Educational travel design is one of the core services we offer and one that we take great pride in. When we receive positive feedback from a school we’ve worked with, we like to get a little more insight on what it is we did right so that a) we can continue doings so and b) keep improving our services wherever possible. After receiving a glowing review from Martin Foakes, Head of Outdoor Education at Tanglin Trust School (or simply Tanglin), of the educational trips we’d designed for the school, we interviewed him to find out what made working with us such a positive experience.
Not long before the pandemic halted global travel, Discova had formed a new relationship with the long-respected Tanglin, a British international school based in Singapore. The nearly 100-year-old institution has an exceptional reputation in Asia, with its student body of about 2 800 students working towards A Level and IB (International Baccalaureate) qualifications. Students excel at Tanglin and the curriculum is designed to engage them in innovative, creative thinking, and to provide them with a dynamic world view and a respect for the world around them.
We wanted to know why this highly regarded school chose to work with us and what students gained from the experiences on their Discova Educational Travel (DET) tours.
As part of its all-encompassing curriculum, Tanglin prides itself on providing formative Outdoor Education opportunities for its students, and that means lots of trips – up to 80 international ones per year, in fact. One such trip was a regular tour of Vietnam for the school’s Year 10 group, which had been hosted by a large school travel company for 10 years. When Martin Foakes came into his role of Head of Outdoor Education, he wanted to switch gears and change the objective of the tour.
“If we’re going off-site it really needs to not be just another academic fieldtrip, it needs to be experiential. […] I wanted to run a Vietnam trip which was based on sustainability and service learning [with a company that would actually live up to what they claimed]. We’ve seen with the educational side of Discova that they’re definitely able to deliver in terms of sustainability and creating a cultural experience.”
Other reputable schools had good things to say about their experiences with us, so via word of mouth, Martin had gained an impression of our educational travel offerings that he felt he could trust.
Together, Martin and our Educational Travel Team began building a program that would incorporate his goals for the students’ educational experience. What had basically been a sightseeing tour provided by Tanglin’s previous Vietnam host company, was transformed into an immersive program with Discova that provided the authentic community interactions, sustainability and holistic experiential learning that Tanglin was craving.
From personal meet and greets, initial program proposals and many emails, to Martin flying over to Vietnam to experience a condensed version of the proposed tour in 2 days, all details were carefully thought out and communicated.
Before the pandemic, Martin was able to do destination visits and risk assessments before school tours actually took place. Together with our team, he walked through the Vietnam trip and inspected the hotels, met the families of the homestays and got an overview of the different activities the students would experience.
“We found Discova to be really proactive in the [design] process, and Phuong (Phuong Vu Lan is our brilliant DET Assistant Operations Team Leader who sat in on the interview) is really good at emailing back and forth and keeping in touch [to this day]”, Martin pointed out.
Martin was, most importantly, looking to design an itinerary with us that would provide students with transformational experiences and opportunities to develop greater independence and resilience. The tour may not have been luxurious, but it brought students closer to “a side of Vietnam that other tour groups rarely, if ever, get to experience”, Martin found. Discova was there to provide the adventure, with the assurance of safety and 24-hour support that a school trip necessitates.
That brings us to that critical element of health and safety. For both parents and teachers alike, knowing that children are well looked after and in safe hands on our educational trips is essential. Martin has expressed that Tanglin feels completely confident that the students’ safety is Discova’s main priority during any trip (and it really is). He’s praised our “exemplary attention to detail” both in planning and execution, and our team’s consistency in always being on-hand when needed.
This was especially true during the school’s most recent trip to Vietnam with Discova, just before the pandemic. The student group had been placed in a relatively remote location, when one of the children suddenly became ill. We were available immediately to arrange medical care and to reorganise the itinerary and accommodation accordingly.
Tying into this, he was also particularly impressed by the guides that accompanied student groups on these trips. The guides were from the local communities themselves. “They were incredibly well-trained and helpful, and they were able to build a really good relationship with teachers who were leading the groups, very quickly. The quality of the people in-country that were working directly with the students was impressive.” Our guides’ extensive ChildSafe training and awareness of safeguarding was, from the start, a huge draw factor for Tanglin and why they were so confident that their students were in good hands.
Martin acknowledges that there will always be uncontrollable factors (like a student’s sudden illness) during trips like these, but that the response to them is what can be controlled. In the face of the unpredictable, his priority is to respond calmly and sensibly. “A big part of that […] is that I rely on Discova to provide ‘back-up’”, he notes. What he really appreciated was our in-destination expertise and that, as a result, we could respond quickly to the unplanned.
Martin says he’s often seen the impact these trips have had in informal contexts, when students excitedly retell their experiences to others during class or when certain attitudes and behaviours change.
The effect of one such trip was particularly ‘close to home’. Discova had designed an art trip to Luang Prabang, Laos, for the school’s senior Art and Design students, which in his recommendation letter Martin had described as “an amazing combination of community interactions and opportunities to discover how some of the local artisans and talented artists work in this incredible landscape”. His daughter seemed to have agreed: “You could see in her artwork [later on] that she had been inspired”. He is also convinced that the trip was a major contributing factor to her getting the highest mark possible in her A level Art exam.
Martin notes that the students themselves, especially the younger ones, may not always be aware of the effect the trips have had on them, but he sees the changes in the way they approach their day-to-day activities and in how much they grow up and build resilience afterwards.
Tanglin Trust School has set its sights on applying greater sustainability in its practices and school trips. Martin emphasises that the school’s trips with Discova had precisely this sustainability focus, and gave students an intimate understanding of the communities they spent time with. Students learnt how communities like those they visited in Vietnam provide for themselves sustainably. Hands-on, immersive experiences showed them what sustainable water supply and the farm-to-table process looks like, and what it really means to provide food for yourself.
“[Students] could see the supply chain and how people live, and could also see the challenges people had.” Martin felt that Discova made a genuine effort to design itineraries that incorporated sustainability and authentic, immersive experiences. It’s that authenticity too, that had stood out to him. For the outdoor trips that he organises, this element is incredibly important to Martin and he found that we delivered on this better than most other outdoor educational travel providers.
When asked if he felt that Discova had made the effort to get to know the school and its values, Martin again highlighted that the frequent communication, through all the numerous emails, phone calls, and especially the in-person meet-ups, gave him the impression that we really tried to understand what the school needed.
The fact that we have continued to operate throughout the pandemic also continues to foster confidence in Tanglin. Martin feels reassured in working with us in the future because he sees that Discova has retained its capacity and scale. With that comes reliability and trust.
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