Wales blazes a trail

A Welsh castle and Colwyn Bay are two places where you can do the IB, writes Nicholas Pyke
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The Independent Online

St Donats Castle, perched on the cliffs above the Bristol Channel, has a long and colourful past. Built in the 12th century and said to be the oldest continuously inhabited castle in Wales, it was bought by US newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst in the 1920s, becoming a summer retreat for Hollywood stars.

Hearst, on whose life Citizen Kane is based, is famous for both his vast collection of European art and his "Yellow Press" - the exaggerated stories he ran to increase sales of his New York paper, The Journal. The practice was credited with enraging the US public to such an extent that it contributed greatly to the Spanish-American war at the turn of the last century.

A more sober-minded internationalism prevails at Hearst's former home these days. St Donats is the headquarters of Atlantic College, UK trailblazer for the International Baccalaureate and the name that springs to mind when the IB is mentioned in Britain. The castle no longer accommodates the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Bing Crosby or JFK, but it does teach students from more than 70 countries who are drawn by its international reputation and the growing popularity of the qualification.

Atlantic College converted to the IB in the 1970s, ditching GCEs in the process. There is no chance that its 330 pupils will take any another baccalaureate, despite the introduction of the Welsh Bac which now runs in pilot form in 18 of the principality's schools and colleges. The newcomer - an overarching certificate encompassing A-levels plus additional tuition on Wales, Europe, a foreign language and key skills - is already a subject of much speculation on both sides of the border. But as Gareth Rees, the Academic Vice Principal at Atlantic College, explains, the Welsh Bac is more suited to a domestic market than his clientele. The IB is a major attraction for overseas students, who can return home holding a qualification with global currency.

"The IB suits our student constituency and is something suitable for universities around the world," he says. "We have students from less-developed countries who come to us with a grant, but would never be able to afford university fees in a country like Britain."

So firmly is the IB associated with Atlantic College, a private sixth form run by the United World Colleges movement, that it comes as a surprise to find that the other three Welsh institutions offering the course are very different: two colleges of further education and the UK's second largest comprehensive school.

Swansea College serves one of the poorest areas in Britain, the sort of place that qualifies for the EU's Objective One funding. Despite this it offers the IB - free, of course - to its students as part of a strategy to promote high aspirations. It regularly sends young men and women to Oxford and Cambridge, and two recent students secured places at Yale and McGill University in Canada.

"It's a prestigious qualification, particularly to the students in our catchment area," says Sue Phillips, the IB coordinator at Swansea College. "We're quite proud that we're able to do it along with some of the top public schools."

Swansea is one of the colleges piloting the Welsh Bac, but there is no plan to drop the IB, which, Phillips believes, offers a broad educational foundation at a time when A-levels are being criticised for their narrow focus. The results of IB, she says, can be seen at Swansea. "The fact that they're expected to do all the disciplines means that they're more rounded than a general A-level student. They're able to give presentations and the IB includes a 4,000-word research project. They learn to work independently, which doesn't necessarily happen at A-level. British universities are very much in favour of the IB and we find [our students] generally get into their first choice."

Offering the IB is a brave decision for a state-sector institution. With its compulsory structure of six subjects plus the "Theory of Knowledge" on top, it is considerably more expensive than running straightforward A-levels. But Swansea College is confident that the extra cost is worthwhile, as is Llandrillo College at Colwyn Bay on the northern Welsh coast. Llandrillo has been doing the IB for 12 years, and out of 90 A-level students, 40 take the course.

Situated in an area of considerable poverty, there are many parallels between Llandrillo and its counterpart on the southern Welsh coast. Both have a number of students from continental Europe who are attracted by the qualification. Both are piloting the Welsh Bac, and, like Swansea, Llandrillo sees the Welsh newcomer as an alternative, not a replacement.

Melanie Monteith, who runs the IB course at Llandrillo, believes that A-levels will always be popular with some students, particularly those who do not want to do mathematics or languages. "The IB has a wider curriculum," she says. "A-levels can be restrictive for a good student with a breadth of academic achievement. The IB students who apply to university seem to have the edge. Here you don't have to pay - and it could cost many thousands of pounds to do the IB somewhere else."

Whitchurch High School in north Cardiff is only in its fourth year of the IB, but already 33 of its 500 sixth formers are taking the course. Jill Manning, the assistant head of sixth form and its IB coordinator, says that the community-service element of the course has had an impact on the sixth form as a whole. She feels the introduction of the Welsh Bac is causing a certain level of confusion, with outsiders assuming this is what Whitchurch is running. But, as Manning explains: "It's not even an option. We haven't considered the Welsh Bac at all."

Neither has the private Rydal Penrhos school, which is planning to introduce the IB this autumn. Its principal, Michael James, is fairly blunt about the decision: few of his pupils are Welsh and so Welsh Bac, with its compulsory "Wales in the World" element, is not particularly relevant. He believes that, by contrast, the IB offers his school a chance to attract additional students, particularly from abroad. In the next academic year he is expecting an extra 15 pupils as a result of the IB course. Interestingly, Rydal Penrhos, like Llandrillo, is in Colwyn Bay.

"We believe it is a better educational product for pupils aged 16 to 18," says James. "It's demanding, rigorous and ensures breadth. The second reason for introducing it is an economic one. We will be the tenth boarding school with the IB - and there's a worldwide demand for IB courses at British boarding schools. We're fielding enquiries from all over the world."