From the Magazine: Round of Applause, Aiglon hosts Round Square's 50th anniversary conference.

Posted on 15th December 2016

When Alessandro Barel di Sant Albano (Belvedere, 2012) arrived at Aiglon College in 2008, he carried with him a valuable piece of advice. He says: “The weekend before I started school, my father told me, ‘Say yes to everything. You’re going to develop new passions and see new things.’ And he told me a lot about Round Square, because he had been to Gordonstoun, one of its founding schools.”

Alessandro quickly acted upon this, volunteering for the Round Square committee. This opened the door to some extraordinary experiences over the next four years at Aiglon. A conference at Wellington College, for example, offered the chance to visit the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and see how British Army officers are trained – and to attempt their feared obstacle course. But most memorable of all was a trip to a women’s refugee camp during a conference programme in Thailand. 

“We met women who had endured incredibly difficult lives, and were now trying to improve their prospects. Some of them had been there for years. Befriending them, even though we were there only for a day, was a remarkable experience. Of course, there was a language barrier, but it’s incredible how the universal language is a smile. That’s something that stays with me wherever I go.”

Today, more than 120,000 young people across the world are granted similar opportunities through Round Square. The organisation embraces close to 170 member or candidate schools on five continents, all of which share a holistic approach to learning aligned with the philosophy of the German educationalist Kurt Hahn, a source of inspiration for Aiglon’s founder, John Corlette. Its ethos is encapsulated in the acronym IDEALS: Internationalism, Democracy, Environmentalism, Adventure, Leadership and Service.

In 2016, Aiglon was one of two member schools chosen to host Round Square’s 50th anniversary international conference. The five-day event in October brought delegates from all over the world to Villars, and included parallel programmes for students and adults.

“Almost 50 students were involved in working on the conference,” says Mr Peter Willett, Head of Art and current Aiglon Round Square Coordinator. “It wasn’t a school project. It was a real event, with a budget that they had to plan and deliver. It was valuable in helping them develop personal leadership, organisational and planning skills, and I’ve been very proud of them. I foresee that Aiglon will be a richer place because of the conference and the students’ engagement with putting it on. And what a privilege to host it in the 50th anniversary year!”

An honour, yes, but also an appropriate choice. Aiglon is one of the six original schools that formed Round Square; two of the others, Schule Schloss Salem in Germany and Gordonstoun in Scotland, were founded by Hahn himself. It was one of Hahn’s former pupils, Jocelin Winthrop Young (later an eminent educationalist and headmaster), who first had the idea of gathering together the headmasters of the ‘Hahn Schools’ in 1966 to form a permanent partnership. A second meeting in 1967 at Gordonstoun gave the fledgling organisation its name, after the school’s distinctive circular court.

Aiglon’s values were already in close accord with those of the other schools. John Corlette’s blueprint had owed much to Kurt Hahn’s ideals of experiential, holistic education, though the two men had not always seen eye to eye. During World War Two, John Corlette had taken up a post at Gordonstoun under Hahn’s headship but left in 1945 as the two began to take different courses. Nigel Watson’s history of Aiglon College, With Wings as Eagles, says of this episode: “Both Corlette and Hahn were strong-willed, idiosyncratic individuals and it was only a matter of time before their proximity brought about a clash of temperament... Relations between the two men remained strained until the last years of Hahn’s life when a form of mutual understanding was reached.”

For its first three decades, Round Square was organised along far less sophisticated lines than it is today. Former staff member Mr Tony Hyde, who was appointed Aiglon’s representative in 1979 by the Head Master of the time, Mr Philip Parsons, says: “It was a person-oriented organisation. It was the headmaster who was the member, not the school. If the head moved elsewhere, the school was no longer part of it unless the new head was co-opted.

“At that time, the only things in which the representative was involved were the organisation of student and staff exchanges and putting together the international conference delegation – as well as the organisation of said conference if the school was willing to do it and was selected.”

With the gradual addition of new initiatives, Round Square’s remit expanded. Mr Hyde recalls that, from 1981, he was given the task of drumming up support for the new Round Square International Service (RSIS) venture, which brought – and still brings – students from member schools to work on practical philanthropic projects in the poorest parts of the world.

The innovations continued when Ross Hunter, Elizabeth Senn, Simon Braidwood and Nick Teal took their turn as representative. Aiglon hosted a successful international conference in 1990. Mr Hunter recalls all delegates being able to fit into the hall, both for meetings and the final dinner; by 2008, the organisation had grown to such size that annual conferences had to be held at two schools simultaneously. Soon after taking over in 1990, Mr Braidwood started up the Boronka Project in Hungary – a collaboration with fellow Round Square founding school, Schule Schloss Salem. Each summer, a minibus of volunteers from Aiglon would head out to south-west Hungary to help with wildlife and habitat conservation. During this time, there was also a drive to raise funds from school activities, notably triathlon days, and strong Aiglon delegations attended annual conferences in Germany, Scotland, India, Australia and Canada.

Mr Hyde became Round Square representative for a second time in 1999 until his retirement in 2009. The difference in his duties this time around was striking. He says: “I was responsible for student exchanges, organisation of two regional conferences, raising money for the Prince Alexander Project Fund [to support RSIS], spreading the word about Round Square within the school itself, and organising the annual triathlon to raise funds for the six Starehe scholarships for students attending that school in Kenya. I was also responsible for promoting and co-ordinating the process for Aiglon students attending both RSIS and regional service projects.

“The role definitely expanded after the international conference in 1990, which turned it from a person-oriented membership to a school-based one. It now involves a much greater workload and commitment, and a wholehearted belief in the philosophy and ethos of the organisation.” It’s a sentiment that is echoed by his successor, Mr Willett. He says: “Yes, it’s an organisation that gives our students access to like-minded schools around the world; but an important thing to emphasise is that it’s a philosophy, not a club. Through the IDEALS, it encourages students to think outside the box, and not just about themselves but about other people.”

The impact of Round Square on Aiglonians’ lives can be profound. Maiga Winzenried (Clairmont, 2009) says: “I ended up studying environmental management at university and I think quite a bit of that was due to Round Square – topics
of sustainability and environmentalism were involved in a lot of the activities. And in the end, having to make things work with people from entirely different backgrounds is interesting and useful.” As well as taking part in conferences, Maiga spent three weeks on an RSIS project in Ladakh, a remote and mountainous region of India. She says. “We were camping for three weeks next to a monastery to build a dormitory for kids at the school. Some of them lived miles away and wouldn’t go to school unless there was somewhere for them to sleep.”

The harsh environment, physical labour and cultural differences – with the young delegates spending time with child-monks as young as three at the monastery – required a great deal of adjustment. “It was a shock,” she says. “When we returned to Aiglon, we were all quite quiet for a month or so, because we’d not seen anything like that before; but it was good to be able to take part in helping there. Now, whenever I go travelling, it’s always to do a service project or something that involves the community or the environment.”

Darina Satdinova (Exeter, Upper Sixth) was heavily involved in organising the 50th anniversary conference, heading up the pastoral committee. “I live and breathe Round Square,” she says. “As well as all the conference planning, I’m on the school committee. We work on all the fundraising events, such as the Halloween and Valentine’s dances, and the international days. Anything that’s done under the Round Square name, we have to organise. We decide on the prices and we’re in charge of the money, the emergency fund and so forth.”

And while all this experience has already built up her confidence in her leadership abilities, Darina believes that the full benefits of Round Square will only become evident in her life beyond Aiglon College. She says:

“When I’m working, in 10 or even 20 years’ time, I think I’ll still find it valuable how I participated in this and learnt how much a whole team effort really matters when you’re pulling together a big project.”

Mr Willett agrees. “We can never entirely know what the effects of Round Square will be on our students’ futures,” he says. “We can give our students these responsibilities at a young age, or expose them to people who live in a poor environment, or to refugees who have risked everything. But we’re sowing seeds, not growing trees.

“Often, these are things that have a great impact on their lifelong decision-making, or their philanthropy in later life. And it’s always great to hear that the seeds have come to fruition – sometimes many years down the line.”

Writer: William Ham Bevan
Photography: Ian White