Getting in the swing of Scottish culture

23rd July 2010 at 01:00
Sandcastles and golf are among the traditions that students from more than 40 countries are sampling at a summer school in St Andrews

Teeing off at St Andrews on Open week proves too much for the German lad in yellow shorts and striped red shirt. He pulls out his driver and sets himself up assuredly enough, then hits a horrendous slice that swoops into gorse and sand, 50 yards off the fairway.

But the fluent commentary on his own shot that young Max provides demonstrates good progress with the academic component of his studies at the International Summer School of Scotland - even if his elective activity needs more work.

"I've noticed golfers are often very confident," says Jen Munro, director and founder five years ago of the summer school that this year hosts 300 students aged 13 to 18 in two three-week sessions. "A lot of the kids we get are fairly confident to start with and our job is to build on that.

"But we do get students who aren't confident, especially with their English. We've had kids from over 50 different countries. At first, they often think they sound funny when they speak English. Then they realise so does everybody else, so their confidence grows.

"I remember one adorable 13-year-old from Japan, whom I tried to talk to on her first day. I asked what elective she was taking and she just looked up at me and said `Naoko'."

But by the end of three weeks, Naoko was chatting happily at the parents' reception to counsellors and teachers, while her mother thanked Ms Munro profusely.

"She kept bowing and telling me how it had changed her life. Last year, I got an email saying Naoko was applying to Le Rosey (in Switzerland), one of the best boarding schools, and asking if I would write a recommendation. She sent me her essay, about how she wanted to continue in the international environment she had first found at summer school. It was written in beautiful English. She starts in September."

The attractions of St Andrews for an international summer school are obvious, especially on a day like today, when the sun shines from a blue sky and tourists in loud shirts mingle in the streets with serious young students at Scotland's oldest university. The town, with its ancient walls, green spaces and ruined castle and cathedral, is their campus.

"It's such a safe environment for young people," says Ms Munro. "There are just three main streets, so if some students don't want to play games after class, we'll let them go for a coffee at Starbucks with their friends. It gives them a bit of independence, lets them feel they're having a real university experience."

The university is the base for the programme, with students staying in the halls of residence, using the library for studies and attending courses around its various locations. English language is just one option in the academic component of the summer school. There are also electives in the afternoon: golf, theatre, tennis, film or art. Students take one academic course and one elective.

"In addition, we organise a host of cultural experiences, from building sandcastles on the beach to shopping on Princes Street in Edinburgh," says Ms Munro. "We put them into clans for competitive activities after classes, which is one of the things I learnt when I worked in summer schools in the States. Kids start off sceptical, but before long it's `Go McGregor!'"

The other academic options are debate, youth leadership, creative writing and two courses in support of the International Baccalaureate, one preparatory, the other advanced. "I'm a real advocate of the IB," says Ms Munro.

Robert Duncan, a graduate of St Andrews who now teaches at an international school in Vietnam, is in his second summer of delivering the IB extended essay course. He says: "We teach research and study skills, structuring, presentation, public speaking - all the skills we had to teach ourselves when I went to university. That's one of the strengths of the International Baccalaureate. Kids who have done it enter university with a head start."

Students come to the extended essay class at very different stages, he explains, so individual targets are set on the first day, from compiling and reading relevant sources to producing a first draft: "We write an academic report on each of them that goes to their school. It is intensive. But it's a great experience for students and teachers. We eat three meals a day with students and get to know them well. There are a lot of tears at the end."

Setting an upper limit on the number of students from any country makes the summer school genuinely international, says Ms Munro. There are young people from 41 countries, ranging from Australia, Austria and Azerbaijan all the way to Slovenia, South Korea, Turkey and Ukraine. "We cap it at 15 from one country, out of the 150 on each of our two three-week schools. We also mix nationalities in group activities and ask everyone to speak English."

Breaking down barriers and helping them learn about different cultures is the aim. "One girl from the States told me she had never met anyone from an Arab nation before and, because of the news, she thought they were all terrorists. `Then I find myself sitting next to this guy from Saudi Arabia,' she told me. `He is now my best friend. So I'm going home to tell everyone that we've got it wrong.'"

Inside the students' union, where several sessions of theatre and film electives are delivered, students are learning to get it right. Eyes take time to adapt from the bright summer sun of the street, so the young people in the hall seem to be knocking lumps out of each other. It's an illusion. This is stage combat, not the real thing, led by guest tutor Andrew Pecerario - an American fight director whose credits include ninja warrior in the blockbuster film Batman Begins.

Students are learning from him how to fall, roll, slap, kick, grab, choke and pull people's hair, in such a way that it looks painful but isn't. They're loving it, says Camille Yung, 17, from Hong Kong. "You learn how to fake throwing a punch and how to make the sound when it lands. It's about timing, co-ordination, eye contact and concentration. Once you get to know each other, you work really well together."

That is the whole secret of summer school, says Ms Munro. "People are sending their most prized possessions to us from all over the world, so we have to look after them. It's a huge responsibility and if I didn't worry about the kids I would be in the wrong job.

"One girl got ill as soon as she stepped off the plane. She's on the mend now, but I'm still visiting her in hospital every day and talking to her parents. The only reason doing this job doesn't keep me awake at night is that we work so hard to keep them safe."

Drugs and alcohol are banned. Boys and girls are well separated at night and developing friendships are monitored, while recognising that making new friends is an important aspect of summer school. Almost half the 36 staff employed over the summer are counsellors, who act as role models and provide pastoral care.

Each place at the summer school costs pound;3,100, and the return rate is high. "Around 25 per cent of our students have been with us before, some several times."

Just three staff run the school most of the year. "But planning, marketing, talking to parents, organising activities, and getting more than 300 people here at the right time is a full-time job. We recruit people for the summer, and one thing that distinguishes us is the quality of our staff. All our teachers are highly qualified and experienced."

Getting a summer school right and constantly improving means listening to students, she says. "Besides feedback forms, I chat to them and ask how it can be improved. People have been telling me we should expand, and next year we will also be opening up at a school near Edinburgh.

"But at first my feeling was to go slowly and make sure the model works. I don't want to have more than 150 students at a time. It's a nice number that lets people really get to know each other. Any more and it's about making money, rather than providing a quality experience."

Back at the Dukes golf course, high above St Andrews, where the clubhouse looks out over town and bay, a tall man dressed in black follows young Max to the teeing area. "It isn't difficult teaching these youngsters," says Ayden Roberts-Jones, the club professional. "They are very keen and St Andrews attracts a lot of international visitors, so we are used to working with them.

"You have to take account of the students' different levels, and try to improve the better players' course management while teaching basic skills to the beginners."

He steps up to the tee and smacks a 4-iron well over 200 yards down the middle, while Max and his colleagues try hard to look unimpressed, and don't quite succeed. Then they all stride off down the fairway, each student taking a different direction at first, but heading for the same goal in the end.


Returning student Daniel Flowers, 16, takes a short break from working with his colleagues in the carpeted comfort of St Regulus Hall to talk about the summer school experience.

"One thing I particularly liked last year was the Scottish people. They're the nicest of anywhere I've been," he says. "You go to some countries and they think Americans are arrogant jackasses. I never get that here, and I've been to Scotland several times."

Surprisingly perhaps for a native of Houston - which its citizens say has two seasons, summer and January - Daniel also likes our weather. "I'm a fan of the rain," he smiles.

As a student of strategy and an aspiring US Marine, Daniel has been studying a mix of the serious and recreational. "Last year I learnt to play golf at St Andrews. It is the place to learn. I also took the youth leadership course, which I really enjoyed."

Getting to know 30 to 40 people from a wide variety of countries is a big part of the appeal, he says. "I like learning new things and meeting new people from different cultures. They are great guys and girls.

"This year I'm doing film in the afternoon and debate in the morning. One of my sisters came to the summer school here before me, which is how I heard about it. I have four sisters in all."

He smiles. "It is great practice for debate."


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