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Most people are well aware that boarding schools are not as fanciful as they appear in Harry Potter, nor as brutal as some of those films about boarding schools of the 50s. For many they are a necessary part of life, particularly for Australian families from remote regional areas. That said, what is boarding school like? Here are five things you may not know about boarders and boarding schools in 2020.

1. Boarding school students develop many life skills ahead of their peers.

Although they are always in the care of adults, boarders are much more independent than other children. From a young age, they learn how to manage their time, their finances, and their lives generally.

Most Australian children in boarding begin in Year 7. At this age they become more responsible for:

  • the management of their physical and emotional health
  • the time management required for school and their cocurricular activities
  • management of their homework, tests, and assignments
  • communication between school, the boarding school, and their parents
  • relationships with parents, family, and friends
  • the cleaning of their living spaces
  • the care and cleaning of their clothing
  • the management of the money that they are allocated by their parents

It is quite astounding what they manage very effectively. It is little wonder that they are sometimes a little bemused by their peers’ reliance on their parents.

2. Boarders develop good emotional and social skills

Living in community is challenging for even the most outgoing extrovert. It requires empathy and the ability to negotiate a large number of close relationships at once. These relationships have to be negotiated regardless of how bad a day you had at school, or how tired and fed up you are. It is little wonder then that boarders develop excellent relationship skills.

Community living teaches people how to negotiate differences and conflicts. If there is a serious clash of opinion or feelings are hurt, boarders can’t go home and hide or plan how they will manage it. They have to deal with it. The fact that they are all in the same boat helps. There is empathy for one another that is often not visible in adolescents. In fact, their empathy is one of the distinguishing features of boarders. They care for one another.

3. Boarders have a strong voice in the management of the boarding school

The common perception of boarding schools is that they are run on a military model where all orders must be unthinkingly obeyed. That may have been the case in the past. However, contemporary boarding schools wouldn’t think of treating boarders that way. They know that their first task is to keep children safe, physically, and emotionally. That means creating an environment that is friendly, relaxed, inviting, and inclusive.

Progressive boarding schools like Santa Maria College recognise the need to include the student voice in the development and management of their community. This includes ensuring there is a student perspective in their decision making.

Santa Maria College has a system of student committees in their boarding community. They have recreation, catering, and academic committees who feed ideas to the Head of Boarding and other staff. There is also a student leadership group of Year 12 students who represent the boarders in the College and provide leadership within the boarding school. All students have a regular weekly House meeting with House mothers to facilitate discussion about issues that arise. All of this is underpinned by a belief that building strong relationships are core.

what boarding school is like

4. Boarders have a lot of social opportunities

Social learning only happens when children have a large variety of social interactions. In the past, boarding schools, particularly single-sex boarding schools, have not been good at this. They heavily prioritised keeping adolescents ‘safe’ over providing necessary social opportunities. This has changed dramatically in the last 30 years.

These days, boarders have a great deal of contact with people outside of their own community. During the week they are able to play sport within the school with students who are not boarders. They are also able to play sport for other associations. For example, Santa Maria College’s boarders can play netball and hockey in metropolitan associations or volleyball in mixed teams with a neighbouring boys’ school.

There is a lot of contact with students from other schools. In the past that would have been reserved for one or two social events a year. Now it is so frequent that boarders from different schools are able to form close friendships.

On weekends, boarding schools have very full recreation programs within and outside of the colleges. It is fantastic that boarders are able to experience so much in the city. After all, these opportunities are part of the reason parents choose boarding in the first place.

5. Boarders are highly successful at school

Boarding students have a disproportionate impact on the culture of wider college communities. In Australian colleges that have a boarding school, boarders usually make up less than 10% of total enrolments. However, they are massively over-represented in leadership roles and participation in community activity.

It makes sense that because boarders live on-site, they are more likely to be involved in co-curricular activities. They also seem to bring a terrific spirit to all activities. Boarders are naturally deeply invested in their schools…after all, they live there! It is often said that boarders are the heart of a school.

Academically, boarding offers students an edge. According to psychologist Jane Carmignani, who has researched this area, students who board are more cooperative learners and have more developed self-discipline. They are generally better prepared for post-school study. They tend to be mature, independent, and critical thinkers.  They also demonstrate greater adaptive motivation and academic goal setting ability.

Finally….

Boarding school is not for everyone. For those who are suited to this style of living, it is great fun and a rich part of their development.

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