Author

Melissa Warland

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“People really underestimate what goes on in boarding. There was a girl a few years above me who kept drugs under her mattress. Girls with eating disorders because they could get away with not eating anything because no one monitored it. A few were cutting themselves. And the housemothers had no idea. It’s so easy to hide things.” – Former boarder of 6 years.

These destructive events, such as eating disorders, drug use and self-harm, are sadly too common in Australian boarding schools, and are incredibly alarming. I too was a boarder for five years, and whilst I graduated a happy, healthy and strong individual, it’s the events during that time that shaped the experience.

It’s the fragile minds, the happenings behind closed doors, the unspoken occurrences in the dark of the night throughout the boarding house that are far, far from home.

Someone I know who found boarding very damaging, and got to the point of being suicidal, shares:

“I was in year ten. I’d been there a couple of years. And I hated it, still. I wasn’t really friends with anyone, so I kept to myself a lot. I felt like Mum and Dad didn’t care about me, and I remember waking up one morning and just wanting to end it all. So, I got several packets of Panadol and Nurofen and just ate them all.”

This is an example of the personal battles that can be faced by a child in boarding school. And this isn’t a once off occurrence. Whilst these examples are extreme, they offer a disturbing insight into the troubled nature of some boarders. As someone who has been through boarding, I know how tough it is.

I remember my first day in boarding, whisked away from my weeping mother before we even had a proper chance to say goodbye. At the tender age of twelve, I had been told what I was to expect. But, as I walked the winding staircase that would lead me to the place that was to be my home for the next five years, I was led away from everything I had ever known. Alone in the affluence of Perth’s western suburbs, a far cry from the town where I grew up, every ounce of familiarity I had of the world had been left downstairs with Mum.

Don’t get me wrong, boarding school comes with a large base of staff members whose sole role is to make students feel as comfortable and ‘at home’ as possible. The websites and endless pamphlets that you receive in the mail make sure you are aware of this.

Smiling students in immaculate uniform are portrayed to be having the time of their lives in a spotless, almost too perfect environment.

In many instances, boarders create close bonds with those they live with, establishing a close network of sibling-like relationships that thrive in the absence of actual family members.

But there is, and always will be, a difference between your own mother and a boarding house mother.

A glossy pamphlet can’t describe the pangs of homesickness that sweep through your body in unpredictable waves. A newsletter won’t detail the feeling of not fitting in and being out of your depth in such an unfamiliar place.

And a website certainly won’t display the reality that a child will often hide these feelings from their parents.

High school is a time of mental and physical development, a period of self-exploration and realisation.

The trials and tribulations that come with becoming a teenager are arguably amplified when those who you would usually turn to are no longer present.

Living in the country presents its fair share of problems. The hardships of farming, fuel prices, the distance from simple necessities. Whilst the value of establishing a life and raising a family on a farm or in a small rural community should not be underrated, there comes a time when tough decisions are vital for the future of your children.

Parents must decide the best possible way to equip their children for the ever-intensifying whirlwind that is life.

Education for children is an investment that is vital for their future, but often the options close by are not feasible for such a critical role. Education is vital, but also a choice.

For some, this decision is far more than a financial choice or contemplation of proximity. For some, looking further than the shires of our neighbouring communities is the only option.

For some, babies are enrolled in prestigious institutions before they are old enough to walk, not unlike the generations before them.

Either way, the decision to send your child to boarding school is hardly ever an easy one, nor is the experience of boarding school itself.

Home is a powerful word. Home is the familiarity of the place that you spend a majority of your existence. Home can be a person, place or thing, but ultimately home is somewhere that you exist in your own sense of self. Somewhere that you can be truly comfortable and feel safe. Can boarding school ever really be home?

It is incredibly naïve to assume that all children will take to boarding like a duck to water. As parents, it is imperative that you make informed decisions regarding the education of your children. Communication is key, between you, your child, and the school itself. Find out if they’re struggling, because let me tell you that many suffer in silence.

Boarding is like a sport; some people just aren’t good at it. Try as you may, you can’t force a twelve year old to be able to live away from home without a hiccup or two. Sure, they can get used to it one day at a time…and most do. But we cannot be assuming that everything we choose for our kids is in their best interest. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but it doesn’t always make a child grow stronger.

How would YOU feel about sending your three year old to pre-school?

The prospect of seeing your little one grow up and seeing them off for their first day of school can often be bittersweet. That familiar feeling that time really does fly is especially present in these moments, so many parents would be understandably hesitant about their child starting pre-school at the age of three.

But this is exactly the plan that Bill Shorten announced at the beginning of October: a $1.75 billion subsidy for parents to allow 15 hours of pre-school for three year olds. So far, the proposal has proven a contentious topic among parents.

In unveiling this plan that is set to be implemented if Labor win the next election, the opposition leader believes it will transform childcare into “early education”.

Labor also framed the proposed subsidy as an important jump start into school, and are working by the angle that children who receive high quality education in the two years leading up to the start of their formal schooling experience long lasting positive outcomes.

That is, starting our kids in pre-school at the age of three has a supposedly high impact on their educational development for many years after.

Overall, if the plan was put into place, it would mean that it would be free for us to send our three year olds to state government run pre-school, and sending them to pre-school education at private childcare centres would be subsidised.

Shorten made it clear that the main objective of his plan was to get 90% of the three year
olds in Australia in pre-school by 2023.

That can be hard to fathom considering those children haven’t even been conceived yet!

The opposition also highlighted Australian children in comparison to foreign children of the same age, stating that Australia was behind in its pre-school education because several other countries already had high attendance rates in pre-school for three year olds.

So far, the proposal has been met with mixed reactions.

The Project’s Facebook post regarding the topic has received several hundred comments in a couple of weeks. It seems there are only few fence sitters, if any…

Phrases along the lines of “let kids be kids” and “what’s the point of having children?” are frequent, with many expressing the importance of letting children learn and develop at home. There are a number of people who also believe that the money could be better spent in other areas of education of their children, such as tertiary education in the future. One comment in particular even goes so far as to say that “danger of abuse” is evident.

It seems the conversation has also expanded to consider the logistics involved, with one woman pointing out that the proposal should not go ahead simply on the basis that staff in this area are already “underpaid and undervalued”.

On the other hand, others think it’s a good idea and will help take the pressure off working families and ease the cost of living. Many parents are also focusing on the educational format and content itself, and are advocates for the benefits of education at such an early age. Several comments support the Labor government’s way of thinking, with one mum stating that “early childhood education benefits all children”.

A number of people believe that pre-school education for three year olds can be positive in terms of social, mental and cognitive outcomes, and provides an invaluable preparation for the schooling lives of children.

This leaves us to ponder; is this proposal in the best interests of three year olds? Would we be comfortable sending our children to pre-school at an earlier age? Does the education system of other countries matter?

Where do YOU sit on this topic?