School has been in session for a week, and the pupils at United World College Atlantic (UWCA) have been set a task: to rewrite the status quo. It may seem a tall order for a gaggle of 16-year-olds – many of whom don’t speak English as a first language. But it is all built into the curriculum at UWCA, the school for 16-to-19-year-olds beloved by European royals and wannabe “global changemakers” dubbed “hippie Hogwarts”.
Lessons – which here are called “codes” – take place in various crannies of the 12th-century St Donat’s Castle in the Vale of Glamorgan. Students at the school, which has been described variously as “what God would have built if he had the money” by George Bernard Shaw and a “royals magnet” by Tatler, are in class between 8am and 1pm each day, then take part in afternoon activities such as guerrilla film-making, robotics, wellbeing fitness and caring for the resident donkeys, Ava and Hugo.
The school was a former party pad for William Randolph Hearst, the American publishing magnate, whose guests included Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin and David Lloyd George; Hearst’s old bedroom is today’s economics classroom (this morning’s topic: how to fix the UK economy), while the powder room used by Hollywood starlets at the bottom of a winding stone staircase is now the girls’ loos. With a rock climbing wall, a jousting lawn and the genuine conviction that pupils from Finland, Honduras, China, the US and beyond will become the world leaders of tomorrow, UWCA is, fundamentally, school – just not as you know it.
The sixth-form college revels in its history – but makes no bones about wanting to create much more of it. It is for that reason that Naheed Bardai, its softly spoken Canadian head, wants to do away with the “hippie Hogwarts” moniker, which he says is “a fairly simplistic type of caricature of the school. I think it underplays the importance of the place itself, and the work that we do.”
UWCA, whose alumni include Princess Raiyah of Jordan, King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands and his daughter Alexia, Princess Leonor of Spain and Belgium’s Princess Elisabeth (Bardai says the school “does not actively recruit” royals), offers a version of the International Baccalaureate – the education system that has recently caught Rishi Sunak’s attention – to its 384 students, who pay £37,000– £42,000 per year. (Around half are on partial or full scholarships, paid for by donations; the school receives no Government funding.)
Education, Bardai says, is the “most systemic tool that we have to address the challenges that humanity faces”, but “our world is changing at a rate that the pace of education just simply does not keep up with.”
It is for that reason that UWCA has this term launched a two-year programme called Systems Transformation Pathway: Leadership for Just Futures, which asks students to unpick the status quo and “change the narrative”, and promises to prepare this inaugural cohort for what “a future on a climate-changed planet looks like”.
There are four teachers, addressed by their first names, assigned to the 24 pupils in each session; homework has thus far included watching a TEDX talk by novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The objective here is not textbooks and league tables, but students coming away with the ability “to see a common humanity… to see the complexity of systems and strive to make systems-driven change”.
It’s part bonkers, part brilliant; this hilltop breeding ground for a generation of mini Malalas (even if Yousafzai turned down a scholarship to UWCA as she was already settled at another school, but asked for two of her friends to attend instead).
Bardai is aware of the raised eyebrows UWCA often prompts – including among locals in the nearby town of Llantwit, who last week reportedly described students as a “blinking nuisance” – but says that the school’s intention is merely “to balance” traditional education with the less conventional, rather than do away with the former altogether.
Grand as the “deliberately diverse” vision is, there are inevitable growing pains when teenagers of more than 90 nationalities – among them Princess Sofía of Spain, the son of a Welsh dairy farmer and four Afghan refugees – are placed in a crumbling castle in the Welsh countryside with patchy signal, sleeping four to a room.
In the dorms, pupils from countries which may be in conflict with one another are often intentionally mixed; to challenge students “by design”, 44-year-old Bardai, a keen basketball player, explains. This “can lead to misunderstanding and can lead to bits of tension, especially in the early days” – but “we lean into those types of moments.” Provided “people come with an open mind, and a willingness to listen and to learn, those can be overcome pretty quickly. But absolutely, [it’s] not without its hardships.”
Adjusting to life at UWCA doesn’t just involve geopolitics, as many of the new cohort are fast finding out. The change has been “overwhelming” at times, says 16-year-old Ilaria, who spent the weekend on a 25km induction hike from Porthcawl to Nash Point in sweltering heat.
During a 15-minute break between lessons – sorry, codes – she is tinkering on one of the school’s pianos, and mulling the biggest culture shock she has faced since moving from near Bologna to the doorstep of the Jurassic Coast.
It’s easily food, she says; at home, eating “takes two hours”, while in the UK, “people are rushing all the time, and just don’t have proper meals. They just have bread.” (There are three catered meals a day in the bowels of the castle, where at lunch one student asks me what an anchovy is.)
Seventeen-year-old Edson also notes the culinary education he is receiving, alongside schooling on how to change the world. “I’d never even seen seaweed [before],” he says of a recent trip to Llantwit, where he tried laverbread for the first time. “There’s not many beaches in Zimbabwe. But it was… intriguing,” he adds gracefully, in what it transpires is his fifth language.
The teenagers here have more to contend with than most. There are the homesickness and language barriers, and in many cases, trauma of having lived under oppressive regimes. Yet while the life experiences of the pupils range wildly, there are certain hallmarks of teenagedom that come through no matter where the adolescent in question is from.
One of those is the effect Covid has had on the generation of school pupils who spent their formative years in isolation, which for some “has led to a drop in self-confidence”, Bardai has found. “Social skills have been suppressed for a couple of years,” and anxiety levels have risen in their place – something he observed at his last school in Toronto, and at UWCA too. “Definitely, I’d say the youth of today are experiencing a different kind of challenge.”
What perhaps marks these students out from their peers elsewhere is that they really, really want to be at school. UWCA, founded in 1962 by German educationalist Kurt Hahn, is one of 18 global World Colleges, where around 10,000 pupils are educated each year.
Former presidents include Lord Mountbatten and Nelson Mandela, and the admissions process is arduous, involving several rounds of formal applications and, for those who are successful, interview days – nothing to be sniffed at for 15-year-olds who more likely than not live overseas, and have potentially little command of English.
This rigour is not intended to prime them for Oxbridge entry (UWCA doesn’t disclose how many pupils end up there), nor life as a CEO or start-up entrepreneur – but to rewire how they perceive themselves, and their futures.
“Instead of thinking about our careers in terms of whether you want to go into law, or whether you want to go into science, we’ve been doing Social Change Now,” explains 16-year-old Satya.
Billed as “a roadmap for those who are ready to deepen their commitment to social justice”, the programme sees pupils organised into groups such as “visionary”, “builder” and “weaver”, and encouraged to follow that wherever it leads. She is unsure what that means as yet, job-wise, but “I believe that UWC is going to help me find my path and enhance [the one] I’m already going down, which is more humanitarian activist work.”
For the parents paying full whack, it’s a big investment without guaranteed returns. But it’s hard to imagine anywhere else in the world that could offer two years quite like it.