Bhutan to Bosnia: life in a ‘nomadic’ boarding school

16th October 2015 at 00:00
It’s a model of education to ‘aspire’ to, Richard Branson says

Archery in Bhutan, snowshoeing in Sweden, discussing politics with Noam Chomsky and visiting a camel fair in India – this is just an average year at the world’s first “nomadic boarding school”.

Students who want to learn about the world at first hand and experience different cultures all year round need look no further than the Think Global School (TGS), which offers teenagers the chance to tour the globe as part of their education. The only downside is the fees of £52,000 a year.

The school is the brainchild of Joann McPike, a photographer and former professional blackjack player. She established TGS because she wanted her own child’s education to be informed by real-life experiences.

“It’s like the Victorian period, where you travelled through Europe as your education and when you wanted to learn about art history you went to Italy,” Ms McPike tells TES. “That’s pretty much what it is.”

The school, which is in its sixth year, has been enthusiastically endorsed by billionaire businessman Sir Richard Branson (pictured, inset), who recently called for every 16-year-old to be given a gap year to travel the world.

Cultural capital

TGS students live and study with their teachers in three different countries a year. They attend the school for three years, experiencing “a minimum of nine different cultures, nine different ways of thinking, nine different ways of seeing the world”, Ms McPike says.

Last year, students travelled to New Zealand, Costa Rica and Greece. This year, they will spend time in Sweden before heading to Bosnia and Herzegovina and then Italy.

“I told the children at the very beginning: ‘You are an educational and social experiment. I don’t know if you’re going to come out as the most well-adjusted young adults or you’re all going to need psychiatrists’,” Ms McPike recalls. “We have had two graduating classes and they are the most spectacular kids.”

The school caters for 15- to 18-year-olds and currently has 48 students from 23 different countries, all following the International Baccalaureate. “But we augment that curriculum with the history, the culture, food, sport, whatever makes that society special,” Ms McPike says.

Students are accompanied by their teachers and by staff who look after the travel and accommodation arrangements. The group sometimes live in a hotel or stay at a boarding school in the host country. Classrooms can involve traditional desks and blackboards or hot-desking in a city office.

“We don’t just take them to easy, pretty places,” Ms McPike says. “They were in a boarding school in India and they were miserable because it was hard. They had to abide by the school rules, which meant they had to have air between them at all times.”

Despite the eye-watering fees, she is adamant that the school is not for “rich kids, but for the right kids”. It operates a “needs-blind” admissions system and, thanks to a “delicious scholarship programme” that Ms McPike set up after divorcing her commodities-trading husband, some students pay nothing.

Real-life learning

Sir Richard highlighted the nomadic school to TES, describing it as a perfect example of how education should function.

“I’ve heard what the students from Joann’s school have experienced, and they said in their conventional school they learned their times tables, they were crammed with stuff and they thought they were clever,” he said. “But now they have sat in a jungle doing a 5,000-word essay with creepy-crawlies all over them and they say they’ve learned from real life.

“I know not every kid in school can do this, but it’s that kind of thing we can aspire to.”

Ms McPike says the idea behind her school is not to provide an “education per se – it’s learning through travel”, with the aim of encouraging young people to “change the world”.

“They have had experiences they can relate to real-world problems – they’ve seen the world,” she adds. “We took them to the world’s biggest camel fair in Pushkar. They’ve seen the dirty streets of India. They’ve snorkelled on the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, so they have an interest and empathy with the ocean.

“They were in the Galapagos Islands. They know about deforestation because we show it to them. So it just becomes real to them. And you know what’s amazing? It makes them want to do something to change the world.”

Read about life for pupils at a more conventional boarding school on pages 24-28

Roaming free

How a “nomadic” boarding school works:

Students at Think Global School travel through three countries a year for three years.

Annual fees are $79,000 (£52,000) but there is a generous scholarship programme.

The most recent round of admissions attracted 300 applications for about 40 places.

The application process involves interviews with students and their parents, as well as an essay.

Students visit countries such as Australia, China, Ecuador, Tanzania and Costa Rica.

Speakers include linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky and Reza Pahlavi, whose father was the last shah of Iran.

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