Armenian `soup' has the ingredients to unite nations

13th March 2015 at 00:00
pound;83 million international school aims to promote world peace

Nestled between snow-covered mountains at the bottom of a steep, forested valley, Dilijan is blessed with an undeniably beautiful location.

But just as apparent in the Armenian town is poverty. Austere Communist-era blocks of flats are interspersed with ramshackle houses, exposed gas pipes and battered old Soviet cars.

In the past two years, an island of wealth and investment has sprung up in this unlikely location, in the form of a gleaming new $125 million (pound;83 million) school under the headship of John Puddefoot, former deputy head of Eton College.

Few locals will attend this state-of-the-art campus. It has been funded by the near-billion-dollar fortune of Ruben Vardanian, a banking tycoon turned philanthropist, partly because the Moscow-based Armenian wanted somewhere to send his two youngest children.

But their future schoolmates are unlikely to share such affluent backgrounds. Some will come from the poorest countries in the world, from families who cannot afford to give them pocket money, let alone pay school fees.

This is not the straightforward story of a boarding school designed to get rich kids into top universities.

This is the latest United World College (UWC), part of a global educational movement founded in South Wales more than half a century ago, with the lofty goal of promoting world peace.

Its roots go back to Atlantic College, an independent sixth-form boarding college on the Glamorgan coast, opened in 1962 by Kurt Hahn. Amid growing cold war tension, the German educationalist wanted to use education as a way of uniting the world.

Out of Atlantic College grew both the International Baccalaureate and a string of affiliated schools on five different continents, all based on Hahn's principles.

He believed that by schooling children from opposing countries together, they would go on to promote peace.

At the new school in Dilijan, which opened last autumn and is the 14th UWC, you can see those principles in action among the first students, who come from 48 different countries.

TES visited the day after heavy fighting resumed in Ukraine between government forces and Russian-backed rebels.

As the students gathered for a group discussion on the purpose of education, one of their teachers quietly pointed out that two students from the warring countries had sat down next to each other.

And alongside them were an Armenian and a Turk - students who grew up on opposite sides of the divide created by the 1915 Armenian genocide; an atrocity that still creates tensions a hundred years later.

The seating arrangements were not contrived, they were just friends who wanted to sit together. And that is exactly how a UWC is supposed to work. Asked how the school - which also has students from Gaza, Israel, Iran, Syria and Lebanon - copes when trouble flares up in such areas, headteacher Mr Puddefoot said: "If people live together they have to get on.

"It is more subtle than saying, `Let's have a seminar on conflict resolution.' We don't do that. We have found that the students themselves generate the conversation that is required.

"We simply show people that, even though they are from nations at loggerheads on a political level, they are human beings just like anybody else."

Mr Puddefoot added: "They don't just bring political differences. They also bring religious, cultural and socioeconomic differences. So it is an absolute soup of different perspectives, which we need to manage actively."

The soup is very carefully concocted. Each UWC decides the exact international balance of students it wants, and then turns to the UWC national committees in 147 countries to recruit and select them.

Admission is designed to be needs-blind: 63 of Dilijan's initial 96 students are on 100 per cent scholarships; most of the rest will have at least half their fees paid.

But to be admitted, the teenagers - who will have no choice over which UWC they are sent to - must be able to speak English, or be able pick it up quickly.

They need to be able to thrive in a strange country and have, as Mr Puddefoot puts it, "some sense of wanting the world to be a better place".

That comes over powerfully from the school's idealistic and articulate students.

"This college is making me a better human being," said Jady Sampaio de Araujo, a 17-year-old from Brazil. "Now when I hear about the Ukraine it has a name and a face. I know people, so when I hear about the conflict it touches my heart."

Co-founder and chair of governors Veronika Zonabend, the wife of Mr Vardanian, was originally inspired to create a utopian school after hearing a speech by Liverpudlian educationalist Sir Ken Robinson.

"He said, `Education is the key for the future, but the key is turned in the wrong direction'," Ms Zonabend recalled. "I agree that education doesn't need reforming. It needs a completely new approach."

The couple felt that Armenia offered more potential for this than more developed countries, and set out to open a genuinely international school - a perfect fit, they quickly realised, with the UWC movement.

No expense has been spared in turning their vision into reality. Boarding houses look like Swiss chalets, built with local materials to traditional Armenian designs.

The school itself - with roofs sculpted to merge with the valley floor - feels like an extremely high-end academy, complete with a very expensive-looking swimming pool.

One student described the campus as "over-fancy", and was concerned about how that would make local people feel.

But the foundation set up by the couple behind the school is also investing in the rest of Dilijan. It has already created more than 100 new jobs and is ensuring that the school remains active in the local community.

Ms Zonabend is unapologetic about the college's intake. "We are not an Armenian school," she said. "We are an international school in Armenia. I do not believe in double standards and the fact that I built this school for my kids is proof that I really believe in it."

Her staff believe in it, too. "It is very different from a girls' independent school in Surrey," said deputy head Sally Norris, who came, via Atlantic College, from just such a school. "There is no shared culture and assumptions, so people have to listen to each other.

"Everyone looks at things through a lens and here you learn what your own lens is."

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