The school that never sleeps as its duty of care extends into the holidays

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday
Special assistance school, Arethusa College, is opening its doors to students in need throughout these school holidays.

For the first time this year, every Arethusa College campus across Queensland will keep their doors open to students over the school holidays, welcoming them to drop in, have a chat and stay connected with their school. 

The College’s eight campuses — located in inner-city Brisbane (three campuses), Springwood, Logan, Deception Bay, Forest Lake and Maroochydore — will remain open to students for the two-week holiday break before school officially starts again on Monday, 15 April.

Arethusa College Executive Principal Lisa Coles says the College recognised five years ago that its duty of care to its young people extended beyond the official start and end dates of a school term. 

“As a college that specialises in educating young people who’ve experienced school refusal and non-attendance — often as a result of disadvantage, health, mental health, social and other life challenges — we understand the holidays aren’t always a happy or safe time for some young people,” Ms Coles says.

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“Our Spring Hill Campus, which opened in 2013, was the first to welcome vulnerable students during the school holidays in 2019.’’ 

Arethusa College is one of 96 Independent Special Assistance Schools operating across 176 campuses in Australia’s independent schooling sector and is recognised in the Australian Education Act 2013 as catering “for students with social, emotional or behavioural difficulties” — something Arethusa College leadership told EducationDaily is “a limiting description that fails to adequately capture the complexities faced by our young people or recognise their immense potential”.

The school currently has more than 1,300 students enrolled and employs more than 250 full-time equivalent staff (including teachers, counsellors, education support officers, Indigenous liaison officers, pathway officers, welfare workers and chaplains) across eight distinctly different south-east Queensland campuses. 

It offers its unique student cohort small class sizes — compared to mainstream schools — averaging about 180-200 students per campus (except our 75-acre Deception Bay campus which has about 370 students). 

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Catering to unique student circumstances

Ms Coles, who has been leading Arethusa College since 2019, said Australia’s education system assumes young people have “a roof over their heads, food in their bellies, clothes on their backs and adults to care for them” 52 weeks of the year. 

“In our experience, while we have many wonderful caring families in our community who do just that, for some young people our college — our compassionate and caring staff and the familiar and safe surroundings of their campus — is their family,” she says. 

“Some of our young people experience homelessness, some live in residential care, and for about 30 per cent, the breakfast and lunch we provide daily at our campuses is their main source of nutritious food. 

“How in good conscience could we therefore close our college doors on these young people simply because the official school term was over, because that’s how school has always been done? We concluded that we couldn’t.” 

Ms Coles told EducationDaily that, “sometimes the holidays are when vulnerable young people need our college the most”.

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“That’s why we’re open now and will be each holidays – just in case,” she says.

Arethusa College Executive Principal Lisa Coles

“Principals and leaders working alongside support staff at our eight campuses over the Easter break have told me that young people have been dropping into most campuses. I love hearing this. At the Maroochydore campus four to five students have been coming in each day so far over the holiday break. Staff have taken some of them on an excursion to the local spit, prior to enrolling at Arethusa these students have not even left their homes. They now feel safe that they can come into school and are prepared to go on an excursion.”

At the school’s Deception Bay college, Ms Coles told EducationDaily young people have been supported by the campus’ student counsellor while other staff have been taking on home visits to support families during difficult times, including recovering from surgery.

“These students know they have a safe place to go, staffed by friendly and familiar faces who know them and their stories,” Ms Coles says.

“Keeping our campuses open shows our young people that they can depend on us, no matter what. This builds trust, belonging and acceptance which are so critical to maintaining a strong connection between students and their school.”

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Open door policy helps students stay safe

Ms Coles says Arethusa College’s eight campuses were staffed to remain open and accessible to students for 50 weeks of the year (excluding two weeks over the December-January break and for two days in July when staff undertook professional development) — 10 weeks more than the traditional 40-week school year.

“However, even over the brief period campuses close, our staff ensure students who need to access free meal services and wellbeing support know exactly where they are located and when they are open,’’ she says. 

During the holiday breaks, Arethusa College’s Spring Hill, Forest Lake and West End campuses are staffed by a minimum of two support staff, but sometimes up to eight. 

Students are free to come and go as they wish, however are encouraged to attend between 11am-1pm to participate in activities such as crafts, board games and watching movies. 

Arethusa College’s Spring Hill campus in the Brisbane CBD, which is easily accessible by public transport, usually has the largest number of students visiting during the holidays, according to Principal Debbie Morris, who says the campus can welcome up to five students a day, particularly during the Christmas holiday break. 

“We have students coming from all walks of life, and we try to make sure that we can create an inclusive environment that allows students to feel welcomed into school outside the traditional term dates,” Ms Morris says. 

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“We always have between four and eight employees on campus each day with at least one person from the leadership team here and this allows our students to maintain connections with as many staff as possible during the holidays.” 

Nurturing connections with school and students

Arethusa College West End Principal Kelly Barnes says support staff were more than willing to work during the school holidays to keep students connected to school. 

“For some of our students, home isn’t always the safest place for them to be during the holidays. Some might also experience trauma over the holiday break or have been kicked out of home, so it is important that they can still count on their school to welcome them with open arms during these times,” Ms Barnes says. 

“Students also like coming here during the holiday break because they can be around people they trust.” 

Similarly, Arethusa College Forest Lake Principal Eryn Grady says some students forged an even stronger relationship with their school by assisting around the campus. 

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“During one holiday break, one of our students came in regularly. Kids like him help us in different ways and find safety and security at our college,” Ms Grady says. 

“Some of our students live in residential accommodation so they become quite bored during the holidays and see this as a great opportunity to help around the campus and feel valued.” 

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]