The news that Princess Leonor of Spain is to attend an eccentric finishing school on a remote stretch of the Welsh coastline has set Britain’s chattering classes aquiver. Might this clifftop idyll be the answer?
Eton is beset by culture wars. Ampleforth has been through five head teachers in five years. Winchester has jumped the shark, in boarding-school terms, and begun to admit girls, of all things, into its ranks. St. Paul’s has been tarnished by historic sexual-abuse cases. Ashdown House, Boris Johnson’s alma mater, went broke amid the pandemic and closed its doors entirely. For British parents of a certain class and disposition, the promise of private education has never looked creakier. Where on earth does one send Archie and Jemima in September, now that the pillars of society are crumbling to dust and disgrace?
The solution lies, perhaps, at Atlantic College, resting on a rocky outcrop over the Bristol Channel. The press has dubbed it “Hippie Hogwarts.” And, yes, the 12th-century castle has an air of broomsticks and house elves about it, and sits in the sort of far-flung Arcadia that seems to require an enchanted train journey.
Boris Johnson’s alma mater went broke amid the pandemic and closed its doors entirely.
But it would be more accurate to call it the “Egalitarian Eton.” Or the “Woke Winchester.” This is the place, after all, where the global elite send their children to remind them they’re not so elite. Where proto-plutocrats share dorm rooms with Cambodian orphans and everyone gets along effortlessly. Where the children wear home-knitted hoodies instead of fusty tailcoats, and the entrance interview is hinged upon your “attitude towards peace,” as one alumnus tells me. Down in the Vale of Glamorgan, the liberal beau ideal of private schooling is alive and well: rigorous but idealistic, smart but never snobby, paid education without the personal cost.
Perhaps that’s what drew Spain’s ruling family to enroll young Princess Leonor at the college. Paying $93,000 from the royal-household coffers for a two-year course, the 15-year-old will follow on the heels of Crown Princess Elisabeth of Belgium, King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, and Princess Raiyah of Jordan when she joins, in September.
But this is not a royal incubator. It is a melting pot. Atlantic College is home to some 350 pupils between the ages of 16 and 19, spanning more than 90 nationalities. The school’s alumni include scientists, writers, entrepreneurs, and politicians, and there’s an un-ironic warmth toward the place which would be alien to most public-school boys. The general idea is that “people from all over the world can get along if you shove them together in a castle,” writes former student Louise Callaghan in The Times of London. “Some of my friends are Russian billionaires from the richest families in the world. Some of them are Syrian refugees,” a recent graduate tells me.
At the same time, more than 60 percent of pupils enjoy some kind of financial support from the school, many of them on full scholarships. “This is the best thing about the place,” the alumnus continues. “It’s a true embodiment of capital re-allocation. The parents are not just paying fees to educate their own children—they are paying fees to educate other people’s children, too.”
The school also puts a ban on what it calls “E.D.W.s” (excessive displays of wealth). There are no flashy watches or designer jackets. “My mother didn’t let me bring a pair of branded shoes to school when I first got here,” one current student tells me. “Nobody is dressing to impress. It’s very calm.”
Established in 1962, Atlantic was the first of the United World Colleges, an international network of schools designed to foster cultural understanding and—sure, why not—bring about world peace. Its founding father was educational philosopher Kurt Hahn, a serial schoolman whose string of hits included the elite Schule Schloss Salem, in Germany, and Scotland’s Gordonstoun, where Prince Charles was so unhappy.
“Some of my friends are Russian billionaires from the richest families in the world. Some of them are Syrian refugees.”
Hahn acquired the Atlantic College site in the early 60s. Its previous owner, publishing baron William Randolph Hearst, bought the medieval St. Donat’s Castle in 1925. Hearst rarely stayed there, but would pop in occasionally with an entourage that included Charlie Chaplin, Winston Churchill, Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, and even a young John F. Kennedy.
The current occupants could not be further in spirit from the press mogul, that ultra-capitalist who came to be the model for Citizen Kane’s protagonist. “It’s certainly a very liberal school. I came as a liberal person, and left feeling almost right-wing by comparison,” the alumnus tells me. “There’s a culture of tree huggers and hippies, and it’s getting more hippie-ish every year,” adds the current student. “It makes you change the way you view the world.”
Some of the power is in the setting. “You arrive and you instantly feel it’s a special place,” says the former student. “You can’t work out how it’s possible for a bunch of 15-year-olds to live in a castle by the sea. You feel like you’re in a bubble, where everything is beautiful.” Students eat their daily meals in the vast, vaulted Great Hall, while the 12th-century tithe barn is used as a theater and cinema. (“It has its downsides, too,” the former pupil also notes. “I heard it costs something like $2.1 million a year to heat the castle alone.”)
Princess Leonor’s imminent arrival has prompted a bump of interest in the school—and a likely swarming of its waiting list, too. “I suspect a well-kept secret has now been unleashed to the masses,” says another former student, while meditating on the legions of “pushy parents [the school] will now have to face.”
The news wasn’t received quite so warmly in Leonor’s home country: the leader of the hard-left Unidas Podemos party calculated that the Atlantic College fees equated to six times the yearly earnings of someone making the minimum wage in Spain, while the country’s state broadcaster clumsily linked Leonor’s move to the exploits of her grandfather, the roguish exile King Juan Carlos, who is under investigation and currently residing in the U.A.E. But elsewhere, the word is out.
Joseph Bullmore is a Writer at Large for Air Mail