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Journey to the big smoke

11 October 2018

Many rural families face the prospect of their child leaving home at a young age to attend boarding school or university.

Sending a child to boarding school is an emotional process, with feelings of stress and anxiety occurring well before young ones pack their bags and head for the big smoke.

Richard Stokes, Executive Director at the Australian Boarding Schools Association (ABSA), said there were many things families could do to best prepare them for the life-changing transition.

Formerly the head of boarding at St Joseph’s Nudgee College in Queensland, Richard has decades of experience in the world of boarding schools. ABSA is dedicated to training boarding school staff, supporting schools and professional development. “It’s hard for parents and for the kids,” he said.

“Most country people know they’re going to send their kids to boarding school from day one and prepare them exceptionally well.

“It’s the ones who get it sprung up on them that find it the hardest.”

That’s why preparation is key. “It’s really important that people don’t expect one school fits all,” Richard said. “Some parents have to send their children to different schools because they’re different types of kids.”

“Of more than 190 boarding schools in Australia, many specialise in particular activities, academic studies or performing arts.”

ABSA’s Let’s Talk About Boarding publication says it is important to devote time to researching a school carefully to make sure its values are right for your child.

“Things to consider are whether you prefer a single-sex or a co-ed school, the size of the boarding house, and whether it is on or off campus,” Richard said. “Take time to read each school’s material and brochures, attend field days or expos, and visit the school multiple times. It is usually best to visit on a school day (particularly at lunch time) to see it in action.

“Where possible, meet school and boarding house staff (including the head of boarding) and talk to current boarders. This all contributes to the overall ‘feeling’ you’ll have about a school.

“Take your child with you and make sure they feel part of the decision-making process – even format a list of pros and cons and let them add their thoughts to the list.

“Remember that external opinions can be helpful but are ultimately based on another person’s experiences. Trust your gut feeling and when the important decision is made, be confident in your choice.”

According to Debbie Bushell, a parenting specialist, resilience coach for children and teens, and author of e-book Parenting From a Distance, parents often wonder if they’ve prepared their child adequately for the new academic and social demands of boarding school. “There is no doubt that boarding school students and their parents have additional and quite unique challenges due to the fact that they are apart,” Debbie wrote on her website.

“However, boarding schools today in Australia are very proactive and equipped to provide wonderful guidance and support to the young people they care for.”

This is the case at Launceston Church Grammar School in Tasmania, which recently celebrated its 172nd year and boasts a former Australian T201 Cricket Captain George Bailey, as an old boarder.

“Boarding has been a part of the school since its inception,” co-head of boarding Craig Slavin said.

“We have 50 boarders all up and about 70 per cent of them come from regional areas.

“For many of our families boarding isn’t a choice, it is a necessity.”

“One of the big challenges is getting over the fear of the unknown. To overcome this we have regular taster days and sleepovers in the year leading up to the move into boarding.

“We also have opportunities for the rural students to keep their links with the land through our Agricultural Science Department. The Merino Challenge is an example of an activity that allows our rural boarders to shine and it keeps their home life relevant and connected to their school life.”

Richard Stokes believes it’s all about connection.

“It is a big challenge for parents to hand over their babies for someone else to care for and it is a responsibility that we take very seriously,” he said.

“The bumpy road of adolescence is not easy. There will be tough days.

“It’s really hard for parents but one of the things I reckon is really important for people to understand is that teenage life is pretty tough.

“We teach boarding staff that it’s okay for a kid to be homesick because it means they miss home…and there’s nothing wrong with that. Most kids never get over it, they just learn how to handle it and that’s okay, too. On the other hand, boarding school really does make kids stand on their own two feet. They grow up and become very independent very quickly.”

Everyone’s needs are different

Renee Knight was 14 when she and her twin brother Simon left their family’s farm in Meningie, South Australia, to head for the big smoke.

“I’d spent my whole life going to school with my twin brother,” Renee said. “He attended an all-boys school and I attended an all-girls school. I was quite shy and worried about fitting in without my brother to help guide me.”

Walford Anglican School for Girls gave her the independence she was craving.

“I forged a relationship with my parents that was probably ahead of my years.

“I’m now 36 and haven’t lived at home again. I reflect on how hard that decision must have been for my parents to send my brother and I at such a young age.

“However, I know they’ve never regretted it, and both my brother and I have gone on to achieve a lot in our lives and careers.”

Craig agreed each boarder is different. “A good example of this is a set of twins we had at Launceston Church Grammar School last year.

“Both were wonderful boys who had different likes and needs. One of them was right into sport and pretty much stayed in at the boarding house on the weekends from the start.

“The other brother was more of a homebody and went home on the bus religiously. However, over time, as bonds grew stronger with the other boarders and independence grew, he stayed in more and more. “By the end of Year 12, I regularly saw his smiling face around the boarding house on weekends.”

When university beckons

Ewan Gerkan was 18 when he finished high school and left his hometown of Darwin to study genetics and biochemistry in Adelaide.

“I didn’t know anyone at all,” he said. “It was a bit scary but you make friends so quickly at college.”

His new home is St Ann’s College, a university residential college in North Adelaide.

“It’s pretty amazing to be honest. We have about 170 students and every student gets their own room. There’s a bunch of facilities to help us live and study. You have a great time – you’re living with your best friends for the whole year, studying and having fun together.”

Peer support and pastoral care was beneficial when Ewan moved to St Ann’s. Now, in his third year at the college, he is one of 10 residential tutors. “We are really here to help new students. Some people need a bit of help settling in. That’s what we’re here for.”

Distance and study commitments mean he doesn’t visit home as much as he’d like to.

“Living so far away from my parents and siblings will always be tough but the independence and confidence I’ve gained is priceless.

“Coming to St Ann’s was probably the best thing I ever did.”