Total immersion

Could intensive English-language summer schools offer any lessons to independent schools looking to integrate international students?

It is 9 o’clock at night when my phone beeps politely and informs me I have text message. I click it open and smile to myself. It’s from Sergey, my Russian friend, a whirling dervish of energy, eccentricity and globe-trotting tales. He’s not often in town so after a pleading explanation to my wife, who rolls her eyes and agrees, I set out to the pub where we always meet for a couple of beers.

The thing I like about Sergey is that it always feels as though he’s never been away and yet he always brings something new. After our usual conversations about mutual friends, Russian literature and politics, I ask him what he’s been up to. He fixes me with an enthusiastic eye and begins to tell me of an English-language summer school he’s been teaching at in Latvia. Apparently, it’s quite a place.

If your school is lucky enough to run its own summer school, then congratulations, economic stability is yours. Every year thousands of teenagers flood into the UK to spend a couple of weeks apparently learning English, meeting other teenagers from around the world and being driven around the UK’s cultural hot spots on coaches staffed by overtired university students who thought they were going to get an easy summer job. They will return home with perhaps a few more words of English than they had before, a whole new cohort of friends on Facebook and a vast collection of selfies taken at places that they can’t remember but looked nice at the time.

London Gates’ Summer School is somewhat different. The location is utterly irrelevant (it was chosen for its ease of access for Russians, both geographically and politically). What matters is that the young students are away from home and their normal every day routines. Once at the site, there is a rigorously enforced ‘English only’ rule from morning until night. Students are always in groups and accompanied by a teacher from the moment the day starts at 9am until they go to bed at 11pm. Every day is built around a different theme, such as economics or linguistics, with an array of complex and demanding challenges. The children are often still solving logic puzzles late at night and – don’t forget – this is all in English. In addition, over the two-week duration they somehow find time to rehearse a play too: this year it’s ‘Charlie and The Chocolate Factory’. There is no doubt that this is the hardest summer school I’ve ever heard of.

The whole camp is run by The London Gates Educational Group, a chain of schools whose intention is to provide a top British educational experience in Moscow and other Russian-speaking communities around the world. The schools employ only the brightest and best teachers, with the intention of inspiring and leading small groups of eager young people to the dizzy heights of academic excellence.

It is the brain child of Yulia Desiatnikova, a practising psychologist with a passion for learning who divides her time between London, Moscow and Tel Aviv. A pioneer of private education in Russia following perestroika, Desiatnikova also founded the first elite youth club in Israel. It would seem that her philosophies on education, whether or not you agree, are based upon considerable personal experience. Whilst it is somewhat at odds with the community ethos and discrete approach to teaching and learning that underpins many independent schools in the UK and abroad, there is something rather fascinating about such an uncompromising approach. It leaves me thinking about the possibilities for areas of student development, such as subject revision and citizenship, which often lack the intensity in schools to have a sustained effect. Surely the idea of a subject specific ‘revision camp’ has been done somewhere before?

Last month, I wrote a piece on the integration of international students and the immense challenge it poses to schools. Could something along the lines of London Gates’ Summer School be a part of the solution? Many new arrivals to these shores are reluctant to speak or contribute for a number of reasons, but if they were given little or no choice, what would happen? If students from abroad were asked to arrive a week early and immersed in both the English language and UK approaches to learning, how well would they integrate when the other domestic students turned up? Would they bond with them after having had cultural barriers broken down over the previous week or would such an intense experience be ultimately counter-productive by bonding all the ‘internationals’ together through shared experience? Of course, there is also the added problem of students phoning home with tales of an academic boot camp and those precious recruits whom your marketing departments have worked all year to bring to the table are not seen for dust after Christmas.

I ask Sergey, why his enthusiasm? He’s not exactly the most conformist of individuals I know, so what possesses him to be so warm in his discussion of an intensive, immersive programme which pushes these kids to their absolute limit? His response is simple. “The kids love it!” he tells me. “They didn’t want to leave at the end and they’re still swapping stories on Facebook even now.”

He shows me countless photos from each of the days of relaxed, happy and engaged individuals studiously engaged in tasks or running around, having the time of their lives. It may sound strange to think of young people enjoying being stretched, especially over their summer holidays, but could this be a kind of answer to the perennial problem of the international student who arrives at the doorstep without much in the way of English? Too often, we give these students space from the school culture at the start or encourage them to seek out others of their own nationality for solidarity. I would be interested to see if an intensive week for international students at the start of the year, where they are completely immersed in English without recourse to their own language, would work. If you’re interested in trying it out, or have done already, I would love to hear from you.

Author Ted Underwood has over 13 years’ experience in international education as a teacher, manager and marketer. He is now schools’ director at Oak Tree International, a student recruitment and consultancy company for independent schools W: E: T: #TS Underwood


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