Ben Rawlence introduces Black Mountains College

Black Mountains College is a new educational initiative in the Brecon Beacons National Park, supported by Hay Festival. Here director Ben Rawlence tells us a bit more about it...

1. What is Black Mountains College?

Black Mountains College (BMC) is a new educational institution dedicated to creative and adaptive thinking. We want to produce the next generation of leaders who will guide our society and economy through a steep transition to a more sustainable relationship with the planet.

We’ll be offering vocational, undergraduate and short courses in the outstanding surroundings of the Brecon Beacons National Park with very small, intensive, immersive classes learning outdoors and on real world problems. We’re starting this summer with Black Mountains Summer School, supported by Hay Festival: a unique collection of courses designed to contemplate our changing planet, learn new, appropriate skills, and stimulate new ways of thinking, seeing and doing.

2. Where did the idea come from?

It is the brainchild of myself and my neighbour the writer Owen Sheers. As the parents of young children, we were considering the educational futures for our daughters and examining with fresh eyes the kind of educational opportunities on offer.

Quite quickly our idea chimed with a vein of thinking about the future of Higher Education moving away from large lectures and subject based approaches. Employers are increasingly asking for skills not subjects, so we thought, why not design a course that starts with that? As writers, we understood the importance of building the capacity to learn and keep learning, and the important of the arts, artistic practice and nature in inspiring creative thinking. And, let’s face it, if we are going to meet the challenge of transitioning to zero carbon by 2050 if not 2030 then we are going to need all the creative and adaptive thinking we can get!

3. What’s different from other undergraduate courses?

Black Mountain College's flagship undergraduate course starts with skills not subjects. All students will study a core curriculum for the first year before specialising in a ‘major’ subject. That core curriculum is designed to help students realise their talents and their full potential as a human being, training them in how to receive, process and integrate information. A foundation in neuroscience will teach how humans learn, how each student learns and how other people do. Essential if we want to communicate with or influence them. A foundation in ecology will teach the fundamentals of how the planet works - soil, food, water and carbon cycles. And a core sensory programme will train the five senses using the arts (based on visual arts, sound and music, kinesthesis - movement, fine motor - craft, and olfactory - food). A final year research project will use the territory of Mid Wales to trial and test the implementation of the Well Being of Future Generations Act - an innovative law unique to Wales - on the ground in local communities. We are inviting students to come to Wales to be part of a ground-breaking transition and to take those lessons home with them. Admission is not based on A levels but on an interview and portfolio of work.

4. Why do we need this kind of new approach to education?

We need new thinking. We need graduates who can see the connections between the economy and ecology and who can support the flourishing of both without degrading the other. The basic principles of how we learn are clear - primary schools use sensory based learning and project based approaches but these standard insights have been lost in the industrialisation and marketisation of Higher Education, especially in the UK. We need to revisit the essential functions of humans and planet in order to re-wire ourselves and our society for the future.

5. Why should it be here, in Wales?

Wales has a proud history of alternative approaches to sustainability and to education. The new Donaldson curriculum coming on stream in the next few years has creativity and climate change at its heart. BMC’s approach is the natural extension of that vision to higher education. The Well Being of Future Generations Act, moreover, creates the perfect legislative infrastructure to support a rapid and equitable transition to a more sustainable future, all we need is practical action to demonstrate and implement new ways of doing things. We need to re-imagine how we eat, clothe, and warm ourselves, how we travel and how we build. Where better to do it that in the clean green hills of the Brecon Beacons National Park?


Ben Rawlence is director of Black Mountains College, launching at Hay Festival Wales on Sunday 26 May. To find our more, visit their stand on site throughout the week, or explore here.