Weekday boarding: The perfect solution for time-stressed families

Boarding school enrolments have rebounded sharply in recent years, reversing two decades of decline.

Australia now has almost 200 residential schools serving tens of thousands of students throughout the school term and on a weekly basis.

While boarding is a necessity for many families in regional and remote Australia, city-based students now represent one-third of boarders at NSW schools.

Experts point to several reasons for the surging interest in boarding. Cultural trends, from the well-loved Harry Potter series of books and films to a spate of popular television shows set in boarding schools, have recast these schools’ image from austere to awesome. Today, living at school, surrounded by friends, is, for many students, an appealing prospect.

Societal changes have made boarding schools increasingly attractive for parents too, as more often than not nowadays, they both work full time in demanding careers. 

Between long hours and long commutes, parents are busier than ever and boarding schools are moving to meet the needs of modern families. 

A growing number now offer flexible boarding to alleviate the burden on time-pressed parents. Options can include:

  • Casual boarding — a temporary situation for just a few days or weeks — particularly helpful for parents whose work involves travel 
  • Extended day boarding — students participate in after-school sport and study, then have dinner together before returning home in the evening 
  • Weekday boarding — students live at school during the week with weekends at home

Flexible boarding has advantages for students too. It affords them more time and space to concentrate on their studies and extracurricular interests while still enjoying lots of family time. 

Living at school, at least part of the time, can also help families avoid schedule clashes between siblings, making it easier to accommodate sporting commitments, rehearsals, intra-school debating and similarly time-intensive activities. 

As academic commitments accrue in the senior years, weekday boarding can be an excellent way to support students’ academic success and maximise their opportunities, says Richard Stokes, executive director of the Australian Boarding Schools’ Association.

“One of the things that is contributing to more urban boarders is the fact that in our big cities – Melbourne and Sydney and, to a lesser extent, Brisbane – families are really struggling with travel. For a child actively involved in a school’s extracurricular program, parents might question why their child might spend an hour or more on public transport, travelling to and from school when, in fact, they could live at the school and use that time wisely.”

Convenience aside, boarding is beneficial in many other ways too. Daily life in residence is highly structured with a level of supervision that few parents have the time or energy to replicate. 

Monitored study periods ensure that students complete their homework and boarders can easily access extra tutoring when needed, making them less likely to fall behind. 

Technology use is tightly regulated. Rules vary, but generally, there are strict policies on internet access in terms of both time and content. Mobile phones are off-limits during study periods and most schools require devices to be handed in at bedtime. 

For many parents, this aspect alone is worth the price of admission. Research shows children’s technology use is a source of conflict in two-thirds of Australian families and more than 80% of parents think digital devices are negatively impacting their children, mentally and physically.

Boarding can be an effective antidote to technology overload. A University of South Australia study, conducted at Adelaide’s Westminster School, found boarders sleep an average of 40 minutes more per night than their day student peers.

Speaking to the Australian, lead researcher Alex Reardon attributed the sleep differential to restricted technology use at night and the consistent routine of boarding house life.

“We know in the literature that kids who have set routines, who have good sleep hygiene, tend to sleep better and have better mental health outcomes,” he says. “Boarding is inherently really good at routine. It turns out boarders are sleeping really well, they’re sleeping longer than day students.”

But perhaps the greatest reason for boarding’s renewed popularity is that the schools themselves have changed to better reflect contemporary lifestyles.

Old-fashioned dormitory-style, cramped sleeping quarters have given way to larger rooms with fewer occupants and a greater emphasis on student privacy. 

Enhanced pastoral care ensures that every student receives individual attention and support. 

And, most significantly, for hungry, growing adolescents, the stereotype of meagre rations is completely outmoded. Today’s boarding schools prioritise healthy food, serving nutritious, tasty meals that cater to students’ dietary preferences and requirements.

The boarding experience has evolved dramatically in recent years and a new generation is eagerly reaping the benefits.



Boarding Schools, Independent Schools Australia

Boarding schools no longer need “Harry Potter effect” to inspire children, leading headmaster says — Camilla Turner, the Telegraph UK, April 29, 2017

Why flexible boarding options are becoming more popular — Rosanne Barrett, the Australian, September 10, 2021

Boarding schools appealing to the city as much as the country — Emily Parkinson, Australian Financial Review, May 16, 2016

Children more distracted by digital devices in the home, parents say — Ben Knight, UNSW News, April 28, 2021

Boarding school students sleep more than day student peers. The positive effects of bedtime routine and restricting technology use at night — Alex Reardon, K Lushington, A Agostini, SLEEP Advances, November 2022

Boosting mental health in their sleep — Rosanne Barrett, the Australian, September 10, 2021

Silver linings: How PLC Sydney made the most of remote learning

PLC Sydney Principal Dr Paul Burgis chats with Junior School students.

The coronavirus induced transition to remote learning presented a huge range of challenges to schools and families, with many parents fearing that their children would be disadvantaged by the disruption.

But at PLC Sydney, it was far from a bad experience. In fact, “it was a great win”, says Principal Dr Paul Burgis, thanks to swift action and a lot of hard work.

PLC Sydney Principal Dr Paul Burgis.

By the time NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced the closure of schools as part of the non-essential services lockdown, PLC Sydney had already taken classes online.

“We started on the Thursday before the premier made it official on the Monday,” says Dr Burgis.

“We decided when the curve really took off that we would try to avoid having a case and look after our staff [who] were particularly vulnerable because of adult-to-adult transmission.”

Using Zoom video conferencing software for lessons and Google Classroom for homework and assignments, the school of almost 1400 students didn’t skip a beat. Even the technology cooperated, with PLC Sydney encountering far fewer problems than anticipated.

The hardest part was keeping students engaged with learning, especially in the early years.

“For years 3-12, it worked really well. We were primarily concerned for the young ones,” Dr Burgis says, “they need more assistance.”

To provide that, PLC Sydney employed a “multi-modal framework” with lots of activity-based learning and problem solving tasks, supplemented by explanations and individual follow-up, he says.

“Power Up Wednesdays” allocated a day every week to creative, physical and wellbeing projects to help students cope with the emotional burden of isolation. A competition to “Walk Around the World” saw the girls collectively take enough steps around their homes to get to Florence, Italy; while the “Portrait in Isolation” project challenged students and staff to express their feelings in a self-portrait. The evocative results are now on exhibition at the school.

Year 9 student Emylene Kuoch’s self-portrait for PLC Sydney’s Portraits in Isolation exhibition.

“We also did a living history project, where students wrote their experience of working at home to pass on to future generations. One of the museums in Sydney thought it was a great project and they’re going to do something with it,” he adds.

“I’ve been really impressed by how calmly the girls have gone about things. Across the whole school the students have been fantastic. We haven’t had any increase in wellbeing issues; if anything slightly less.

“I want to pay tribute to the teachers for that. The comment from the students was that the teachers were really there for them.”

Positive outcomes from remote learning can be felt throughout the school, Dr Burgis says. Zoom has worked so well that they’ll be incorporating it permanently for classes at PLC Sydney’s Jindabyne-based Winter School. Boarders stranded overseas and in country NSW have been able to return to school virtually, and taking P&F meetings online has tripled attendance.

Year 12 student Helena Law’s self-portrait for PLC Sydney’s Portraits in Isolation exhibition.

Parent information sessions have gone digital too. Dr Burgis describes PLC Sydney’s inaugural webinar for 130 prospective parents as logistically challenging but ultimately successful.

“I presented, one of our vice-captains spoke and we did a virtual tour of the college. Our executive were all on standby to chat. Parents typed in questions and I answered as many as I could and the executive were all typing away answers.

“We got quite a few enrolments so I think we did okay.”

As constructive as these past few weeks have been though, nothing can replace the social aspects of school, Dr Burgis says.

“Students really missed their peers. After a while, working from home becomes a bit like Groundhog Day, every day follows the same pattern. Face to face we read the nuances and enjoy the physical company of others.”

Remote learning has many advantages but it’s exhausting in the long term and requires heavy lifting from teachers, students and parents to make it work, he acknowledges.

“I’ve really appreciated how the staff, teachers and executive have come together really well to make sure the learning worked. That’s been tiring though. This is normally a long weekend with a professional development day but we’ve given the staff an extra day off. They’ve been working hard and they’ve just done a huge professional development task on the job.

“We’ve been really grateful for the support of the community and because of that it’s worked well.”

Proof positive: Knox Grammar transforms traditional education for the 21st century

Total Fitness … Knox Grammar School’s innovative Positive Education program is a quantifiable success.

Boasting stately buildings and manicured grounds, Knox Grammar School on Sydney’s Upper North Shore would appear to be the epitome of old school.

But looks are deceiving. Knox is in its 10th year of a transformational project to bring pastoral care to the forefront of the school’s culture. Its Total Fitness program broadens the school’s remit to cultivate students’ characters as well as their minds. Integrating the principles of Positive Education into a traditional academic setting, Knox’s cutting-edge methodology seeks to equip students with the knowledge and life skills required to flourish in a globalised economy.   

“We are renewing the traditional model of education through thoughtful innovation and a focus on preparing students for a rapidly changing world,” says Scott James, the school’s newly appointed headmaster.

“The 21st century is an interconnected, diverse world. Students need to develop empathy and collaboration skills to prepare themselves for the evolving workplace of the future.”

Positive Educator … Knox Grammar School’s newly appointed headmaster Scott James.

The program has special relevance for Mr James who initiated a re-think of pastoral care when he came to Knox in 2009 as head of the Senior School. An extensive research review lead the school council to adopt Positive Education as an evidence-based framework for a rejuvenated school culture. Working with Sydney’s Positive Psychology Institute Knox developed its data-driven Total Fitness Positive Education program in alignment with the school’s unique heritage and values.

“Total Fitness is about holistic education. We focus on the whole student — academic, social, physical and spiritual aspects — based on the science and evidence of Positive Education. All our staff are trained in it, which allows them to focus on the optimal functioning of students in our care,” says Mr James.

Since its implementation in 2011, Knox has tracked the program’s impact on staff and students. The results demonstrate improvement in key areas of the school with the Knox community enjoying significantly greater stakeholder satisfaction than that of comparable schools.

While the data offer quantifiable proof that Knox is tracking in the right direction, Positive Education has made a difference at every level of school life, Mr James says, by nurturing “non-cognitive life skills, such as “empathy, tolerance, compassion and understanding of other people’s points of view”.

“I can see it in the everyday development of these skills in the staff and students. You can see it in the classroom and on the sporting field.”

The equal emphasis on staff wellbeing distinguishes Positive Education from other pastoral care models and underscores the school’s holistic educational approach.

At Knox, every activity presents a mentoring opportunity. “All our teachers are also mentors trained in Positive Education,” says Mr James.

Holistic approach … Every teacher at Knox Grammar School is also a mentor trained in Positive Education.

Adult guidance is supplemented by ‘boy to man’ mentor programs, Mr James says, “because we believe boys learning from boys is critical”.

Knox is a perennial high achiever in the HSC but recent years have seen even better results with the school ranking in the top 20 last year.

Mr James attributes this happy outcome to the extensive support the school offers students in those stressful senior years. “In years 11 and 12 we have a senior academic mentor to help the boys with time management and goal setting. Students have a mentor for the pastoral side and the academic side,” Mr James says.

In the school’s boarding houses Positive Education extends to every aspect of student life. “Our staffing structures facilitate a family atmosphere for boarders with a husband and wife team leading each house, while our “whole of life” boarding programs give boys opportunities to acquire life skills and credentials,” Mr James says. “We support them to do their RSA course, barista courses, learner driving as well as co-curricular activities.”

“Our boarders are extremely successful academically. There’s no doubt that the academic support and availability of resources 24/7 that contributes to that,” he says.

Proud heritage … Knox Grammar School offers best-practice education in a traditional setting.

Improved wellbeing and academic outcomes are just the beginning though. Mr James has an ambitious and wide-ranging plan for the school’s progress in the years to come.

He is “committed to building a learning community of the highest quality” that will empower students to succeed to their fullest potential. Central to this project is the cultivation of core character traits: integrity, resilience and the pursuit of excellence.

“My vision is to be an exemplary school developing within a caring, Christian environment to produce young people with a sure knowledge of who they are and how they want to live,” Mr James says.

“I have key focus areas for the school: leadership, teaching excellence, learning excellence, Knox Total Fitness and global mindfulness, which is critical to give students the opportunity to engage in social justice programs, community service and immersion activities. These experiences give students a sense of mastery and efficacy and help to develop rapport with other people,” he says.

“Knox is a school for boys of all abilities, races and creeds where they’re supported as equals. With our understanding of mental fitness we can teach boys to deal with setbacks and develop grit. We emphasise ‘stickability’ — staying on task and employing a growth mindset.

“Intelligence is not innate but can be developed.”



Knox Grammar School website

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