The middle years of high school—Years 8, 9 and 10—is a time of immense change for many reasons. For boarders, and their families, there are additional elements to navigate. Ascham’s Head of Boarding Allysia Heness-Pugh explains why these are also years of substantial personal growth and strength building for our boarders, with a little hard work and a lot of sharing.
‘It’s in those middle years that the innocence of adolescence is confronted with the truth of puberty and young people are forced to examine themselves, adapt and transition to a path of adulthood. It’s that age of personal questioning, of navigating what ‘power’ means and working out how to use it. It’s an experiment in friendship and acknowledging the fluidity of who each young woman aligns with at any given time. It’s also a time to navigate the shared space of existence—that of your family and your friends. It’s a time of learning, through experience of how to be tolerant, how to compromise and how to resolve conflict. The middle years of Boarding magnify these challenges; it is an opportunity to grow in self-awareness and cultivate a better understanding of personal space and privacy.
For students who head off to Boarding School for the first time during those middle years, rather than from Year 7, it can be even trickier to find their natural place among established friendships and routines. There is a confidential shorthand, a classified cache of words, body language and energy that exists between boarders who have lived together ‘from the beginning’. The roots of friendships that develop in Year 7 are very strong. As an introverted only child myself, spoilt with space and uninterrupted freedom, my late introduction to Boarding for my final years of schooling in Bathurst was, to put it mildly, a complete and utterly challenging reality check. I entered a world absolutely beyond my control. I had to call upon all the composure, patience and tolerance in my (small) tank. I reflect now, that it was a safe and supportive moment of development—a place for reflection and self-growth in which I learnt how to empathise, to listen and understand others by understanding how to share: space, belongings and ultimately myself, with confidence. Twenty-five-odd years later, my experience is echoed annually by some new boarders who go off to Boarding School part way through their secondary school journey. The same principles for ‘getting the best out of Boarding’ apply now as they did so long ago.
We use the middle years in Ascham Boarding as a purposeful time for a big ‘reset’. Shaking things up means it’s an easier transition in at the same time for new boarders who enter in Years 8–10. We make changes to our Boarding enrolments and our activities. Our girls change Houses, dorms and roommates as a method of intervention. We also scaffold the opportunities for our girls as they get older, with greater responsibilities and expectations placed upon them. These changes bring freshness, provide room for growth and build opportunities for new ways of collaborating.
Each term, our boarders live with a new group of people and old alliances can be expanded. It might be that they don’t know each other well… yet. They have 10 weeks to discover shared interests and find new, meaningful ways of building friendship and connection. The tightly held bonds in Boarding are not destroyed, rather the sisterhood is expanded.
In addition to new full-time boarders who enter in Years 8–10, our Residential or ‘Resi’ program is perfectly aligned to provide a window for transformative communication and connection. Throughout Year 9 (and since 2022, also Year 10) we allocate between four and eight Resi spaces in our Boarding Houses where day students come and board for a term. As well as the benefits for each Resi—building independence through her new Boarding and Prep routines— the program offers an intentional interruption to the existing Years 9 and 10 Boarding cohort. The retention of our Resi’s is testament to the success of this program—with many often staying more than one term or choosing to become permanent, full-time boarders for Years 11 and 12.
Parenting from a distance in the middle years presents its own new set of challenges. Ways of communicating with daughters when they were in Year 7 are often less effective now—parents are forced to look for new ways of connecting with their girls, just as their daughters are trying to interpret a new universal language for interacting with others.
Those middle years at Boarding School are sometimes experienced by parents on the phone as a series of grunts and complaints. Moods can be felt down the pipes and parents are sometimes left wanting after a phone call.
It’s in these moments that parents trust the School the most. They know that our staff know their daughters very well. While boarders may not communicate often (or at all!) with their families, parents know and trust that the Boarding community is holding their daughters close. It’s the strength of ‘the village’ helping to raise resilient boarders in action, where support is always on tap for emotional health. We now have a much greater understanding of the importance of wellbeing to serve successful academic outcomes too.
The middle years of Boarding is such a different time to the experience of Year 7 beginnings; different also to the growth shown in the tail-end during Years 11 and 12. While patience, understanding and openness need to be practised by boarders and their families alike, these are also wonderful years of adolescence—rich in expansive experiences and full of positive growth towards adulthood. Our boarders in Years 8, 9 and 10 enrich the Boarding and wider Ascham communities, as they embrace this time with commitment, positivity and a whole heap of fun.’
Image: Year 9 Ascham boarders sharing a meal and laughs with friends in the Dining Room