The Value of Your Boarding Programme

by Richard Stokes

My Life in Boarding

I’ve been running boarding schools for nearly forty years. The largest I have worked at, had over 600 borders, and it’s been a long journey. I started the Australian Boarding Schools Association  (ABSA) to support boarding schools because there was nothing in this part of the world that I felt matched what was needed. 

We are currently seeing a trend to move away from teachers working as boarding parents. The sad reality is that teachers are more expensive and often schools don’t want to spend the money on them. Perhaps a despondent comment, but it’s true. Boarding can so often be seen as the poor cousin in a school. The other reason we are seeing fewer teachers involved in boarding is because of the concept of fatigue. If you’ve taught classes all day, questions abound as to whether you can do an effective job of taking a duty all night. Or, if you’ve worked all weekend in the boarding house, how is that going to affect your teaching? In the world of our boarding schools, there is a lot of discussion around these spaces.

One of the things that people need to do across our schools is to re-frame the narrative and to start to talk about the service that boarding offers students. I think that’s a critical space where we’re helping. I often wish there was more research into this. However, in my personal experience boarding students tend to be more resilient and more independent, often because they’ve had to be, because they’re surviving in their own place. Part of that is the reflection on the work that the boarding staff often do to support our students. Recognising your boarding staff as a group of professional people is the number one thing that we work hard at with principals and wider leaders. Don’t treat them like people who don’t know what they’re doing and learn from them because they will know things you don’t. 

What can also help a school is having other schools in an association to come together to be able to develop each other. If you operate alone in isolation, it’s highly unlikely you’ll do as well as if you operate within a community of schools. So, what we aim to do is provide a community of people, an important space for schools to be able to learn from each other and to develop each other and to grow. 

The Benefits of Boarding 

First and foremost, I strongly believe that boarding makes you a better teacher. It’s the most effective way in a school that you can develop a positive pastoral relationship with students. You can then translate that into the classroom relatively effortlessly. The content part of teaching is the easy part. It’s the managing students that’s challenging. You learn that really effectively when working in a boarding environment. I’ve always thought that boarding staff make excellent teachers. It’s not necessarily the other way around – teachers don’t always make excellent boarding people. They can often expect it to be as confined as a classroom. Yet, if you go from boarding into teaching, you’ve already acquired so many wonderful skills about managing adolescents and developing great relationships with students that will be second to none. For those of you reading this who have worked in boarding, you’ll know exactly what I mean! Boarding staff make great teachers. In fact, I’ve never seen somebody who’s worked in boarding, who hasn’t been good in the classroom. 

Measuring Boarding Effectiveness

You have to filter out the fact that every border hates food! Unfortunately, it is often just the way it is. An interesting question to ask students always is, “Would you send your child here?” And when they generously say “Yes”, you’re in a really positive place. When there’s a question mark in their voice, you may begin to wonder a little. I’ve been in situations where I’ve asked that question, and some students have said, “No, I don’t think this is the right place” and that says a lot about their boarding experience. It is so critical that staff need to have done training to know what their job is in boarding. You can’t assume that people know how to manage students in a boarding environment and you certainly wouldn’t put a teacher in front of a classroom without training them – that would be criminal. You also can’t just assume that people know what younger people think these days. Even your 20-year-olds may not know what your 12-year-olds are doing on their phones nowadays.

It’s quite simple. Boarding is not just a service. It’s an educational programme that the school offers. When your people who work in boarding are aligned with what’s going on in your school and managed by the person who runs the school, not by a business person, then, in my opinion, boarding runs successfully. When it’s looked at from a business perspective, if you don’t make money or even lose money, there can be a dangerous desire to look for shortcuts and things to cut within the boarding programme. 

What Should We Expect of Boarding Staff?

The first requirement of a boarding staff member is always that they like working with students. Don’t assume that all do, and do all you can to create an effective culture of working with students. Boarding schools aren’t always predictable places to be so staff have to understand that concept in the very first place. Look for flexibility. In any teaching career, boarding is a very, very good place to start and moving into leadership from boarding is a serious proposition that makes perfect sense to me. 

A Call for Research

There’s a dearth of research around the world, particularly in Southeast Asia. We need to have more information on the benefits of boarding. Further research is needed on what students get out of being a border. A recent research project I am aware of compared day students to boarders in terms of their schooling. They found that boarders turned up to school more often and were more involved in extracurricular activities. Research in terms of the benefits that boarding staff can bring to students would be very beneficial. 

Summary – Boarding as Your Biggest Value Adder

When working in a leadership setting and within your boarding school framework, look at the value of your boarding programme. What it can do for students is sensational. It develops wonderful independence, and I’ve seen boarding students go on to become incredible young people. Boarding provides a stable, secure routine, that teenagers increasingly need, that for whatever reason isn’t being provided by parents at home because of various issues, including modern lifestyles, for example. The value of boarding is something that people in school leadership need to understand. It’s not just about the quick service that you provide, because it means that students can come to school easily. It is ultimately about the value of boarding, which can be enormous, and it could make your school ten times better as a result. 

Richard Stokes is the CEO of the Australian Boarding Schools  Association (ABSA)

To connect with Richard, click here

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