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Relational aggression in boarding schools - A formative study

The rural and remoteness of many sectors of WA has meant that for the past 153 years, many young people have needed to attend boarding school. Currently, there are approximately 2525 students attending 21 boarding schools across WA. Yet despite a general awareness of the significant impact that attending boarding school can have on young people, their parents and staff, with novels as famous as ‘Tom Brown’s School Days’, there is a dearth of research into understanding the unique challenges faced by boarding students.

The key objective of this project is to better understand relational aggression in boarding schools and its subsequent impact on the well-being of boarding students. The project also seeks to develop an understanding of the challenges faced by boarding school students, parents and staff and to assist in informing effective policy and practice in schools as well as aid in the development of an intervention to assist students develop the necessary skills to manage the very unique challenges within this context. While a limited number of books, plays and papers have been published, little formal research on boarding students has ever, to my knowledge, been conducted. Therefore this proposed formative study will be a world first.

The available literature speaks of increased levels of relational aggression within boarding schools. Compounding this is the inability of boarding school students, unlike day students to retreat to the safe haven of their home. In an analysis of calls to the UK Childline in 1991 ‘boarding school children who talk(ed) about bullying make it clear that their problems are different in their closed environment… and… there is also the inability to escape by going home, the absence of parental support, and the vulnerability all day-and even at night’  (La Fontaine, 1991). La Fontaine went on to comment ‘the victims felt they had no safe place to go’. Her research also discovered higher rates of physical assault amongst boarders additionally episodes of bullying tended to last longer than like day students. Post this analysis, the limitations of which are extensive, there has been no further qualitative or quantitative published works which investigates the specific needs of this unique group of young people.

Added to this is the complexity is the Rudd Government’s contribution of $20 million to the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation’s boarding school scheme, paying for an additional 2000 Indigenous students to attend boarding schools. Furthermore, the increase in international students, without whose financial contribution many boarding schools in WA would struggle to remain financially viable, has resulted in a melting pot of students whose life experiences prior to enrolment are vastly different.

This research comprises two core components. The first involves conducting focus group studies using a think-pair-share and nominal group process with boarding school youth, parents and staff to explore their feelings, reactions and attitudes related to bullying. Participants within the focus/nominal groups will be selected based on a stratified, random sample from five boarding schools in the Perth metropolitan area. The focus groups will be stratified into boarding schools which are single sex, co-educational and where students are housed either vertically or horizontally to determine the impact of these factors upon relational aggression. All five schools selected will have Aboriginal, rural and international boarding students. The second core component involves synthesising the findings, and using this information to develop an online survey to be completed by boarding students, parents and staff at each of the 5 schools. The qualitative and quantitative data will be compared to assess the validity and reliability of the survey instrument. The final outcome of the project will be a report synthesizing research evidence and providing new insights into possible interventions for young people who board their parents and schools.  

Project duration

2010 - 2012

Funding body


For further information about this project please contact Kate Hadwen at


Ms Kate Hadwen
Ms Ashley Adair

Associate Investigators

Ms Valerie Gould
Ms Emma Foulker-Taylor
Mr Richard Stokes
Mr Allan Shaw


Ms Kate Hadwen
Ms Ashley Adair
Ms Leanne Lester

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