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A legacy of British takeover and its ethnocentric dominance is that Aboriginal Australians have suffered generational disadvantages on many indicators of health and wellbeing (Dillon, 2020). A further obstacle is that the Australian education system is founded on Eurocentric epistemologies, resulting in what Bodkin-Andrews and Carlson (2016, p. 786) call ‘epistemological racism’. This means that Aboriginal students too often lack opportunities that most non-Aboriginal students take for granted.

In recent times, Australian governments have recognised the huge untapped potential of Indigenous Australians and begun to ask how this potential can be fostered to help them attain a standard of living most Australians take for granted. Ensuring all Indigenous children have access to quality education is seen as one strategy for achieving this aim. However, in remote parts of Australia, where Indigenous people make up a greater proportion of the population, and where educational outcomes are generally worse (ACARA, 2018), accessing a quality education, particularly at the secondary level, can be difficult. This blog summarises findings from a recent article published in the British Educational Research Journal (see Dillon et al., 2022).

One potential solution currently being applied is to provide Indigenous children with the opportunity to attend boarding schools (Franck et al., 2020). However, while this option has appeal, it is also fraught with challenges. For instance, for many of these students, English is their second or third language; in addition, Westernised education values can be at odds with traditional Indigenous values and ways of learning, while students can sometimes feel isolated or excluded, and cultural barriers can exist. Australian governments have invested heavily in placing Indigenous students in boarding schools. Yet little research exists to evaluate the success of these schools in enabling Indigenous students to gain a quality education that translates into benefits for the students, their families and their communities; and what little research is available is not particularly encouraging (Guenther et al., 2020). 

‘Little research exists to evaluate the success of boarding schools in enabling Indigenous students to gain a quality education that translates into benefits for the students, their families and their communities.’

 

In response to the deficit of research in this area, we worked with two large boarding schools for boys (N=1,423) to gain some insight into the wellbeing of Indigenous boarders. For the current sample, Indigenous students comprised approximately seven per cent of boarders, and approximately two per cent of day students. Using a newly developed validated survey instrument that incorporates Indigenous worldviews and understandings of Indigenous wellbeing, we surveyed both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students from the two selected schools to gain insight into students’ total educational experience.

We collected longitudinal data on the wellbeing of boarding and non-boarding Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, where wellbeing is conceptualised as a multidimensional construct that can be measured across six domains:

1) educational thriving – students’ perceived competence in their schoolwork and the extent to which they enjoy learning in school
2) physical thriving – sense of being healthy, strong and having vitality or energy available
3) psychological thriving – positive self-beliefs, emotions and expectations
4) social thriving – healthy relationships within and between families, sense of belonging
5) cultural thriving – the strength of one’s cultural identity and pride, and their knowledge and connection to their culture
6) self-thriving – resilience, self-worth and sense of achievement.

Given that individuals with high levels of wellbeing learn more effectively (Huppert, 2014), collected data provides valuable insights into how to improve academic achievement.

While findings show that boarding schools may benefit their Indigenous students’ development in social wellbeing while at school, the overall evidence of the merit of boarding for Indigenous students was weak. Specifically, for the other dimensions of wellbeing, there was no evidence of gain for Indigenous students while at school. However, research in this area is relatively new, and there are important factors relating to Indigenous students that must be considered. For example, McCalman et al. (2020) suggest that Indigenous students come with pre-existing social and emotional wellbeing issues that add challenges to their school life and learning. Failure to consider these factors can contribute to a deficit view of Indigenous Australians (Guenther, 2021).

Given that wellbeing is predictive of many desirable life outcomes, and that more Indigenous students are attending boarding schools, greater investigation into the wellbeing of Indigenous students in these schools is needed. The topic of boarding schools for Indigenous students is an under-researched area, hence, we suggest that further investigation combining quantitative and qualitative data is required to achieve a thorough understanding of how boarding may work best for Indigenous students.

This blog is based on the article ‘Boarding schools: A longitudinal examination of Australian Indigenous and non-Indigenous borders’ and non-borders’ wellbeing’ by Anthony Dillon, Rhonda Craven, Jiesi Guo, Alexander Yeung, Janet Mooney, Alicia Franklin and Rob Brockman, published in the British Educational Research Journal.

References

Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority [ACARA]. (2018). NAPLAN achievement in reading, writing, language conventions and numeracy: National report for 2018.

Bodkin-Andrews, G., & Carlson, B. (2016). The legacy of racism and Indigenous Australian identity within education. Race, ethnicity and education, 19(4), 784–807. https://doi.org/10.1080/13613324.2014.969224

Dillon, A., Craven, R. G., Kaur, G., & Yeung, A. S. (2020). Support for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australian students’ wellbeing at school. International Journal of Educational Research, 99. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijer.2019.101520

Dillon, A., Craven, R. G., Guo, J., Yeung, A., Mooney, J., Franklin, A., & Brockman, R. (2022). Boarding schools: A longitudinal examination of Australian Indigenous and non-Indigenous boarders’ and non-boarders’ wellbeing. British Educational Research Journal. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1002/berj.3792

Franck, L., Midford, R., Cahill, H., Buergelt, P. T., Robinson, G., Leckning, B., & Paton, D. (2020). Enhancing social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal boarding students: Evaluation of a social and emotional learning pilot program. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(3), 771. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17030771 

Guenther, J. (2021). Taken for a ride? The disconnect between high school completion, employment and income for remote Australian First Nations Peoples. Race, Ethnicity and Education, 24(1), 132–147. https://doi.org/10.1080/13613324.2020.1753674 

Guenther, J., Benveniste, T., Redman-Maclaren, M., Mander, D., McCalman, J., O’Bryan, M., . . . Stewart, R. (2020). Thinking with theory as a policy evaluation tool: The case of boarding schools for remote First Nations students. Evaluation Journal of Australasia, 20(1), 34–52. https://doi.org/10.1177/1035719X20905056

Huppert, F. A. (2014). The state of wellbeing science: Concepts, measures, interventions, and policies. In F. A. Huppert & C. L. Cooper (Eds.), Interventions and policies to enhance wellbeing (pp. 1–49). John Wiley & Sons.

McCalman, J., Benveniste, T., Wenitong, M., Saunders, V., & Hunter, E. (2020). ‘It’s all about relationships’: The place of boarding schools in promoting and managing health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander secondary school students. Children and Youth Services Review, 113. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.childyouth.2020.104954