Precisely fifty years ago, the world lurched on the verge of an unimaginable crisis. The Cold War, which had been freezing East / West relations since the late forties was in grave danger of heating up. Soviet missile bases discovered in Cuba triggered a crisis that brought the U.S. to the brink of nuclear war with the U.S.S.R.
As Kennedy and Khrushchev manoeuvred on either side of the divide, an initial intake of 56 students from 17 countries were experiencing day one at Atlantic College, or as The Times called it 'the most exciting experiment in education since WWII'. The castle doors at St.Donat's in south Wales had opened (the former home of media magnate William Randolph Hearst and, somewhat ironically as the story goes, the place a young JFK learnt to swim when visiting with his father Joseph) and the future of international education would never be quite the same again.
A lecture visit in 1956 to the NATO Defence College in Paris developed the embryonic idea of the college and the global education movement it begat. It was at this meeting that British Commandant Air Marshal Sir Lawrence Darvall was inspired by Kurt Hahn's analysis of the state of the young. As a German Jew, Hahn had seen first-hand how children could be indoctrinated with evil ideologies. Hahn's ideas were original, imaginative and far-sighted enough to conceive a two year college bringing together students from all over the world, selected on personal merit, irrespective of race, religion, politics and the ability to pay, with the explicit aim of fostering international understanding. Both Kurt Hahn and Lawrence Darvall saw the college as a demonstration of how conflict and hostility could be overcome if young people from different nations, races and religions could be brought together to learn from each other.
With Rear-Admiral Desmond Hoare as the founding headmaster, the college's ethos in practice saw young people working together in adversity to foster co-operation far more rapidly than would happen within the bounds of the traditional classroom. Under Hoare's stewardship, and with the help of two 19 year old Dutch students- Willem De Vogel and Otto van Voorst, the rigid hulled inflatable speedboat was conceived, designed and built in just three weeks. The resultant boat, Psychedelic Surfer, became the darling of the 1969 Round Britain Race and is now the primary craft (the RIB) used in in-shore rescue around the world as well as being the most common small powerboat found on inshore waters.. To this day, an RNLI lifeboat is still based at the college and the students act as lifeguards along the south Wales coast between Barry and Porthcawl.
Half a century on and Hahn's vision is being realised on a grander scale than ever. We now have 350 students from 90 countries, around 50 per cent of whom receive a substantial bursary or scholarship support. The college raises around £2m for this each year and our development team works flat out to ensure we can offer the unique UWC Atlantic College experience to as diverse and engaged a student body as possible. Students from more deprived backgrounds, refugees from conflict-torn areas around the world mix with children of entrepreneurs, diplomats and royalty- creating a rich tapestry of cultures, religions, traditions, views and ideas where debate, insight and understanding are encouraged. We now have over 7,500 alumni dispersed in leadership roles across the world.
Atlantic was the first of 12 worldwide schools in the United World Colleges Movement (UWC), established in 1967 with Earl Mountbatten of Burma as President. The other colleges share the founding mission and values of Atlantic College, 'to make education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future.' Nelson Mandela is UWC's Honorary President and Her Majesty Queen Noor of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is President. We were honoured when she visit the college to celebrate our 50th anniversary last week.
With the UK education media dominated by discussions on the merits of GCSEs and A-levels, the college's decision to become the first school in the UK to abandon the national curriculum for the International Baccalaureate (IB), which it was instrumental in creating, seems particularly resonant. Coinciding with this year's celebrations, we're introducing the Atlantic Diploma, a holistic new curriculum that values the co-curricular equally with the IB and supports students in developing independent learning skills and while gaining the tools and attitudes needed to make a difference in their communities and the wider world.
Our students become immersed in the co-curricular, working with refugees from Libya or Syria in Cardiff to learn about their experiences, undertaking project weeks in Palestine and Israel, running music therapy with local autistic children, developing computer skills with older people or offering translation services at Bridgend's Parc Prison. The perspective this offers serves to strengthen the academic- our IB scores remain remarkable.
So fifty years on from day one at UWC Atlantic College, it seems an appropriate time to stand back, reflect on our past, and embrace our future. The nature of conflict may have changed since 1962, with wars now often being fought within countries and between religious ideologies, but our resolve to create an environment where young people from all walks of life worldwide can learn, develop and work together remains as resolute as it was five decades ago. Here's to the next fifty years.
For further information, visit www.atlanticcollege.org