More than 4000 secondary Indigenous students received ABSTUDY boarding payments in 2015, and Indigenous boarding school scholarships receive major government and philanthropic funding.
One of Australia’s largest funding providers, the Australian Indigenous Education Fund [AIEF], reported $50 million in Commonwealth funding in the decade to 2016.
The AIEF’s most recent annual report boasts a 94 per cent Year 12 retention rate for Indigenous boarding students, compared with a national estimate of 60 per cent of Indigenous Year 12 students.
Researchers from Edith Cowan University (ECU) interviewed nine school leaders and 25 Indigenous secondary students across seven Western Australian schools.
The boarding students came from a range of communities, many very remote, but attended schools in larger urban centres.
In-depth interviews provided a “snapshot” of Aboriginal secondary students’ views on the impact of school and family on education engagement and insight into the reasons families chose for children to go to boarding school rather than staying in their communities, lead author Mary-Anne Macdonald of ECU, said.
Many of the boarding students valued the opportunity to access vocational training, pathways to employment, and preparation for university.
“Things they teach us here are better ‘cos they teach us about working and you get the opportunity to go into town and work,” one student said.
“They set you up for the future and they set you up with [a drivers’] licence.”
Another student highlighted the value of meeting successful Aboriginal mentors: “[Because of] people I’ve met, who’ve gotten through universities, you know that you can do something after you finish school; that you’re not gonna be a dropkick for the rest of your life.”
School leaders were strongly focused on students’ physical and mental health outcomes.
Likewise, Macdonald notes that for some families, boarding provided the opportunity to improve social connections for those who came from disadvantaged backgrounds, and provided a positive peer network.
Only a few schools had established effective transition strategies for students returning to remote areas upon completion of Year 12.
At other schools, career counsellors had played a key role in helping students decide on goals after finishing high school.
One student wanted to become a tour guide, and the school helped her find work experience and education opportunities to meet this goal.
She saw her school as a lifeline: “[This school] has saved my life, and given me an education.
"I would have had no life and didn’t know what to do… I wasn’t going to school hardly [before enrolling at this school],” she said.
However, students also faced obstacles, such as being behind their new peers when they arrived at the larger urban schools.
If they were not helped to place these experiences in the context of the social, cultural, and economic challenges they faced, there was a risk they would lose confidence and believe that graduation and university were beyond their reach:
“My standards of where I wanna be has lowered since I’ve been here (at this boarding school) because of the workload and expectations. It hits you how hard it is to finish Year 12 so I can go to university.
"When I was in (my home town) and knew I was coming (here) I thought I could do it all,” one student commented.
Further, some students faced a lack of cultural understanding in their new schools.
Some saw this as mere ignorance: “I don’t think they know what it feels like to be an Aboriginal but they aren’t racist,” one student said.
Others experienced direct racism.
“Some of the day boys try to joke around but they take it too far sometimes… they do all the stereotype stuff, walk up to you asking for drugs, do accents,” another Year 12 said.
Issues of homesickness and juggling study and family obligations are heightened for Indigenous students.
One student, for instance, was under pressure to engage at school and pressure from his family to help them: “Teachers just need to understand Aboriginals’ family are the most important people in our life,” he said.
Macdonald said educators could look to more embrace their students' unique Indigenous-ness.
“Rather than placing blame on Indigenous students for prioritisation of family obligations, schools might instead utilise the strengths of an Indigenous worldview and work with students and families to identify meaningful ways in which the education system can enable closer family ties and a stronger future for the community,” she said.
According to Macdonald, the study shows that “while the experience of boarding school contains unique challenges for Indigenous students, there is clear evidence that boarding schools also present valuable opportunities to students from remote towns and communities.”
“The long-term benefits of such education goes beyond Year 12 completion to matters of agency, employability and leadership potential within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.”