The Fine Arts College in Hampstead wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for a story of love and an Italian racing driver. When Candida Cave’s old flatmate from her student days at the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford fell for said Romeo, she asked Cave if she would take on the two boys she was tutoring in History of Art. Cave said yes and found she rather enjoyed – and excelled – at teaching and the next September, 20 students were referred to her. And a year after that Cave established her own Sixth Form art college with fellow artist Nicholas Cochrane. 

That was in 1978. Forty years on, the Fine Arts College in Belsize Park is something of a north London institution – for those in the know, of course. Everything about FAC is rather discreet; a collection of small buildings around a cobbled courtyard, it is tucked away site behind iron gates on England’s Lane. It feels like a calm oasis rather than a school; it’s hard to believe it’s in London.  

The way education has gone recently, arts subjects are being really squeezed

Cave says they have consciously created a happy environment for students. “Condition, consciousness, calm – all these things help students learn,” she says. “We all believe that here in terms of the way we run the place,” she says, “from always having flowers to making sure we’re not overcrowded”. 

Cave appears to embody her own calm philosophy. Small and slight, she has a sharp bob and very bright eyes. She speaks softly and carefully but with precision. It is hard to imagine her ever getting ruffled. 

Cave’s belief that with the right conditions, students can flourish and grow academically and creatively – in their own time and own way – has grown into a hugely successful business. Places at FAC are hugely in demand and that’s without any advertising, ever. 

When the college opened in the late Seventies, Cave and Cochrane offered Art and Art History A-Level – which was unheard of in London colleges at the time. 

Most students now come to FAC for Sixth Form and to take advantage of the art-based A-Levels on offer: Fine Art, Photography, Textiles and Graphics. They can also choose from numerous academic subjects. Entry is non-selective, applicants need at least five GCSEs and all Year 12 and 13 students are expected to take four A-Levels.

By 1994 FAC started offering GCSEs. “Everything has been really quite organic,” says Cave. “We realized a number of students weren’t happy at their schools so we started GCSEs.”

Since then there have been small Year 10 and Year 11 groups at the college. From September this year, the college will be expanding to take Year 9 students for the first time. 

Cave says the decision to introduce Year 9 pupils to the college is a “natural development” and makes sense as Year 9 is the natural entry point for many of them. Cave says she hopes many pupils will join “straight from prep school to give themselves a good sweep at GCSEs”. 

The demand is definitely there. “I genuinely believe there are a great number of 13-year-olds who are very good at art, music, drama and the way education has gone in the past few years those subjects are being squeezed,” says Cave.  Rather than students going from a prep environment to a very academic formal environment, they can come to us in Year 9 and do music, art and photography as well as academic subjects.”

We tour what Cave describes as the “Tardis-like” college. It is certainly bigger than it looks; a maze of narrow corridors and small rooms which have even spilt into neighbouring buildings.

We find small tutorial groups – sometimes just two or three students; regular teenagers in baggy sportswear and beanies with a multitude of piercings.  This is no school environment, there are no teachers at the front of the room. The atmosphere is informal, consensual and personal – much like a university setting. From a quintessentially Hampstead fine art class – complete with a life model wearing nothing more than a flower hat – to a music production class; students appear engaged and engaging.  

Hampstead's Fine Art College

It’s all very relaxed. And it’s easy to see it working brilliantly at Sixth Form but will parents feel comfortable with this set-up for Year 9 pupils? Cave points out that younger students have a “formal structure to the day” at FAC with classes from 9 am to 4 pm. All students have a personal tutor who they see once a week and there are fortnightly reports on each student, too.  

Students come to the college from everywhere. 2017 graduates joined from London schools such as North Bridge House, Harrodian School, Francis Holland, Emanuel and King Alfred School and public schools such as Bedales, Tudor Hall, Haileybury, and Ampleforth. They have gone on to a variety of destinations, both academic universities in the Russell Group, to American universities but also to a number of elite art colleges such as Central St Martins, Goldsmiths, and Parsons New York. 

Looking down the list of 2017 leavers it’s hard not to notice a certain Brooklyn Beckham. The college has seen its fair share of celebrity offspring passing through the iron gates in recent years; from the Beckham’s eldest, to Madonna’s son Rocco Ritchie and Anais Gallagher, daughter of Noel. 

Cave will, quite rightly, not be drawn on her starry charges. 

“It’s a sensitive matter because I want the students to feel they have a normal education – when the paparazzi realize they are here they make the student’s life really difficult,” she says. “The high-profile students love it being low key.”

It all feels terribly privileged, like a funky finishing school for well-cushioned kids. Cave says they are attracting more children from the state sector, the college offers one full scholarship and 10 part scholarships a year. 

“We do have an increasing number of students from the state sector,” says Cave. “This is a wealthy area but ideologically many parents want to stay in the state sector and then ‘top up’ at sixth form.”

And Cave has a telling anecdote about her attitude to the liberally parented children in her care. When they are on study trips in public spaces she doesn’t allow the students to lounge. She reprimands them: “Your mother wouldn’t let you behave like that.” And they have said: “Oh yes she would.” And Cave tells them to sit up and shape up anyway. 

For all the quiet tones, there is some steel in Cave. “We do feel that this isn’t just a place to get exams, it’s for a real education, for how you live life.”

She gives the topics of drugs similar short shrift. One can’t view this many teenagers in trainers and beanies without raising the issue. “We take a zero-tolerance attitude,” Cave says. Students must sign a contract when they come; if they are found to be taking or selling drugs, expulsion is immediate. 

“We do use random drug testing, twice a year,” says Cave. “Students and parents know this and to date, thankfully, no one has ever failed them.”

The college has seen its fair share of celebrity offspring  in recent years

Until recently, the college was very much a family business. Cave and Nicholas Cochrane were married for years and have two children (now divorced they are still “great friends”, says Cave.) Their daughter Emmy is now head of History of Art at the college. 

Cochrane retired three years ago, partly due to ill health, and Cave sold the college to Duke’s Education run by Aatif Hassan two years ago. 

Hampstead's Fine Art College

Ostensibly, things have stayed the same. Cave has taken a step back from day-to-day teaching but she says she still has a great appetite for leading the college and for life in general. She’s also a playwright – her last play on the Mitford sisters was performed in 2010 and she’s writing another now. 

“I love being among this age group. I genuinely believe that education and curiosity makes life better for the individual and I really like it when you see a student who’s been inhibited or academically neglected really flourish.” 

Will the college take the logical step and become a full school, opening to children from Year 7? Cave has obviously considered this, but for now, she says: “I don’t know, let’s just wait and see.” But with the college-going from strength to strength, nobody would be surprised.