During the pandemic, Despina and Taso decided that the US public school system wasn’t working for their eight-year-old daughter. The Greek-American family took a “leap of faith” and moved from Massachusetts to the Monferrato wine region of Piedmont in northern Italy, where a new Village Forest School had just opened.
“We can work from anywhere and were culturally drawn back to Europe. The new school offered the sort of education we dreamt of: letting children remain children for longer,” says Despina — now also the mother of twin boys — who declined to give her surname. “It’s been a massive change for the family but we now have a lifestyle more closely aligned with our values of living a slower life more closely connected with the natural world and the people around us.”
A typical school day starts with the children singing songs together, combining counting and language skills, before two blocks of classroom-based lessons: maths, history, geography etc, taught by both an Italian and an English teacher. Lunch is based on the nose-to-tail, non-processed food principles of the Weston Price diet — there’s rice soaked in bone broth, for example, or a ragù made from the whole organs of a cow or pig. After lunch there will be art, crafts, woodwork, maybe horseriding and even grape-picking at harvest time.
The students’ parents have immersed themselves in local life — making wine or olive oil, farming or designing local houses. The hilltop village of Montaldo’s population has grown from 70 to 110. Six of the families are renovating homes they’ve bought for investment reasons — to let on Airbnb, launch a yoga retreat or create an “ecolodge” — while their children have reanimated village life by roaming around the fields. According to local estate agent Riccardo Riva, this inflow has pushed up property prices.
The number of alternative international schools operating around the world has increased in recent years — sometimes becoming the main reason for families to move to a new country. As a growing number of families with corporate backgrounds or entrepreneurial work-from-anywhere roles reject traditional schools as unfit for their lifestyle, so-called “progressive” educational models are becoming more popular.
The pandemic threw a light on what children were learning in school, says Ben Kestner, head of The Learning Project, a new self-directed learning school in Ibiza. “During lockdown, parents saw what they were doing online and realised, in many cases, that there was a lack of connection to the real world.” Roland Witherow of education consultancy Witherow Brooke has seen this too. “A lot more families are more cognisant about the alternative approaches to schooling. Traditional schooling methods are not responding fast enough to the rapid development of [artificial intelligence].”
There’s an increased appetite for schooling that prioritises sustainability and mental wellbeing. Yet schools that focus on holistic, creative and experiential learning are nothing new — Montessori, Steiner Waldorf and Sudbury models are among the most widespread across the US and Europe. Following on from the concept that there is no “one size fits all” style for children, who learn and express themselves in different ways, has been the “unschooling” movement, which lets the child direct what they are learning, not the teacher or a preset curriculum.
It was only going to be a sabbatical for artist Lydia Janssen, her husband Luke and their three children, who moved from Singapore seven years ago to the Green School in Bali. At its bamboo campus in the jungle, the children decide what interests they want to pursue, with a focus on practical, independent learning and the environment.
Set up in 2008, the Green School was a forerunner of many of the new schools and has now expanded to 500 pupils aged three to 18 from 48 nationalities. Annual fees go up to Rp302mn (Indonesian rupiahs) a little less than $20,000 — affordable when compared to independent schools in London or New York, yet way above the reach of some locals, which has led to criticism of it becoming a “rich hippy heaven”.
Bonnie Cuthbertson, in the school’s marketing department, says 16 per cent of pupils are local scholars, most of whom are fully funded. She says the school selects families with a desire to live their sustainable ethos.
Like other schools of this nature, it doesn’t offer boarding. Families typically rent a villa in Pererenan, a coastal area of rice paddies and temples away from the tourist resorts, and the Janssens bought a wooden joglo house inland at Ubud. “I come from an academic background but I wanted a different trajectory with my kids at one with nature and eating off bamboo-leaf plates,” says Lydia. “We fell in love with the community of inspiring people from all over the world — and we stayed. Parents co-work on the campus and give mini TED-style talks every week. They are nurturing mini entrepreneurs.”
Alumni include Clover Hogan, 24, a climate activist, and Melati Riyanto Wijsen, 22, who with her sister Isabel started One Island One Voice to clean up Bali’s beaches. Some of the parents have helped set up new schools, including Noan Fesnoux, who co-founded the REAL School Budapest and is now working on a new project in the Middle East.
The Green School has recently opened new branches in South Africa and in Taranaki on the remote west coast of New Zealand’s North Island, now home to Emily Puetz, Sam Reid and their two daughters from Boulder, Colorado.
The couple wanted to immerse their children in a different kind of culture, says Emily, who used to run schools in the US and is on the board of Kiss the Ground, a regenerative agriculture non-profit.
The family rent a house via Airbnb, as you are not allowed to buy a home on a guardian-of-student visitor visa. “We’re now very involved with the school community, which is full of entrepreneurs running their businesses remotely,” she says. She admits it is a big sacrifice for a few years but says they are united in “raising the next generation to save the planet”.
The decision to award the school government funding of NZ$11.7mn in 2020 was criticised by principals of local public schools who said the money would have been better spent on measures to benefit the whole region — 100 per cent of the grant was later changed to a loan, which has been repaid, the school says.
The US is one of the most highly evolved locations for progressive schools, yet it is not working for everyone. In Despina’s view, the best-known alternative, the Steiner Waldorf schools — an education model that prioritises experiential learning and creativity — are far too expensive. “It’s become an elite, inaccessible system,” she says.
There are other “push” factors too, says Nathalie Willis-Davis of Lisbon-based consultancy Tendoria. “Most of my clients are American, with the main driver [being] the violence in schools there, or the high cost of living. Families gravitate to the Lisbon region for the wide choice of English-language international schools.” Many favour the progressive curriculum schools for children up to age 11, before opting for a traditional senior school with an eye on university admission.
The long-term success of these new schools is completely untested. “At secondary level, the scattergun approach of some progressive schools can mean that some pupils are not adequately prepared for exams,” says Witherow. “Sometimes parents ask us for emergency private tutors to help in this.”
Willis-Davis has seen a lot of interest in Sintra, north of Lisbon, where there is a popular Portuguese Steiner Waldorf school, Escola da Terra, and the Hypha Learning Hub, a new forest school with an English curriculum opening in September. Founded by Welsh-born teacher Kerry Trigg and Cuban former engineer Jennifer Nava, it will cater for three to five-year-olds.
“Many families, like ours, are looking for an alternative, progressive education,” says Nava, who took an educator course at Green School Bali. “The national park of Sintra is an ideal fit for nature-based learning but there’s also been an influx of expats . . . due to high property prices in [nearby] Cascais.”
Rafael Sena of Goldcrest Portugal Real Estate says those families favour communities such as Quinta da Beloura, Penha Longa or Colares, where four or five-bedroom villas with pools rent from about €3,000 a month.
Other locations are less used to incoming families from overseas. Film-makers, musicians and a professional surfer from Hawaii are among the parents at Despina’s Village Forest School in Piedmont, which now has 70 students, based in a handful of yurts on a 500-year-old vineyard owned by a local family.
“I wanted to create an academic [Steiner Waldorf]-forest school hybrid with a bilingual curriculum,” says co-founder Lucie McCullough, a building biologist specialising in non-toxic interiors and mother of four who moved from Massachusetts with her family after a Covid “home-schooling disaster”.
“We rent a little farm in the village and work with local estate agents to find homes for newly arriving families.” Fees are about €10,000 a year but a local family can pay in hours of work for the school and there are “assistance” discounts — 40 per cent of the pupils are locals. “I don’t want to create an international school bubble,” says McCullough.
Estate agent Riva agrees that finding farms to rent for expat families is not easy. “So some have decided to buy and start rental businesses.” He says local wineries, restaurants and hotels have all benefited from families moving into the area. Some had first looked to Spain, a popular choice for international families, yet bureaucracy makes it hard to set up new models in rural areas — there have been planning issues with schools in Ibiza, for example.
It took Sharyn McFarlane two years to set up the Alma Forest School in 2019 on a finca near Sotogrande, Andalucía. The school now has 75 children aged three to 11, mostly British, German and Dutch, with fees from €6,000 to €9,750 a year — 15-20 per cent of places are reserved for local families in receipt of full bursaries or assisted places. With a nature-based yet academic approach, it was born of her experience of not finding what she wanted in Dubai. “Parents are moving their families here after questioning the validity of current educational approaches,” she says. “The weather helps too.”
One of her digital-nomad families is Dutch film-maker Kim Vos, her husband Sebastian and their eight-year-old son Ziggy, who attends the school.
“Ziggy spent his first years with us going around South America in a camper van, but we liked the idea of him having a base for three years,” says Kim of their decision to rent a house in Andalucía. “He wants to go to school even when he’s sick. The kids are very happy and energised.”
In Ibiza, Spain’s spiritual heart of alternative schooling, a mix of entrepreneurs and free thinkers have been moving their families over, says Charlie Hill of independent estate agent Charles Marlow. Alongside Steiner Waldorf, Montessori and forest schools, Universal Mandala and The Learning Project are two that have been particularly attracting families to the Santa Gertrudis, San Lorenzo and San Juan areas.
“It’s now way more than a fringe movement. Dutch, British and American families at these schools are renting a finca for €10,000 a month or buying one for €7mn to €10mn,” he says.
Catering for families who move from location to location — a trend known as world-schooling — Boundless Life is a community for digital nomads that has created co-working facilities and education hubs around the world. These offer identical-looking classrooms whether in Sintra, the Greek island of Syros, Pistoia in Tuscany or Bali — with Marbella, Montenegro and Costa Rica opening in 2024. “Uniform interiors give the children continuity as they change locations — it’s a great alternative to home schooling,” says Elodie Ferchaud, the founder.
Most of the 300 families rotating around these hubs are from the US and Canada, with remote-working medics alongside the techies and freelancers. In Syros, Boundless Life works with local owners to renovate houses for its nomadic community.
“They spend money and support the local economy,” Ferchaud says of the impact of their 20-odd families moving into these small villages.
Despina says the importance of being part of a community with similar values also inspired their move. “Our priorities have changed. The whole family has become better connected to the things that matter.”
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