How many World Challenge expeditions have you been on?
I have completed 10 (Mongolia, Namibia, Venezuela, Tanzania, Zambia & Malawi, Cambodia & Thailand, Nepal, Argentina, the Silk Route and Ethiopia) and have one more planned to India this year (2015).
Why did you choose for your students to go on a World Challenge rather than using another expedition company?
The school has worked with World Challenge since the late 1990s and we have been very happy with the wide variety of expeditions that the school has participated in over the years; I have seen the company evolve over the years, making improvements along the way. They look after their School Leaders very well, supporting us in getting the expeditions off the ground and then creating a bespoke expedition according to the students’ wish list from their planning meeting.
The brand is well known and trusted within the school, especially parents of potential Challengers. Safety is the main concern of parents and as this is always at the forefront of everything World Challenge does, their concerns are addressed.
The school also took part in a disaster scenario a few years ago to test out the Operations Centre procedures and other associated issues such as handling the media and dealing with parents and the school. The experience was very reassuring. In a nutshell they are the lead providers with a proven track record so I see no need to look for an alternative.
How did your students embrace the build-up stage (fundraising etc.)?
The fundraising is always the most daunting part of the student experience but representatives from World Challenge come in at an early stage to run workshops on how to raise the funds.
We also bring in past Challengers returning from expedition to share their ideas and reassure students that it is achievable. In school we also do group fundraising to enable us to cover transport costs for the practice expedition and travel to the airport. This builds experience and motivation.
The World Challenge Fundraising Team at Head Office are also available to help individuals with ideas and many students take part in World Challenge fundraisers such as the abseils and sponsored runs.
What did you as a teacher get out of the expeditions?
A completely unique lifetime experience! The foremost thing is to facilitate the development of the students and open their eyes to the world beyond their easy lives in the UK. To see a team grow in confidence and rely less and less on the adult leaders is magic – the confident, enthusiastic young people we bring back can be so different to the disorganised, inexperienced students we take away.
Many parents say that their child has changed for the better, appreciating their homes and families far more. Students still come and tell me that their expedition was life-changing.
For me it is an opportunity to see parts of the world that I would never experience as a tourist. To live in a remote village and help our students paint a school or teach English, to walk with a local guide through wild countryside or dig out irrigation ditches ready for the dry season are incredibly worthwhile – who would spend their summer holidays at home when you can do that?
What has been your favourite expedition and why?
Such a difficult question – all expeditions are unique and have their highs and lows.
My first – Mongolia 2003 – I had never been to such a remote place: to trek with the nomads and their horses and then be invited into their homes (Gers) to take salty tea and airag (fermented mares' milk) was an honour. The kindness they showed to us was heart-warming. We learnt so much about living simply off the land and I am still in awe of their ability to survive each winter where the temperatures drop below -50 degrees.
The last expedition – the Silk Route (Uzbekistan & Kyrgyzstan) – was pretty special too. Two contrasting countries: first Kyrgyzstan with its wonderful unspoilt mountains (snowy 5000m plus peaks and glaciers) and immense fresh water (Lake Issyk-Kul); then travelling across Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan to experience the marvellous blue tiled mosques and madrasahs of the legendary cities of Samarkand and Bukhara.
The most emotional experience however was in Cambodia when our team listened one evening to a first-hand account of the Pol Pot Genocide – what an amazing learning experience for all of us.
How did you feel the students benefited? Did they come back better people?
In practical terms they gain so many life skills: managing a budget, organising their own transport and accommodation, time management, learning to cook using basic ingredients they have sourced themselves and then of course experiencing leadership.
Every day a student leader must take charge practising their communication skills and delegating tasks amongst the rest of the team. At the end of the day they practise the art of review and reflection, feeding back to each other the things that went well and what could have been improved.
Did you always feel as though you and the students were in safe hands – balancing risk against challenge?
The Expedition Leader comes with all the relevant qualifications, experience and training but once we are on expedition the adults act as a team with a constant eye on the activities of the students.
Forward planning and use of the Leader's Handbook and itineraries mapped out for us, together with precise risk assessments, help us manage what risks there are.
The best expeditions are always those where students have to make the greatest number of decisions and they do not have everything mapped out for them.
The fact that we always have a satellite phone to talk to the Ops Room, if necessary, and also a nominated In-Country Agent, means that should there be a problem advice is at hand.
Would you recommend other schools to get involved with World Challenge and why?
It is the icing on the cake as far as extra-curricular adventure activities go. Students that sign up must however be prepared to get fit and want to camp, live out doors and take on a physical challenge.
Young people today live very sheltered lives really with many parents shadowing their every move and it is a great opportunity for young people to learn to manage risk for themselves, learn resilience when the going is tough and experience what it is like to make a small difference to the lives of others.
It is also a great way to prepare for a Gap Year travelling, going to university away from friends and family and becoming self-sufficient.
The school benefits from the leadership skills students hone during the programme – most of our students go at the end of Year 12 so come back for their final year taking up senior student leadership positions, e.g. Head Boy and Head Girl or House Captains.
The students also run the annual Stay-Awake-a-Thon for Year Seven and Eight students as a fundraiser – the younger children are sponsored to stay awake all night in school on a Friday night and the Challengers entertain them for 12 hours in return. The younger students, many of whom have only just joined the school, say it is one of the best school events.