Representing 97 per cent of all boarding schools in Australia, the Australian Boarding Schools Association (Absa) is one of the leading authorities on the boarding school sector. The role of the organisation is to support its 190-strong membership by facilitating the professional development of staff, advancing best practice among members and enhancing the well-being of boarders.
Established in 2007, the association and its membership are extremely active, details Executive Director, Richard Stokes, hosting and attending various events throughout the calendar year. In particular, he lists various training workshops that run the length and breadth of Australia, plus state divisions holding smaller sessions during term time. “We also hold an annual conference attended by around 300 delegates,” he adds.
Stokes notes that over 80 per cent of its members welcome international students on campus. St Mary’s Anglican Girls’ School an independent day and boarding school for students aged from three (kindergarten) up to 19 (year 12) in Karrinyup, WA is one such example and according to Tina Campbell, Head of Boarding, the acceptance of international students on campus is a long-held tradition. “[International students] represent 10 per cent of our boarding house and we have roughly the same percentage of students from international destinations within the senior school as a whole. This reflects the cultural diversity of Western Australia,” she explains.
Cranbrook School another Absa member in Bellevue Hill, NSW, is an Anglican independent day and boarding school for boys and also readily welcomes overseas students. Its current student body consists of 932 boys, 25 of which are international, notes Director of Admissions, Michael Atkins. A large proportion of students come from Asia, particularly mainland China, Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam and Korea, and annual visits to Shanghai, Hong Kong and Bangkok provide plenty of opportunities to market the school overseas and to keep in contact with local and expatriate families. “We are a school that strongly believes in personal contact,” says Atkins.
At St Mary’s a large proportion of students hail from South East Asia, particularly Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia. This is because, says Campbell, these countries are mainly English speaking, and in close proximity to Western Australia. However, despite some having a good grasp of the English language already, the school does offer an English as an Additional Language course throughout years 8 (ages 13-to-14) and 12 (ages 17-to-19). All international students are required to have their language proficiency tested by the Australian Education Assessment Services (AEAS) prior to enrolment. The test analyses English language proficiency, general ability and mathematical reasoning and helps determine whether or not a student needs to undertake an intensive English language programme prior to commencement in full-time primary or secondary education. “We also offer an array of subjects within the standard curriculum for Australia that appeal to our international students,” adds Campbell.
Given international students are far away from their homes and families, it is important boarding provision is both safe and comfortable. Each boarding house at Cranbrook has a resident housemaster who “lives in”, as well as resident boarding staff. Campbell, meanwhile, affirms that pastoral care is a real focus for staff at St Mary’s. Each year group has its own housemother who remains with them throughout their time at the school, as well as dedicated boarding tutors who support students academically during term.
Offering a large boarding house that accommodates over 160 students from years seven-to-12, Campbell expounds the benefits of living and learning in a boarding school establishment. Students live in a nurturing and supportive environment, have the opportunity to improve their English skills, have access to on-site support staff, can focus on academic achievement through study routines, can experience a different curriculum in a different culture and learn about independence and resilience in living away from home. The boarding house at St Mary’s includes a medical centre, music room, recreation rooms, and large dining room among other facilities.
Aside from annual visits to Asia, Atkins says the school receives a number of unsolicited applications from families and agents. And while the school does accept enquiries from this source, it does not enter into any formal contractual agreements. A number of schools work in this way particularly in the USA with students paying agents a placement fee instead.
St Mary’s does not work with agents currently, although has done in the past, says Campbell. While most students attend through word-of-mouth, it does welcome enquiries from agents, treating each on an individual basis.
“A high Australian dollar and increased competition from outside of Australia are just some of the challenges the sector faces. Richard Stokes at the Australian Boarding Schools Association (Absa) notes that international audiences are finding ever more competitive study options in their home countries.
Another challenge is ensuring there is an adequate support network in place for its student body. In March, Absa attended a global symposium on boarding with The Association of Boarding Schools (Tabs) in the USA and the Boarding Schools Association (BSA) in the UK. One of the topics up for discussion was educating students from different countries and how best to support them during their study experience. Stokes says, “One [session] which especially resonated with me was presented by a school counsellor who had made a video of interviews with overseas students talking about the issues they faced which was shared with the whole faculty of the school helping to provide an education to these staff on what the actual experience was for these students.”
“Recent negative media portrayals of international students studying overseas have affected enrolments,” says Tina Campbell at St Mary’s Anglican Girls’ School, Karrinyup, WA, while Michael Atkins at Cranbrook School in Bellevue Hill, NSW, notes the strength of the Australian dollar could affect enrolments.