200, while the College Year book and MySchool information
shows enrolments of about 250. This is due to the churn of students through the year. We are also
aware that at any given time most of the hostels are not at their stated capacity, though actual numbers
are difficult to obtain.
Table . Boarding facility capacity in the Northern Territory
Name Location Capacity for very remote Aboriginal
students at any given time (estimated)
Kormilda College Darwin 200
St John's Catholic College Darwin 75
St Philips College Alice Springs 10
Yirara College Alice Springs 200
Marrara Christian College Sanderson 100
Callistemon House Katherine 40
Fordimail Student Hostel Katherine 40
Woolaning Homeland Christian College Litchfield 60
Wangkana-Kari Hostel Tennant Creek 40
Tiwi College Melville Island 80
Kardu Darrikardu Numida Hostel Wadeye 40
Table . Estimates of boarding and non-boarding school engagement and disengagement
Population group Number of people
Total NT population aged 12-17, based on Census 2011* 4073
Stated as enrolled in primary or secondary school, based on Census 2011* 2540
Not stated as enrolled based on Census 2011* 1533
Approved for Abstudy, 2015#1097
Approved for Abstudy, attending boarding schools interstate, 2015#350
Attending NT boarding schools 747
Attending NT schools in very remote communities (estimated) 1443
* (ABS, 2012) #(Considine, 2016)
Table summarises our estimates based on the policy briefing data shown earlier, and Census
information from 2011. We recognise that combining these datasets has some limitations (due to
population growth and mobility), but the numbers from both sources align reasonably closely. Based
on the assumptions presented in the policy briefing mentioned earlier, we estimate that approximately
1500 young people aged between 12 and 17 are not engaged in any form of school. This is largely
consistent with the 2011 Census data that shows 1533 young people not stated as enrolled. The point
is, that if the intention of the Secondary Pathways element in the Indigenous Education Strategy is to
increase the engagement of this group of young people in education, then careful consideration of the
process to achieve this will be fundamentally important. This is where our qualitative findings, albeit
with their limitations, become useful.
Themes that emerged from ACER’s interviews with community schools and boarding schools were
consistently repeated. From the point of view of the community schools, sending students who were
inadequately prepared for the social, cultural and educational transitions (and often shocks) involved
to boarding schools would most often mean that they would be unlikely to stay for long at the
boarding school, either because their frustration and shame of not coping in the new environment lead
to behavioural problems, or because they had had motivations other than educational achievement for
enrolling. Community school staff insisted that the school should be consulted about the suitability of
students to go to boarding school, and that boarding schools should visit the communities from which
they drew boarders, both to see for themselves what remote community life was like, and to answer
the questions of families and students about what boarding school life was like. They also consistently
emphasised the need for effective communications between the boarding schools and communities
and families. Some felt that community schools, when adequately resourced, were in most cases the
best alternative for their students; yet this option will seemingly not be available under the Northern
Territory government’s policy of withdrawing support for senior secondary education in remote
communities in its response to Wilson’s (2014) Review.
Principals and stakeholders spoke about their experiences of the readiness of young people and their
families for boarding school. Some of the commonly expressed issues concerned the decision-making
process for schools and community families, and recruitment strategies by boarding school
In general, interviewees said that the decision to go to boarding schools is sometimes made for the
wrong or inadequate reasons; students may for example be having problems in the community, or may
want to join a friend or friends who have gone to a boarding school. Students may be actively
recruited: interviewees said that representatives from some boarding schools have been reported as
coming into communities, directly contacting parents and students and encouraging them to sign up.
The problem from the schools’ point of view is that this approach does not allow for proper filtering
processes; community schools, which have a good understanding of the student’s academic and other
readiness, are left out of the process, with the result in many cases that students have little chance of
succeeding in the radically different and unfamiliar social, cultural and educational environments they
will encounter as boarders. It is suspected by some principals that in cases where students are actively
recruited, boarding schools are often motivated by the pursuit of funding, and that this is indicated by,
for example, enrolment drives taking place just before census dates. In some cases representatives of
boarding schools are reported as making unrealistic promises and parents, who want the best for their
children, are vulnerable to these promises. The upshot is that more often than not students return to
communities after a short time; boarding schools can become ‘revolving doors’.
If students are asked to leave or are even expelled by the boarding school, there is often an element of
shame when they return to the community. These students do not tend to go back to the community
school, and may in some cases never return to education, or may want to try other boarding schools.
An example was given of one student who had gone to three boarding schools in 18 months. A
number of interviewees said that in these cases generally there are many more failures than successes.
Interviewees said that students and families often do not have a realistic idea of what boarding school
life will be like, or have any way of finding out, or know whom to contact if there is a problem, or
what the possible alternative responses to issues arising in the boarding school might be, other than
for students to be returned to communities.
The data we have provided here, based on estimates, old census information and best guesses from
websites, are hardly reliable. But that is partly the point of this paper—to highlight the lack of
evidence on which policies, are based. There are no baselines, no meaningful outcomes measures, no
logic or theory of change models, no cost-benefit analyses and little understanding of impacts, beyond
a handful of small qualitative studies which raise a number of red flags to the claims of best practice,
innovation and what works.
Further, some of the qualitative interview data suggests that there are some major systemic problems
associated with recruitment of students for boarding schools, for example recruiting to ensure that
numbers are at capacity for census dates. As noted in the findings, this does nothing to ensure that
students are adequately prepared for boarding, or that parents really understand what they are signing
their children up for. These findings are quite consistent with some of the more recent academic
studies (Benveniste et al., 2014a, 2015b; Mander, 2012; Mander, 2015; O'Bryan, 2015; Stewart, 2015)
that demonstrate that the promotion of best practice, innovation and what works is not necessarily
reflected in student or parent experiences. For too many students (though we do not know how many)
the transition to boarding is anything but smooth. It can be very rough, and may involve bouncing
from one boarding school or hostel to another over the course of their secondary years.
What we can say with some confidence, even based on the best estimates we have produced here, is
that within the Northern Territory there are insufficient places to meet the demand if even half of
those secondary aged young people who are not enrolled, were to transition to boarding schools. This
in itself leads back to the need for quality locally based secondary options, if for no other reason than
as a basic human right (United Nations, 2007). The Indigenous Education Strategy (Northern
Territory Deparment of Education, 2015) recognizes the need for choice, but consistent with Wilson’s
(2014) Review, suggests that boarding is a better option for quality education.
One problem for many potential boarding students though is that they do not necessarily meet the
entry requirements for boarding schools, for example minimum attendance levels and minimum
literacy and numeracy standards. We could also be confident in arguing that, given their current
disengagement from school, the estimated 1500 young people who would be the target of ‘quality
education experiences’ at boarding schools—whether in the Northern Territory or elsewhere—would
most likely not cope. Transition support will undoubtedly assist a number of families who perhaps do
not have the capital to make the necessary connections to access scholarship funds, or find appropriate
schools to suit the needs of their children.
This paper has just scratched the surface of a highly complex issue. Our hope was to present data that
would show some quantitative analysis of the flows into and out of boarding schools for students
coming from remote communities of the Northern Territory. Unfortunately, we have not succeeded in
this aim. What we have highlighted is that the assumptions about the net ‘good’ of boarding schools as
the best option for students where according to the Wilson Review (2014), providing a quality
secondary education is not viable, need to be carefully tested. A number of red flags raised by
contemporary research on boarding school experiences in Australia are seemingly set aside in the
hope that all will be good in the end.
What we do know from our research is that for the estimated 1500 disengaged remote Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander students in the Northern Territory, there are few options for a secondary
education of any kind, let alone a quality education in a boarding school. Transition supports will help
some families who have the necessary capital to take steps for their children, but it is likely to be a
small minority of students.
We also know from the academic research literature and our own findings, presented here, that for too
many students transitions remain problematic—more of a rough ride than a smooth transition—
despite the promotion of best practice, what works and innovative practice. Transition supports may
be of some help to students, but we are still less than certain about the outcomes of the Northern
Territory attempts to ameliorate the concerns.
All this points to the pressing need for more research to better understand the extent of the problems
relating to remote education, which are currently being addressed strategically through policy
initiatives. We need to also understand what the net impact of boarding strategies are on communities.
Deliberately removing the brightest and best young people from communities may set up unhelpful
divisions between those who go and those who stay—assuming of course that the majority of students
do return to communities. The point is though, that there is no certainty about any of these outcomes.
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