"If you happen to visit 16-year-old student Hrshikesh Bodas' house in Prabhadevi in Mumbai, you will find a two-year-old certificate from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the United States granting him the privilege of approaching them for further studies, should he fancy a career in the field. The certificate was issued after Bodas' 10-day sojourn at the NASA camp in Alabama, where he learned to scuba dive at zero gravity, experiment with rockets, communicate in space and provide medical treatment during an emergency. "It was just like the film Gravity," he
explains animatedly. The whole
trip cost his parents a little over
Grade 11 student Akshat Rajan of Mumbai's École Mondiale World School also went to the NASA space centre and school in Houston two years ago, where they learned to make rover prototypes for Mars and build a structure under water (to recreate the feeling of working in space) for an hour. "We also created a rocket that was actually launched. It was all very hands-on," says the teenager.
School excursions to the local museum or park have already become the stuff of grandma's tales. It's no longer about bonding with friends over a bag of salty potato chips on a bumpy bus ride to the city planetarium. Instead, schools have begun to offer to send students (some as young as 7) to a host of foreign destinations like Singapore, Thailand and Switzerland among others.
World citizens of tomorrow
In a bid to make their children confident and independent, some parents even volunteer to send their young kids to summer camps abroad. Take the case of Indore-based Arnav Mittal. While most 10-year-olds are happy to join Taekwondo classes during summer breaks, Arnav decided to push the limits and opted to ski in the Alps. Though the trip cost about Rs3 lakh, Arnav's mother feels it's worth the international exposure and confidence her son has gained at such an early age. As for Arnav, he feels he has become less hesitant about trying out new things.
Bibi Rani, director, operations for Les Elfes in India, says the camp has about 400 children signing up from India each year, including the Ambani kids among others. "Parents now want their children to be global citizens. We don't pamper any of the kids irrespective of their background. Skiing teaches you to be a true sport. You fall, you get up again and learn. That is a life lesson."
Education experts and activists are, however, far from impressed. President of the PTA United Forum Dr Arundhati Chavan explains that she has received complaints from parents about schools making such tours compulsary. "Kids whose parents cannot afford it feel dejected. This increases social, economic and psychological conflict," she says.
Vinny Sharma, a 9th grader in one of south Delhi's prestigious schools, will vouch for that fact. "I didn't go on the NASA trip my school was organising as my parents felt that it was too expensive. But my friends asked me if I was too poor to afford it," she says. Vinny feels a lot of her classmates went simply to "show off" and put pictures on Facebook.""The other side of business
Established in 1996, the Mumbai-based Penguin Tours added the international educational tour segment to its services in 2001. Ever since then, there has been a steady increase in demand from schools for foreign tours, explains Darayus Kabraji, managing director, Penguin Tours. He adds that there has been a five to 10% year on year increase in the number of children enrolling in such tours. (The domestic sector, in contrast, has registered a 10 to 25% increase). "International tours cost Rs39,000 onwards, so they are preferred by only limited schools that follow an international curriculum," explains Kabraji, adding that they make a profit margin of 1 to 4% in the segment.
For Cox and Kings, which also organises specialised international school trips, this is a fast-growing segment and accounts for about 4% of their business. "The designing of an itinerary depends on the schools. We combine sightseeing with some educational activities that are fun as well. The school just gives us a budget and we have to work around that," says Karan Anand, head, relationships, Cox & Kings. The company works with around 50 schools across India.
However, PTA United Forum's Chavan points out that the school management gets a share of the profit earned by the tour operator - a point echoed by Jayant Jain, president of the Forum for Fairness in Education. Recalling his experience as the owner of a water park, Jain says that schools used to openly ask for invoices of a higher amount when field trips were organised to his park. "The teachers never pay for themselves. For every batch of 10 students, one teacher used to come along for free," he continues. "Even on these international tours, the teachers don't have to pay and it is free for them. So obviously the parents are paying for the teachers as well," he explains."
Credit:Anu Prabhakar & Manisha Pande