Boats, caves and reindeer routes: education in unexpected places

Sara Martin
Sara Martin

The school classroom is an odd sort of place. Where else in life would you find a space that’s all at once a designated building site for character, a training ground for social interaction, and a fountain of the knowledge one needs to take on adult life?

In a week, the average classroom witnesses a smorgasbord of human emotion: joy, rage, excitement, frustration, triumph – to say nothing of what the pupils go through, too.

Recently, the classroom has been placed on the frontline in tackling extremist ideology and radicalisation. But it is also the place where I lost my first tooth, picked up important lessons about death (RIP David the Hamster), and discovered a burning ambition to become a unicorn trainer researcher at The Key.

There are times when it seems nothing short of madness to cram all this within the four walls of a classroom. The fact that so many schools pull it off with panache, particularly when 35% of school buildings have been reported unfit for purpose, is to the great credit of our education workforce. School trips are one way of unleashing the learning experience beyond the classroom door, but there are a number of schools out there taking things to the next level. Into a circus ring, for example.

In a circus ring

The Mobile Mini-Circus for Children (MMCC) and its partner, the Afghan Educational Children’s Circus (AECC), are using circus skills to empower young people across Afghanistan. MMCC/AECC uses circus arts as a tool for “teaching social skills, overcoming trauma and developing … the ability to take responsibility”, with the aim of bringing about positive social change for Afghanistan’s children.

In addition to providing a centre in Kabul for 120 students, professional artists spread messages about health, landmine awareness, peace and the importance of education across the country through fun performances and workshops for children.

The benefits of circus to young people have also been seen in the UK, where the Belfast Community Circus School’s work has led to reports of improvements to disaffected pupils’ behaviour, attendance, and literacy rates.

You know that clown that every class has? They may just be on to something.

On a boat

When it comes to being prepared for extreme weather conditions, it doesn’t take much to outshine the UK. An aggressive breeze can be enough to bring the country’s infrastructure to a screeching halt. So you will be as impressed as I was to hear of Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha, an organisation in north-western Bangladesh, whose response to severe flooding is to take the education system afloat.

During the annual monsoon season, the children in the Chalanbeel regions attend ‘floating schools’. Boats collect pupils from riverside stops before mooring up and delivering basic primary education to classes of up to 30 pupils per boat.

Solar-powered classrooms provide books, electronic resources, and evening classes for working children. Some boats even house libraries where all members of the community, including women and senior citizens, can access education.

The nativity play just became a whole lot more interesting.

The nativity play just became a whole lot more interesting.

On a reindeer migration route

If you’re the type of school leader who’s more comfortable with solid ground, a classroom on a Siberian reindeer migration route could be your cup of tea.

Nomadic schools were introduced to allow children of herding tribes in Siberia to stay with their families as they herd reindeer along migration routes. The schools, which are held in tents, combine mainstream education with tuition in the language and skills that will enable the pupils’ indigenous cultures to survive.

Teachers move with the camp, delivering lessons in local conditions. The schools are in need of more trained teachers; those who find camping in British summertime hard work need not apply.

In a cave

As much as we all love a reindeer, Zhongdong Cave School may appeal more to those who appreciate a solid roof overhead. The people of Miao village in Guizhou, one of the most deprived provinces in China, made admirable use of available resources by transforming a cave into a primary school.

Natural teaching aids such as bats, lizards and visible rock strata lent themselves to a hands-on curriculum, while the superb acoustics proved ideal for choir practice.

Sadly, the school was closed in 2011 after a government education spokesperson apparently protested that “China is not a society of cavemen”. A short-sighted attitude, in my opinion, as I’m sure I’d know an awful lot more about rock strata (i.e. what it is) if I’d learnt about it from a cave rather than a textbook.

It’s deeply encouraging to see how education takes root in unexpected places, often despite enormous odds. As September approaches, will any of these classrooms inspire your preparations for the new academic year?*

*The Key does not accept liability for damage caused to school buildings by circus stunts, flooding, Siberian livestock or any other antics arising as a consequence of this post.


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