Boarding school for remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students can have very damaging effects: new evidence-based research

By John Guenther and Bill Fogarty

For many Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander students living in remote communities across Australia, ‘choice’ in secondary education is limited to either not going to school or going away to a boarding school far away from home.

Setting aside for a moment the issue of choice, the ‘good’ of the decision to go to boarding school is seldom questioned, it is taken as a given. Indeed, the ‘good’ is reflected in significant investments in scholarship programs, hostel infrastructure, transition support services and Abstudy to encourage the ‘choice’ to go away. Governments are reluctant to invest in local secondary schooling options

But why is this so? Surely there is a good theoretical foundation and an evidence base that shows how much better off individuals and communities are from the improved education that students will receive from a boarding school experience.

Evidence of the impact of boarding schools on remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students

Until about 2012 there was almost no research conducted which showed the impact of boarding schools on remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. Since then an emerging body of work is being generated that mostly raises questions about the ‘good’ of boarding, and indeed points to some major concerns.

At the 2017 AARE conference a number of researchers presented a synthesis of their findings and proposed a ‘theory of change’ which shows the complexity of the boarding context and possibility of unintended and undesirable outcomes of boarding. These outcomes, based on findings from the authors point to the possibility of social distress, mental ill-health, substance abuse, loss or confusion of identity, culture and human capital, among other outcomes.

Two other government inquiries/reports, “From surviving to thriving Educational opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students” and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s Study Away Review, highlight concerns in relation to preparation, travel, funding for accommodation, health and wellbeing, growing expulsions, loss of culture, and poor parent and community engagement. The Study Away from Home report points to a 40% increase in demand for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander boarding places in the 4 years to 2016. Another report, the Independent Review into Regional, Rural and Remote Education, will also likely address some of these issues when it is released. How could the ‘good’ have been so badly misread?

Apart from the lack of evidence-based policy, the failure of boarding to realise its hopes can be attributed to a misunderstanding of the theoretical foundations of boarding school initiatives.

Our research on boarding outcomes remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students

We have been working on this very issue and presented our initial findings at the 2017 AARE conference in Canberra at the end of last year. Here’s what we found, based on our analysis of boarding outcomes viewed through the lenses of social, human and identity capital. Very briefly, the three capitals can be explained as follows.

Human capital

The concept of human capital can be traced back to the 18th Century economist, Adam Smith, who described ‘acquired abilities’ as an investment that costs the individual but which ‘repays that expense with a profit’. This idea was applied to economics in the early 1960s through scholars such as Schultz and Becker. These economists argued that individuals make decisions about education based on the economic return from their investment in knowledge. Becker put forward models that calculated the likely return of staying in school.

In short, the longer an individual stays in education the greater the return on investment. The push to see more young people go to boarding schools can be seen as an attempt to increase economic productivity through education.

Social capital

The idea that people gain value from their network of social relationships is not new. However, theorisation of ‘social capital’ is relatively new and certainly post-dates theorisation of human capital. Pierre Bourdieu was the first to theorise social capital. Bourdieu brought together concepts of economic, social and cultural capital. His theory suggests that social and cultural capital can be bought. That is, an economic investment may allow individuals to access the wealth associated with social structures, which would otherwise not be accessible. However, while arguing for the convertibility of various forms of capital, Bourdieu asserts that the group acts to protect its accumulation of the capital.

We see these apparently opposing dynamics working in the context of boarding scholarships. Scholarships are an attempt to buy the cultural and social capital inherent in the institutions of boarding schools, particularly elite schools. However, the social groups of home community and boarding school will act to protect their accumulated capitals, which inhibit the exchange which would otherwise allow the student from the community to ‘walk in two worlds’.

For young people—particularly those from remote communities—the challenges associated with building social relationships (part of social capital) in a foreign environment, and the challenges associated with investing to build knowledge (part of human capital) in a boarding school would undoubtedly be enough to break them.

Identity capital

But on top of that, like all young people, at this very point adolescent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students will be experiencing (as Erik Erikson suggests) ‘identity confusion’.

The theory of identity capital was developed by James E. Côté and Charles G Levine. Their short definition is as follows:

In sum, the term “identity capital” denotes “investments” individuals make, and have, in “who they are.” These investments potentially reap future dividends in the “identity markets” of late modern communities. (Côté & Levine, 2002, p. 147)

How these theories work in the context of boarding for remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students

We wanted to know how the assumptions of capital theories actually work in the context of boarding for remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. We examined the literature from policy and research documents and compared the two. The results of that comparison are shown in the table below.


Capital How it should work for remote students attending boarding schools How it can work (based on the evidence)
Human Capital Theory •Individuals make a choice to invest in their education because of the perceived and actual return on the investment

•Communities benefit through increased productivity

•Education leads to improved employment pathways and higher income

•Individuals may perceive a net cost to education and therefore choose not to invest

•Communities may lose human capital if students choose not to return to communities

•Pathways from education and training to work may be avoided in favour of alternative livelihood options

•Income benefit may not materialise

Social Capital Theory •Investment in social capital gives access to wealth through social structures

•Communities strengthen through links to external sources of power


•Identification with powerful social structures may lead to exclusion from community power structures

•External sources of power act to protect and control resources to the exclusion of communities

•Lost opportunities to engage in the local cultural economy

Identity Capital Theory •Investment in identity capital affirms role development consistent with ontologies associated with schooling

•Agency/choice/self-investment leads to improved health and wellbeing outcomes


•Conformance to educational identity expectations/aspirations may lead to identity confusion/crisis

•Conflicting identities may lead to ill-health and loss of cultural identity



Our research is a red flag for policy makers and service providers of boarding school for remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students

We are not suggesting that these are the only theories we could apply to this issue, but offer this analysis as a starting point to critically examine assumptions of those involved in policy and service delivery for boarders. What our analysis suggests is that the theoretical assumptions applied to boarding provision are often incorrect.

For some, the assumptions may work, but our concern is for those where the ‘good’ of boarding turns into a ‘bad’ for students, communities and families. To that end, along with the evidence and the recent reviews cited above, the analysis serves as something of a red flag and should cause all involved in what is akin to an experiment, to beware of the negative consequences of pursuing a policy that limits choice for remote families and may have profoundly dire results.


John Guenther is currently the Research Leader—Education and Training for Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education, based in Darwin. His work focuses on learning contexts, theory and practice and policies as they connect with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Between 2011 and 2016 he led the Remote Education Systems project with the CRC for Remote Economic Participation. More detail about John’s work is available at remote education systems.



Bill Fogarty is currently the A/C Deputy Director of the National Centre for Indigenous Studies at the ANU in Canberra. He has a long history of research and work in Indigenous Education and is currently a Chief Investigator on a number of large research projects including the Australian Research Council funded ‘Deficit Discourse and Indigenous Education’ project.


Note: The blog post image is Yirara College in Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, a Lutheran boarding school for Aboriginal students. Students from remote communities go all over Australia to boarding schools.

In the Northern Territory about 700 Aboriginal students would go to boarding schools within the NT and another 1000 or so would go to interstate boarding schools.


This is Ampilawatja school, a remote school in the NT. This is typical of schools (where they are available) in remote regions.


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4 thoughts on “Boarding school for remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students can have very damaging effects: new evidence-based research

  1. I suggest we need to broaden the concept of what is “school”. We could have a system where students attend a local school with a teacher, but also be provided with on-line materials and teachers for specialist subjects. This would be particularly useful for remote indigenous students, who could study in their own community, speaking to teachers in their own language.

    As a student of education, I undertook a project on distance education for indigenous Australian students in remote communities in 2014 (with Canadian educators comparing this with own indigenous schools). More on technology for indigenous education in my blog.

  2. John Guenther says:

    Indeed, Tom. I think we can be a bit more creative (and perhaps respectful) about how we respond to educational needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people.

  3. John Doubleday says:

    For ANY young person Boarding is damaging and tough

  4. John Guenther says:

    Agreed, John. It is almost assumed that it will either toughen the young person up or they will get over it. Unfortunately, this is not always (maybe often) the case.

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