Peace, hope and the great outdoors

21st December 2012 at 00:00
Atlantic College was founded 50 years ago on the principle of fostering unity in a world of conflict. The independent sixth form has pioneered international education, widening access - and coast guard technology

It is one of the UK's best-kept educational secrets. But for those in the know it comes as no surprise that a medieval castle on an unassuming stretch of the South Wales coast has been home to the education of some of the world's most influential people.

Atlantic College, an independent sixth-form boarding college near the small village of St Donat's in the Vale of Glamorgan, has seen future international businessmen and astronauts pass through its doors.

The college was instrumental in the creation and development of the highly regarded International Baccalaureate. It was one of the first institutions to adopt an international curriculum and it was this focus that played a big part in the United World College (UWC) movement, which is dedicated to peace.

Founded by renowned German educationalist Kurt Hahn in 1962, amid the growing tension of the Cold War and just weeks before the Cuban Missile Crisis, the college's aim was to bring together young people from across the world to learn from each other and to foster international understanding.

Hahn, who had been an outspoken critic of Adolf Hitler during the 1930s, was determined to use education to find a peaceful means of uniting a world divided by politics, race and economics. He was perhaps most famous in this country for founding Gordonstoun school in Scotland - the alma mater of Prince Charles - but was also involved in the Outward Bound organisation and the Duke of Edinburgh Award.

Students at Atlantic College are - and always have been - selected on personal merit, irrespective of race, religion, politics or, perhaps most unusually, the ability to pay. Indeed, it has always stood apart as something different: at the time of its founding The Times called it "the most exciting experiment in education since World War II".

The school was a success and soon developed into a movement, known as United World Colleges (UWC), that spread across the world. There are now 13 UWC international schools and colleges, which the organisation proudly boasts can be found on every inhabited continent.

Since Atlantic's founding, more than 7,500 students from 100 countries have passed through its doors. Unusually, every year, 40 per cent of its graduates head across the Atlantic to continue their studies in higher education, with some 18 per cent attending Ivy League schools, a higher proportion than from any other school in this country.

World-renowned alumni

About 70 per cent go on to be involved in humanitarian work, and many have become influential and world-renowned in their chosen fields, among them scientists, bankers, lawyers, politicians, film directors and even presidential advisers. The school's alumni include Jorma Ollila, the former chairman and CEO of Nokia who is credited with turning the company into the world's biggest mobile phone handset manufacturer, Canadian astronaut Julie Payette and former White House staffer and chair of the Center for Strategic and International Studies Matthew Goodman.

John Walmsley, who became principal last January, sees it as part of his mission to spread the word about the college and its unique history. He is, he says, "fed up" with the way the state education system is increasingly geared towards exams and league tables and wants to promote the kind of experiential learning that students at Atlantic College have had for the past half-century. "I want to make sure as many people as possible are aware of what goes on here," says Walmsley. "Some schools restrict what students do outside the classroom so they can focus on their exams. We don't do that here."

This commitment to outdoor learning is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that its students invented the rigid-hulled inflatable boat (RIB) in the 1960s. As a coastal institution, it had sailing and canoeing on the timetable and its own inshore lifeboat station, manned by students, which survives to this day.

The college gifted the patent to the RNLI in 1969 and the design has since gone on to become a cornerstone of boating, still in use for private, military and lifesaving purposes across the world.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Atlantic College helped to develop the International Baccalaureate (IB), a qualification offering a mix of academic and experiential learning, and it has continued to offer it ever since. It includes subjects such as environmental studies and peace and conflict, alongside more traditional subjects.

But this term a new qualification was launched as part of an effort to address many of the issues Walmsley sees facing the current education system and to "formalise" the unique experience the college offers to its students.

The Atlantic Diploma is split into two parts. In the first part, the IB programme, students choose six subjects to study alongside a seventh, the theory of knowledge.

The second is the new co-curricular programme based on Atlantic College's history of experiential learning. It includes four new faculties: environmental, global, outdoor and social justice.

Vice-principal Dave Booker says that students will create a personal development plan with their tutor, specialising in one of the faculties through a service programme and the other three through a series of planned initiatives, activities, projects and conferences.

"It strives for independence of learning and encourages initiative," he says. "Teachers are there to liberate the learner and to help them to process ideas critically as opposed to teaching them to pass an exam."

Walmsley believes the unique qualification will not only raise attainment but also increase enthusiasm for learning and prepare students for work and further study.

Although Atlantic College is independent, 55 per cent of its students receive some form of financial support, and many are on either full or major scholarships.

Potential students are sought through UWC's national committee system, a worldwide network of volunteers who select, interview and then allocate places to candidates based on attitude and outlook as much as academic ability. They actively seek students from areas of conflict such as the Middle East and Africa.

This, together with Atlantic College's own associated schools programme, which has links to secondary schools in deprived areas of the UK including Liverpool, Birmingham and the South Wales valleys, ensures a diverse mix on campus.

Walmsley accepts that for some students, particularly those from developing countries, the experience can be overwhelming, but he says they seem to cope. It helps that the more privileged students shed all pretensions to wealth as soon as they arrive, he says. "As head I don't know what a lot of the students who come here are going to be like," he admits. "But they are all quite extraordinary and incredibly engaged. They have no concept of being uncool; they just throw themselves into things and get on with it."

Although the focus at Atlantic College is not on academic success, its students are nevertheless among the top performers in the IB diploma. The college's average score for the past couple of years has been 37 points (equivalent to four A*s at A level) out of a possible 45, compared with a UK average of 32 and a worldwide average of 29.

In September, the Independent Schools Inspectorate described Atlantic College as "outstanding", "unsurpassed", "unique" and "exemplary" in an inspection report and awarded the college an "exceeding expectations" score across all areas.

It is no wonder then that top US universities send their deans of admission to the college to interview students for places.

While the college seems protected from the issues facing the rest of the UK's education system, like many schools it is grappling with financial challenges. It has to raise pound;2 million a year for scholarships in addition to the cost of maintaining an 800-year-old castle.

But with a new principal at the helm and a new qualification for its students, Atlantic College is hoping that it will continue to exert its global influence over the next 50 years.

"We have a curriculum like no other, where students of nearly 90 nationalities engage with issues of the day and experience physical and academic challenge," Walmsley says. "We measure our success by the impact our alumni have on their communities."

`It is hard to put into words what I have been experiencing here'

"I was brought up in an area where people weren't really engaged. I didn't really have any expectations about Atlantic College. I just hoped it would be better and more interesting.

"I feel I can finally talk about and explore with my peers the things I have been talking to my parents about."

Norwegian Heidi Egeland, the daughter of humanitarian aid workers.

"The most profound thing for me has been the volume and depth of experience. Back home I'm known for doing too much, but there's a different perception of me here because you can get a lot done. You can learn so much about yourself through other people and everything that goes on around you. You have experiences you couldn't have elsewhere."

Michael Manning, of Massachusetts, says he stumbled upon the college on the internet by chance.

"It is hard to put into words what I have been experiencing here. It is a different experience from person to person."

Dariq Abid came to Atlantic College because his school in Pakistan had a historical association with UWC.

"You really appreciate how much of an education you have had once you have left. It opens up doors and you realise you can make a difference in the world."

Catherine Arnold, from Monmouthshire, Wales.

Photo: Atlantic students invented the rigid-hulled inflatable boat and the college still has its own lifeboat station. Photo credit: David White

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