Most boarding schools in Australia are Independent schools and are a crucial part of Australia's education system.
Boarding schools are a critical component of educational provision in Australia. They are located in metropolitan, regional and remote areas right across the country, are large and small, single sex and co-educational, and care for a diversity of students from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to international boarders.
For many families having children board away from home is the only practical, and sometimes preferred, way to access learning, social opportunities and preparation for employment.
Boarding structures, offerings and options are varied and strive to respond to the diverse needs of families and students. Students can board full-time, on a daily or weekly basis, or as required depending on individual circumstances and availability of places. This range of options provides flexibility and diversity of experience and culture.
Boarding schools provide an important educational choice for students and families.
The Independent school sector is the largest provider of boarding in Australia, operating almost 75 per cent of all Australian boarding schools. In 2021 there were 140 boarding schools in the Independent school sector, housing 14,147 students. Sixteen per cent of boarders in Independent boarding schools are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. ISA estimates that a further 13 per cent are international students and it is estimated that nationally across all sectors 71 per cent of all boarding students are from rural locations.
Boarder numbers in Independent schools have remained relatively constant since 2011 despite increased access to virtual schooling and on-line education. The impacts of COVID restrictions have seen the onset of a steeper decline in student numbers from 2019 to 2020.
The economic and social benefits of boarding schools to the Australian economy and community are considerable. Independent boarding schools are estimated to have contributed to approximately $1.9 billion in GDP in 2019-20.
Why families choose boarding
Parents and carers choose boarding schools based on several factors that are connected to the wellbeing and educational progression of their child and the lifestyle of the family. Many families choose boarding schools outside their own locality. Parents give the primary reasons their children board as:
- Access to education or education of higher quality
- Access to specialised subjects, extra-curricular activities and post-school options
- Geographical isolation of the family residence
- Consistency and stability of schooling
- Safety and security – offering a “home away from home”
- Opportunity for peer relationships and connection
- Supportive pastoral care
- Family ties to a particular Independent boarding school or community
The opportunity to access specific living arrangements (co-educational, dormitory, catering for additional needs, independent of family), are further reasons families choose boarding for their children.
The majority of parents/carers and educators agree that boarding school is a positive experience for most students with over two thirds identifying the main benefits as:
- Higher academic outcomes or increased opportunities
- Greater independence and self-reliance
- Increased opportunity for social interaction with peers.
Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander boarders
The Independent school sector is the major provider of boarding school education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander boarders attending 120 Independent schools constituting an important and growing cohort of boarders. In 2020, there were 2,106 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander boarders (15 per cent of all Independent school boarders) attending 120 boarding schools (77 per cent of Independent schools).
Between 2014 and 2020, there was an approximate seven per cent growth in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander boarders. In 2020, there were five schools in the sector where all the students were boarding, and all were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander boarders. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students from remote communities attend boarding schools in both metropolitan and regional and remote areas, and many attend boarding schools interstate.
Independent sector Indigenous enrolments
Funding boarding schools
The viability, quality and sustainability of Independent boarding schools is dependent on adequate resourcing. Australian Government recurrent funding is only available to support the recurrent costs of education and not the costs associated with boarding although there are some limited targeted Australian Government and state/territory government grants.
There is also government assistance available for families through the Assistance for Isolated Children Scheme, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Study Assistance Scheme (ABSTUDY), some state allowances and privately through scholarships. These payments are available to eligible families to support the costs associated with boarding such as fees and transport.
All Independent boarding schools are therefore highly dependent on fee income.
Concerns exist over the adequacy of available funding to ensure boarding schools thrive, particularly for regional and remote and Indigenous boarding schools.
Challenges and opportunities for boarding schools
Independent boarding schools have identified several challenges for the sector, and all are connected to funding pressures:
- workforce including attracting, recruiting and training sufficient, high-quality staff
- student support including responding to student wellbeing and mental health issues; the online world; students with a disability; Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander boarders; and growing family and boarder expectations
- capital costs including new building works, upgrading, maintaining and refreshing infrastructure and the provision of equipment, information technology and furniture
- regional and remote boarding including covering the costs of goods, transport, technology and connections to family and culture, providing incentives to attract and retain a quality workforce and sourcing the capital to improve the living and learning environment.
There are, however, opportunities to take action to respond to the challenges.
- Opportunity 1: Review government policies and funding structures to direct resources to boarding schools to support disadvantaged students, improve infrastructure and engage a skilled workforce
- Opportunity 2: Reintroduce Fringe Benefit Tax benefits for Independent schools to support workforce attraction and retention
- Opportunity 3: Introduce incentives to improve the qualifications and skills of the boarding workforce
- Opportunity 4: Increase the number of scholarships available to regional, rural and remote students, disadvantaged groups and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to improve access to boarding
- Opportunity 5: Consider updating the Australia Boarding Standard to define and guide best practices in boarding care and delivery.
If these opportunities are pursued the future of boarding is promising.
In Independent schools, overseas boarders make up approximately 0.5 per cent of boarders and these students contribute significantly to both the boarding culture and the culture of the wider school community. Access to a globally-renowned education, excellent student outcomes, pathways to further study and a politically stable, safe, welcoming multicultural society are all reasons overseas families choose to send their children to an Independent boarding school in Australia.
A data review and associated infographic examining how students who board and boarding facilities within the Independent sector, compare to the government and Catholic sector, and evaluating trends in student enrolments and boarder numbers.
A report developed by Independent Schools Australia (ISA) with the support of associations of Independent schools, school leaders, heads of boarding and families, providing a research-led, in-depth analysis of the state of boarding in the Independent school sector, and a detailed view on the current and future prospects of Independent schools boarding in Australia.
A report commissioned by ISA and undertaken by the AEC Group that provides an independent, evidenced-based assessment of the economic and social impact of boarding-related services and activities at Independent schools in Australia.