The pandemic presented unprecedented challenges for boarding schools in Australia. Like their respective day students, most boarders were sent home to try and navigate home learning during the pandemic.
However, amid the disruptions, boarders demonstrated remarkable resilience, often outperforming their day student counterparts, according to Australian Boarding Schools Association CEO Richard Stokes.
Even though over 75 per cent of Australia’s boarders come from rural and remote areas — giving many boarders their online study experience during the primary school years — Stokes acknowledges the crucial role of boarding staff in fostering connection and support during these trying times schools.
Here are three essential lessons boarding schools can adopt to foster resilience in unprecedented times.
Resilient leadership: Virtual engagement in online education
ABSA has made ‘people’ an integral part in building pandemic resilience and ensuring academic continuity through the health crisis. Stokes acknowledges the support of organisations such as NBN Co in providing education on satellite Internet. But above all, he gives credits to all the boarding staff, saying, ‘[They] were outstanding in keeping a strong connection with all of our boarders.’ This was done through:
- online lunch-time sessions
- night-time study assistance
- individual check-ins.
‘… Some of the photos received [during special occasions such as ANZAC Day and National Boarding Week show] just how passionate our boarders are about their wonderful life at our schools,’ Stokes says.
New policies in times of crisis: Mental health and support
‘2022 brought a whole new challenge — living with COVID in the boarding house — but our schools rose to new levels of support and care,’ the ABSA chief executive continues.
He says boarders have placed a trust in their principals and heads of boarding to know the best way to care for them.
At the same time, ABSA produced its own COVID-19 charter and health protocols to encompass:
- mental health support
- family support
- a concern over individual needs.
This student support goes beyond just health care or physical needs, highlighting a holistic view of student well-being.
The way forward: Staff and student training
Like many day schools, ABSA doesn’t carry their responsibility lightly. Stokes says the important role boarding schools play in the care and development of those living at school demands that its schools are at the highest standard possible.
One of ABSA’s priority approaches is, therefore, to provide critical training to boarding staff. Here are two ways how it does that and the areas it identifies as most important.
Professional staff development: Fostering meaningful learning
With a new focus since November 2022 on ‘making boarders’ lives better’, all levels of boarding staff have access to the ABSA Training Academy. Staff are empowered by induction, followed by basic and specialist training.
The former covers all aspects of the duty of care required in looking after boarders during out-of-school hours, from 3 pm — 9 pm. Specialised training is designed to develop staff leadership, staff support, staff care and mental health and specific skills requiring development. These all point to student development.
‘… The most successful boarding programs in the future will be those with an age-appropriate, targeted, boarding curriculum, encompassing all critical life skills including ironing and sewing, changing car tyres, managing money, clues on accommodation rentals and staying mentally healthy,’ Stokes says.
’Given that [boarders] live at school for 40 weeks in a year, the life skills they learn within the boarding program will carry enormous weight in their post-schooling lives.’
Leader’s training: Empowering future boarding leaders
Empowering staff means empowering students’ development. That continues with the introduction of a 12-month Emerging Boarding Leaders Program.
The program highlights the most important aspects of boarding staff training, such as:
- differences between leading and managing
- having a balanced view of both operational and strategic responsibilities
- resume building, in view of landing a leadership role
- achieving certification, by mastering the Boarding Standard AS5725:2015.
‘The major aim of this program is to produce a pool of well-trained, prepared staff to take on the key leadership roles in boarding schools all over the country,’ Stokes says.
Australian boarding schools have demonstrated resilience and innovation in navigating the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
By prioritising staff development and implementing forward-thinking strategies, boarding schools are well-equipped to navigate future uncertainties and provide an enriching and supportive environment for their students.