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Boosting support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students at boarding schools

Published:14 August 2019

1. Boarders Keyonia Sinnamon and Alice-Lee Walker pointing to their home communities. 2. Mareta Alexander (TSS), Charada Grimes (Concordia Lutheran College) and Dr Tessa Benveniste (CQUni). 3. Dr Tessa Benveniste opening Day 2 of the Schools and Communities Meeting outlining the importance of boarding school and remote community connections and relationships.4. Dr Roxanne Bainbridge presenting the Resilience Study research summary.

Integrated support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students at Queensland boarding schools is needed from families and communities, schools and peers to ensure they have positive transition experiences to secondary schooling. This support will ensure they can flourish in their new environments and can achieve great learning outcomes.

That’s according to researchers who are in the final year of a five-year Resilience Study project, funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).

Over 500 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are currently at boarding school in Queensland. A significant number of these students, particularly from Cape York communities, are supported by the Queensland Department of Education Transition Support Services (TSS) to access and transition to boarding school education, because there are limited educational opportunities in their remote home communities.

The study reveals that factors identified by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students at boarding schools as supporting their resilience sit largely outside of their individual control.

Project spokesperson Dr Tessa Benveniste of CQUniversity says that school staff also report that there are factors beyond their individual professional roles, or a school’s capacity, to make the changes needed to improve student support.

“Research so far indicates that resilience for boarding school students must come in the form of a broad and integrated system of support,” Dr Benveniste says.

For students to maintain their wellbeing, secondary school transitions require navigation of new systems, cultures, challenges and resources, and the capacity of schools to support these processes and provide resources in ways that are meaningful to students.

“Recommendations include bolstering of boarding school staff capacity, clear and easy access to systems and support, top-down support from school leadership teams and education departments, opportunities for school-community connections and visits, and positive recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture,” she said.

Dr Benveniste says the project identified various sources of resilience including caring and supportive relationships, connection with family, role models, and safety.

Where schools supported students to access these things, “students demonstrated their resilience by staying on task, helping others, gaining interpersonal social skills, knowing how to behave in different situations, and celebrating culture".

Access to education varies considerably across remote communities, with limited secondary programs available in many communities. Many Indigenous parents and students from Cape York and Palm Island exercise their right to choose to boarding schools which are located across Queensland; from Weipa in the north to Brisbane in the south.

The Resilience Study is a research project partnership between CQUniversity and TSS that was developed in response to identified self-harm and suicide risk for TSS-supported students compelled to transition to boarding school.

The project started in 2014 and has been under the co-leadership of Professor Roxanne Bainbridge and Associate Professor Janya McCalman of CQUniversity.

Resilience-focused interventions for transition support staff and schools were designed and implemented through participatory research to improve support for student resilience and well-being.

Interventions involved multiple strategies, with school-based resilience-strengthening plans designed around the specific contexts of each school.