Nestled between the jungle-covered hills of a national park and acres of rubber plantations, UWCT is a breath of fresh air for families used to hectic and cramped city life. The greenspace was one of the big attractions for Benjamin and Denise Gilmartin—parents of Tess and Lexi— who left Hong Kong three years ago. “Everywhere we’d send our kids to school [in Hong Kong], they’d have to play football in an enclosed gym. You can’t see anything green.” At UWCT, students walk outdoors to get to the cafeteria, the library, the gymnasium. They run around and climb aboard the “pirate ship”, a large bamboo play structure in the middle of the campus. “The pace of life is slower and calmer, there is far less competitive tension and little to be stressed about, the air is clean, we have ample opportunity to spend time outdoors with our kids. Fresh fruits and vegetables are bountiful, delicious and cheap,” explains Denise Gilmartin
Built on the foundation of the International Baccalaureate programme, the school aims to help students ages 2-18 years develop a “Good Heart, Balanced Mind, and Healthy Body”. As part of the United World College family, an international network of 18 schools, it shares the mission of making education a force to unite people, nations, and cultures for peace and a sustainable future. Over 60 diploma level scholarship students from around the world call the school home for two years, studying, sharing and training to become the next generation of global leaders. Denise notices the difference those students bring to the campus. “I love the community of students. The bigger kids get involved with the little kids. The secondary kids come into nursery and have this personal connection. You have kids of different ages integrating well and playing well together.”
The Gilmartins attribute that enthusiasm to the school’s success in fostering a real love of learning and developing the holistic child. “We liked that the school was strong academically, despite academics not being its sole focus, and the fact that social-emotional learning and mindfulness was a key pillar in their educational approach. All of these factors are important in molding our children to be kind human beings, to be adaptable, critical thinkers, to be ready to take on the challenges that will be thrown at them in a rapidly changing world,” added Ben and Denise.
Bettina Farrimond discovered UWCT’s unique approach to learning much earlier on. Eight years ago, she and her husband Sam moved their family of four kids to Phuket. While reducing costs and living a healthier lifestyle were factors, the school and its inquiry-based IB programme was the main draw.
“I’m German, and I want my kids to be able to go to European universities if they want. The IB programme is best suited for that,” says Farrimond. “I think that the students have very good chances to get into good universities and get scholarships. And while the academics matter, Farrimond also appreciates the quality of life they have in Phuket, especially since they live close to UWCT. Her kids can bike or walk to school on their own, and she thinks living a quieter island life is helping them enjoy childhood longer. “If I compare Finlo (age 14) to his friends in Hong Kong, he doesn’t need to show off. The acceptance is fantastic here. There’s no bullying.” Farrimond’s daughter, Zoe, is 12 now and still not into makeup like her friends in Hong Kong. “There’s no pressure to do anything like that. In Hong Kong schools, at 13 everyone has a boyfriend. I don’t have a problem with it, but I prefer if [it happens] a bit later.”
Angela Ward, who moved to Phuket most recently, admits that it took time to make the adjustment from their larger, slick, academically-driven Hong Kong school to the more intimate UWCT experience. “You don’t understand the differences that matter at first,” she says, but she knew they couldn’t go wrong with smaller class sizes and more individual attention. “It’s a more relaxed, boutique experience, which is what I think kids need at this age.”
Having access to Thanyapura, a world class health and wellness centre connected to the school, helps on the good health front. Parents get free membership as part of the UWCT package. Beyond good health, the move has brought positive changes to all the families. For the Gilmartins, moving to Phuket allowed them to achieve their goal of leaving their Hong Kong finance careers. “Phuket has given us the space (literally and figuratively) to live healthier lives.”
by Toti Allen
UWC Thailand and neighbouring Thanyapura Health & Sport Resort are nestled in the foothills of a National Park.