Beyond Hogwarts: the real-life benefits of boarding

Extended family … Cranbrook School offers boarders excellent pastoral care in a supportive environment.

If you didn’t attend a boarding school yourself, your impressions of residential schools have probably been formed, at least in part, by Hollywood.

It seems that every decade produces an era-defining tale set in a boarding school. From the 60s counter-culture touchstone, If, to Australia’s own haunting 70s classic, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Dead Poets Society in the 80s, and, of course, the Harry Potter blockbusters of recent times, there is no shortage of movies that centre on the intrigue and exhilaration of adolescent communal living.

Reality is usually a little more mundane than the big screen version but that hasn’t slowed the resurgence of Australia’s boarding schools.

Boarding is well and truly back in vogue with more than 25,000 students nation-wide choosing to live at their school — an increase of 25 per cent over the last decade.

Many of these students come from rural and regional areas where boarding is often a necessity but changing family dynamics are seeing more city-based and international students opting to board.

In families where both parents work full-time, the close supervision and access to extracurricular activities that boarding provides makes it an attractive option. In the senior years, students are increasingly choosing to board so they can concentrate on their studies free of the distractions of home and the time-drain of commuting.

Living at school offers students many unique advantages including:

Academic support and extra tuition
When you live at school a teacher is never very far away to lend a hand with a sticky problem or read through a draft essay. Allocated study periods ensure that students have adequate time in their days to get through their homework and no excuses for not doing it.

A structured environment
Boarding is characterised by routine and stability. Students learn good habits early on and for busy parents working long hours, the inbuilt structure of boarding environments is a boon. At schools such as The King’s School in Parramatta, fully a quarter of boarders are Sydney-based; boarding not out of need but because their parents want them to benefit from the “boarding experience”, the school says.

Extracurricular opportunities
Living at school means never missing footy practice again. Even better, it allows students to participate in everything on offer and try new sports and activities. Most boarding schools emphasise physical activity to help promote resilience and teamwork and keep their students fit and healthy, but creative and intellectual opportunities abound. Meanwhile, regular excursions, entertainment and social events keep students busy and engaged with life outside of school. Boarding is rarely boring.

By its nature, boarding promotes independence and self-management; skills that prove useful throughout a lifetime.

“Boarders develop resilience and independence at an earlier age,” says Wenona principal, Dr Briony Scott. “It’s not that they grow up quicker but they definitely do become more independent.

“Boarders learn to look after themselves really well. They learn to look after their things and take responsibility for their time.”

Kate Obermayer, a Cochlear executive and former Wenona boarder agrees, telling the Weekly Times: “Boarding gave me an inner dependence on myself, which continues to help me on a daily basis in my role — no one is cracking the whip except me.

“I have to be proactive. I have to think about all angles. I have to be organised. I learnt all of that at boarding school.”

Lifelong friendships
Close-quarters living promotes tight bonds between students that often carry through their whole lives. Schools with a significant international boarding cohort like Cranbrook in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs offer students the opportunity to make “friends from all corners of the globe”, the school says.

This view is supported by research conducted by the University of Adelaide. A 2004 survey of boarding school students revealed that the overwhelming majority of respondents had formed “intense, enduring” friendships at boarding school with fellow students from around the world. The report author concluded that for these students boarding “was a significant factor in fostering independence and embracing cultural diversity”, which helped to “prepare them for life in an increasingly global world”.

Overall, the respondents viewed boarding with fondness and appreciation. As one survey respondent wrote: “For all Grammar’s faults, I wouldn’t exchange this experience for anything in the world!”

Hogwarts may be a fantasy but it seems that, for many students, boarding does, in fact, add a touch of magic to school life.


Boarding schools appealing to the city as much as the country — Emily Parkinson, Australian Financial Review, May 6, 2016

Wenona alumnae explain how boarding at the North Sydney school has shaped their lives — Weekly Times, November 1, 2016

An Australian co-educational boarding school as a crucible for life: a humanistic sociological study of students’ attitudes from their own memoirs — Matthew A White, PhD Thesis, School of Education, University of Adelaide, 2004

Co-ed Or Single Sex: What Will Work Best For Your Child?

Australia has perhaps the widest range of schooling options in the English-speaking world, including a comparatively high proportion of single-sex schools in both the public and non-government sectors.

While co-education is the predominant mode of schooling in the US and Canada, and is rapidly becoming so in the UK as well, gender-specific education remains a popular choice for Australian families.

Greater than the sum of its parts … consider all the elements to find the right school for your child.

This is especially true in NSW, where there are more than 130 single-sex schools throughout the independent, public and Catholic school systems.

Sydney-based parents have many excellent schools of either type to choose from and deciding between the two can present a real dilemma for many.

With a wealth of research on the topic available, there is a strong case to be made for the merits of each. Excellent academic results can be seen in both types of schools and there are no distinct drawbacks to either schooling style.

However, they do differ in terms of environment and social factors.

Research shows that girls are more likely to excel in music, maths, and science subjects when they attend single-sex schools. It is presupposed that the absence of boys may help girls to develop greater self-confidence in their abilities as well as making them more willing to speak out and perform for an audience.

Meanwhile, boys are said to benefit from male-centric teaching methods, which are more readily delivered in boys-only schools.

Dr Tim Hawkes, former headmaster of The King’s School in Parramatta, is a vocal advocate of gender-specific teaching methods.

“We must allow boys to be boys, we must allow them run in the playground and learn according to their learning style and not try to force them to adopt learning behaviours that are antithetical to the way they discover and learn new information,” he says.

On the co-ed side of the ledger, Barker College head Phillip Heath makes the point that the contemporary workplace is a mixed-gender environment and that schools need to prepare students for adult reality. Last year he announced that Barker College would be transitioning to a fully co-ed school by 2022 because “life is co-ed.”

“Barker College aims to prepare young people for much more than an ATAR or even for life at university. The real purpose of a school is to support students to reach their full potential in the workplace and in their communities, and in building strong relationships and families,” Mr Heath told the Hornsby Advocate.

Proponents of single-sex schooling counter this view with the argument that schools aren’t employment training centres but are instead, as MamaMia contributor Zoe Rochford wrote in defence of girls’ schools, “a safe place where developing brains can learn about things, both conceptually and practically, from a distance. They’re a recognition that our adolescents aren’t ready for the “real world” yet – that they still have learning and growing to do… If that means that single-sex education suits some brains better, the way it did mine, then so be it.”

That said, international research demonstrates that teacher quality is the most decisive factor in academic outcomes. Breaking down the various influences on education attainment including individual capability, family background, teachers, principal, peers and school, the data shows that 50 per cent of achievement can be attributed to a student’s academic potential and 30 per cent to teacher ability, with the other elements making up the balance.

It’s probably fair to say that a school is greater than the sum of its parts. No single institutional component will make or break a student’s education but the overall mix will have a huge impact.

In a column for the Manly Daily, Greg Whitby, executive director of schools for the Parramatta Catholic diocese, counsels parents against focussing solely on the single sex vs co-ed issue, advising them to look at the bigger picture.

“To put it simply, there are good single-sex schools but also some pretty poor ones. The same applies to co-educational schools.

“The best learning environments for young people are the ones that respond to their social, emotional and learning needs, that allow for diverse opinions, encourage healthy and positive relationships­ and ultimately reflect the diversity of the communities in which they live,” he writes.

When it comes to deciding between a single sex or coed school, there is no clear winner. Like many complex questions, the honest answer is: it depends. There are distinct advantages to each type of school but, ultimately, the best option is the one that suits your child the best.


Research versus the media: Mixed or single-gender settings? — Helen J Forgasz, Gilah C Leder and Calvin Taylor, Monash University, 2007

Teachers Make a Difference: What is the research evidence? — John Hattie, University of Auckland, Australian Council for Educational Research, October 2003

Barker College becomes Sydney’s first private boys’ school to welcome girls across all grades — Jake McCallum, Hornsby Advocate, November 4, 2016

A prestigious school goes co-ed and suddenly everyone’s saying how evil single sex schools are. Rubbish. — Zoe Rochford, MamaMia, November 8, 2016

Dividing line not key to success – Greg Whitby, Manly Daily, February 18, 2017

Teaching boys how to be men: an interview with Dr Tim Hawkes

“The vitality found in boys remains the same today as it always has,” says Dr Tim Hawkes, headmaster of Australia’s oldest independent school, The King’s School in Parramatta, “however, in an age of political correctness, society’s tolerance of their energy may have changed resulting in a pathologizing of boys.”

Reflecting on the lessons learned over 40 years as an educator, Dr Hawkes notes that longer working hours, reconstituted families and greater stress on parents, have made raising a family harder than ever.

“More and more parents are time-poor and many spend too little time interacting with their children.

Character-driven … The King’s School headmaster Tim Hawkes says schools need to teach life skills and values as well as academics.

“Some research suggests that the average amount of meaningful interaction between fathers and sons is just a few minutes a day.

“We’re in grave danger of seeing a generation of kids raised by the internet,” he says.

As he heads into retirement this year, Dr Hawkes says schools are more important than ever in equipping young people with the requisite skills for a successful life.

“The main life coaches should be parents. However, many parents need help. This is where schools can make a contribution.

“At King’s, we have developed a life skills program that we run alongside our academic program. Our Year 10 Boys to Men Program teaches the basics of independent living. Topics include: how to cook, clean, iron, maintain a home and service a car. The course also includes lessons on interpersonal skills and financial literacy.”

King’s is consistently one of the state’s top performing non-selective schools and achieves excellent HSC results, but academic competence is just one aspect of a well-rounded education, Dr Hawkes says.

“Success isn’t measured by an ATAR; it’s measured by character.”

With the moral ambiguity found in contemporary society, knowing what is good and proper is more vital than ever, he says. “It is also important to remember that we are preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist. The implication for educators is that a good education is not just about the acquisition of facts because they’ll probably be obsolete by the time a student gets into the workforce. We need to encourage flexibility and the growth of problem-solving skills so whatever the future brings our students can cope.”

In keeping with his belief that boys learn through activity, King’s places great emphasis on providing physical challenges, Dr Hawkes says.

“To build resilience, we require all students to engage in team sports, to spend at least two years in the Cadet Corps, to go on treks and experience the exhilaration of activities such as abseiling.”

“One of the best initiatives at King’s has been to embed a lot of essential life skills into a leadership program,” he says.

Kingsmen undertake a compulsory four-year leadership training course in Years 8, 9, 10 and 11 that encourages service and community involvement, Dr Hawkes explains.

“The course also includes training in practical skills such as goal setting, how to give a speech, how to run a meeting and how to be a great member of a team.

“Leadership is about having the courage to accept responsibility and being prepared to be accountable,” he says.

Parents can help by teaching consequences, Dr Hawkes says.

“Too many kids have privileges without responsibility. If they dent the car, they should contribute to getting it fixed.

“Kids should be given tasks at home as well as at school. They can be responsible for tidying their rooms, cooking a meal every week, sponsoring an overseas child and learning first aid,” Dr Hawkes says.

He may be leaving King’s but educating children remains his passion. His next project is another book in his “Ten” parenting series — “something along the lines of Ten Tests Your Child Must Pass”.

Focusing on the concept of initiation, Dr Hawkes will be considering rites of passage in the modern era and “what we need to do before we can describe our sons and daughters as adults”.

It will continue the theme of his most recent book, Ten Leadership Lessons You Must Teach Your Teenager, in which he offers advice on teaching kids the arts of self-mastery, working in a team, choosing wisely and finding one’s calling.

It is said that while knowledge is power, wisdom is knowing how to wield it judiciously. That, says Dr Hawkes, is the essence of good leadership. Echoing the words of Indian public intellectual Dr Shashi Tharoor, he concludes, “we don’t need minds that are well-filled, we need minds that are well-formed.”