It is hard to believe that over a year has passed since my wife Sally, my son Oliver and I arrived to see the Canadian flag flying over St Donat’s castle. We remain inspired to be part of this wonderful community of students, staff, alumni, parents, supporters and community partners. UWC Atlantic College is a special place, one with both a rich history and a future full of promise and potential.
As I reported to the staff in early April 2017 and to the Board a month later, my early impression of UWC Atlantic College was that it had forgotten its ‘Why’ – to be an innovator in education, to provide opportunity to deserving students from around the world to access this education irrespective of ability to pay, and for this to take place in a unique and exceptional setting.
Arguably the College had drifted away from Kurt Hahn’s core tenet – to entrust students with authentic responsibility and to guide them, through the reassuring presence of adults, to make appropriate choices and to learn from their mistakes. It is through this trust, responsibility and accountability that students learn that they can make a difference (‘You are needed’) and that through effort and engagement they can achieve far more than they ever imagined (‘There is more in you than you think’).
Central to the early success of UWC Atlantic College was the phenomenal pioneering spirit which infected both the staff and students. And the sense of collaboration and co-creation which they shared. When one speaks to alumni and retired staff from the early period of the College’s history, they speak about the excitement of being part of something new and ground breaking. Those early generations made tremendous personal sacrifices in order to serve the greater whole.
We need to recapture this culture of experimentation that was at the heart of the College at the beginning. While bringing students from around the world to live, serve and learn together was seen as an effective antidote to the rising divide between the East and West, it was also the start point for a much more profound experiment - to transform education for the 20th century. The next decade was one of phenomenal accomplishments: the invention of the Rigid Inflatable Boat (RIB), the co-creation of the International Baccalaureate diploma programme, the establishment of sea, beach and cliff rescue services and the launch of the United World College movement which now spans the globe with 17 schools and colleges.
Long a fan of John Dewey and the Chicago Laboratory school movement which he founded, I see UWC Atlantic College as the ultimate ‘laboratory for learning’ - a place where if we were to fully leverage our assets of campus, students, staff, alumni and supporters we could push the envelope of progressive education and (re)claim UWC Atlantic College’s position as the flagship of the UWC movement. And with this in mind we are back at work. As partner of a wider-UWC group, I see an opportunity to help reinvent the IB diploma for the 21st century. We are already supporting work towards the development of a new diploma in partnership with the IB, Ashoka and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in line with their work on systems thinking. https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/).
Together, we and our sister UWC’s have an incredible advantage over other educational establishments as we draw our unique populations of young people to our campuses each year through our 160 strong national committee network. As a result, the vast majority of our students apply to the UWC movement, inspired by its mission and values, versus a specific college and therefore our populations are comparable. And thanks to our generous bursary support, we enjoy a deliberate diversity - nationally, culturally, religiously, economically - that is unparalleled in secondary education. What we need to restore at UWC Atlantic College is the pioneering mindset which infused the first decade of life at College. And to begin to pilot programmes to test and share with the group.
In addition to reclaiming our mantle as innovators in education, a reformed, skills-based educational programme within the IB will provide the means for our students to pursue individualised programmes which offer them the opportunity to exercise autonomy, to develop mastery, and to feel purpose, the three factors identified by author Daniel Pink as the keys to intrinsic motivation (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc). The hope is that such an approach will allow each student to approach their programme as a personal quest, one which will allow them to develop the resilience necessary to overcome the inevitable setbacks that will come their way. For what is a quest without challenges to overcome?
We are convinced that this skills-based approach will serve as the clarion call for a 21st century education.
Fifty years after the formal launch of the IB diploma programme in the autumn of 1968, it is time to develop the next progressive curriculum, one that addresses the evolving needs of 21st century students and society with its uncertainty and ‘wicked problems’ such as climate change, migration, intolerance, water scarcity, etc.
This new programme must be skills and mindset-based, vs content-based, with an emphasis on critical thinking, complex systems thinking, collaboration, teamwork, as well as problem solving through interdisciplinary approaches and project based learning. The subject curricula, while important, will serve to supplement the students learning versus serving as the focus of the programme. Concepts such as social entrepreneurship, the circular economy and sustainability education are examples of interdisciplinary frameworks which will be explored.
Future aspirations aside, we have also made significant progress on other fronts at the College.
The new timetable was introduced. With longer 70-minute teaching slots, a reduction to four periods a day, and the rolling seven-day timetable, there has been a much better pace to the academic day and with fewer transitions, less disruption and stress.
We also extended the academic year into June to allow for a smoother transition for the first years into second year and for much better support of the extended essay process. The period also provided an opportunity with the longer days for community building outdoor activities to take place in the afternoons and evenings. Many of these activities will be repeated with the first year induction period in late August with second year students now in a position to take the lead following their June experience. And the lifeguards will still return early to patrol the south Wales beaches as they have for generations.
With the call for greater trust and responsibility to be afforded the students, the Student Council moved to set up student committees to work alongside us to support a number of areas. We introduced student committees to work with College leadership in areas of mutual responsibility – student discipline, conferences, project week, etc. Their contribution and work has been invaluable.
A further area of focus since my arrival has been that of student support. While student autonomy, trust and authentic responsibility are at the heart of the UWC Model of Education, this must be realised in a context in which adults are present, offering reassurance and unconditional support. To this end, we have strengthened our tutor programme with the creation of the role of Head of Tutors and Student Affairs, so ably carried out by Julie Harpham. We will continue next year in the development of the tutor role with the introduction of a student life curriculum.
We have also doubled the provision of the College psychologist/counsellors from the current three days to six days per week covered by two psychologist/counsellors. This will allow them to play a central role in developing our student life programme. It will also allow us to be more pro-active vs re-active in dealing with potential mental health challenges amongst our student population and to see student support in a much broader context.
Alongside the increase in socio-emotional support will be an increase in learning support as well. We wish to create an environment whereby students feel comfortable reaching out for help in any area of need and to not feel stigmatised by so doing. Over the summer, the current staff room will be refitted to serve as a student support centre where students can drop in or make appointments to receive learning, language and socio-emotional support. We have also doubled the provision of university counselling with the appointment of two experienced university counsellors.
Within the wider UWC movement, we will continue our work with national committees to better identify the type of student who will thrive within a UWC community. It is not the right place for everyone but for the right student such an environment allows them to push their limits knowing that to grow they must be willing try, fail, and try again.
And we are taking steps to refresh and update our physical plant. Planning for two new residential blocks to replace Powys and Morgannwg Houses has continued. Submission for final planning approval has taken place with an aspiration to break ground in early 2019 subject to successful fundraising.
Just as I felt a year ago, the months and years ahead will be exciting times for UWC Atlantic College. We have an opportunity to reclaim our position as educational leaders both within the UWC movement and international education as a whole. With our distinct deliberately diverse student populations – drawn together from around the world based on their demonstrated promise and potential – we are uniquely placed to be leaders in educational innovation. And of course to deliver on our core mandate: to provide opportunity for the world's most deserving students to benefit from this exceptional place and community.
Please enjoy your Summer (if it is Summer where you are!) and join with me in welcoming the Class of 2020 when they arrive in August.