Two years ago 16-year-old Robert Andrae packed his bags and left his family home in a comfortable middle-class German suburb to study at a state comprehensive in one of Britain's poorest boroughs.
Now 18, Robert has just completed two years studying for an International Baccalaureate diploma at George Green's School, a large comprehensive serving a multi-cultural community on the Isle of Dogs in the heart of London's East End.
For Robert, it was a first step in a carefully planned career path that he hopes will one day take him to a top job in the international aviation industry. Yet it seems an unlikely choice. Named after a Victorian benefactor, the school has been educating some of London's most disadvantaged families for 160 years.
More than two-thirds of the pupils at the Tower Hamlets school come from minority ethnic groups, the largest drawn from the island's large Bangladeshi community. The rest are white British and many come from families who have lived in the neighbourhood for generations. Six out of 10 pupils are eligible for free school meals and a similar proportion speaksEnglish as an additional language.
But rather than being deterred by the school's urban comprehensive intake, it was the chance to learn alongside people of different backgrounds and cultures that most appealed to Robert. Other overseas students from Estonia, Bangladesh, Ecuador, South Korea, China, Ghana, Italy and Ireland have given the school's sixth form a distinctive international flavour.
"For me that was the exciting thing. You have people here from all around the world and some people are well off, some are very poor. Just to have a mix of everything in one classroom is really interesting. Everyone has different points of view on different topics. It is very interesting to meet friends from Bangladesh, from America and from China. The IB has made me very open-minded."
Most overseas students at George Green's are attracted by the school's location, close to central London and with Canary Wharf, the River Thames and Greenwich Park on its doorstep. As one of only three state schools in inner London offering the IB diploma – the others are Westminster Academy and City and Islington Sixth Form College – it is also a significantly cheaper option than fee-paying boarding schools.
A growing number of UK schools now offer the IB diploma as an alternative to A-levels. Currently there are 203, of which 122 are state schools. The rest are private and include leading public schools such as Wellington College, Charterhouse and Cheltenham Ladies' College. Critics of A-levels such as Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington, argue that sixth-form study should be about nurturing enquiring minds rather than churning out A grades to bolster schools' positions in league tables.
In April, Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, expressed concern that A-levels were failing to prepare young people adequately for higher education and said universities should take a bigger role in deciding exam content.
Supporters of the IB say it provides students with both intellectual and life skills and prepares them for the sort of in-depth study required by universities. It also has a strong international focus and an emphasis on citizenship.
"What makes the IB special is that we are a very multi-cultural school and a lot of the things we believe in match the IB principles," says Geraldine Naughten, George Green's director of sixth-form studies and IB programme co-ordinator. "The IB offers a very broad education. It means you don't specialise too early and you can keep your options open until you are 18. It is also an excellent preparation for university."
Students taking the diploma programme have to choose six subjects: two languages (including usually a literature-based English course in the UK), maths or computer science, an arts subject, a science and one of a group of social science and humanities subjects. In addition, the programme has three core requirements designed to help them apply their learning: theory of knowledge, creativity, action and service (CAS), and the extended essay.
Probably the most obvious benefit for students preparing for the rigours of university is the 4,000-word extended essay. A report this month by the government's qualifications watchdog Ofqual praised the essay format, saying it helped "to build the skills of deep thought, synthesis, research and self-directed learning which are so highly prized by universities".
"Students who have gone on to university after taking the IB programme at George Green's have said it has really helped to prepare them for undergraduate study," says Naughten.
The Tower Hamlets school is one of just a few inner-city schools in the UK that have turned their backs on A-levels to offer the IB diploma instead. Since introducing the programme in 2008 as part of a strategy to raise achievement, standards at George Green's have risen sharply. In 2011, the average point score per student for those taking A-level equivalent qualifications was 676, up from 601 in 2010.
This increase is part of a wider success in tackling underachievement that has seen the proportion of GCSE pupils achieving five A*-C grades, including English and maths, rise from 29 per cent in 2008 to 48 per cent in 2011. The school is expecting to achieve results above the national average this summer. Overall, 77 per cent of GCSE pupils achieved five or more A*-C grades last year, a real achievement for an inner-city school.
Shamima Blake, 18, is one of the beneficiaries of changes at the school. Having just sat her final IB exams she is waiting to hear whether she has gained a place at Aberystwyth University, where she has an offer to study international politics and history.
"I've been going to George Green's for seven years now and I think it's improved a massive amount and it's because we've been able to have funding for things like the IB. If a school like George Green's was just left isolated in an area like ours and always told, 'You're a deprived school', then it wouldn't have got as good as it is now," she says.
Todd Bishop, 17, who has an offer to study philosophy at University College, London, says the IB has opened up horizons and opportunities not available in most inner-city schools.
"The international aspect of the IB is very different and unusual for a school like this. I think that's the greatest benefit, to be able to mix with people from all over the world. It's brought a whole different group of people to the area specifically for this qualification. As someone born and raised on the Isle of Dogs that's something I really appreciate. It brings change to the area. It's nice to learn from my peers about their respective countries and customs," Todd says.
Since the IB programme was introduced, all students who completed the diploma have gone on to university who wished to do so, many of them to leading Russell Group universities. This year, two students have applied to do degrees abroad – at University College, Dublin and George Washington University in the US.
"For our students to be able to meet and learn alongside people who have been educated in a different system in a different country and the intellectual level of discussion and competition it offers them is fantastic," says George Green's principal, Kenny Frederick.
"But we're also very proud to bring people to the Isle of Dogs. People have a misconception of the island and think it's all deprived and poor and that the people who live here are not very academic. But our students are as good as anyone's and are very often far more resilient.
"The students here have fantastic talents. They are great at talking to people. They really have that East End conversation and can-do attitude. Their academic skills continue to get better and better. Different people learning together can only benefit the island as well as the students who come here."
The IB take-up
More than 3,280 schools in 141 countries offer IB programmes.
Apart from the diploma there is a primary-years programme for children aged three to 12 and a middle-years programme for children aged 11 to 16.
There are 203 schools offering the IB diploma in the UK, including 122 state and 81 private schools. Just 12 UK schools offer the primary-years IB.
Nearly 5,000 students sat IB exams in May 2011.
A higher percentage of IB students achieve a first-class honours degree than students who took A-levels or equivalent qualifications.
IB students are also more likely to gain a place at one of the UK's top 20 universities.
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