Nations unite in Swansea

Overseas students leap at chance to do the International Bac, but locals are proving harder to convnce. Martin Whittaker reports

Whether it is the sea air or the mixed charms of Dylan Thomas's "lovely, ugly town", foreign students are showing a surprising interest in coming to Swansea.

Every other day, Swansea College receives emails from youngsters around the world enquiring about its International Baccalaureate programme. "I just emailed someone who's enquiring from Mexico," says Sue Phillips, the programme's co-ordinator. "I'm in the process of arranging for a Czech girl in a school in Canada to transfer from her secondary to us. We've already got a Norwegian girl who did the same thing. They're coming from all over the place."

The International Baccalaureate is usually associated with the top independent schools and a number of private schools are to switch after losing faith in the A-level system. In contrast, the further education college in Swansea serves some disadvantaged inner-city areas.

The college has run the IB for 11 years and remains one of a small number of colleges and state schools to offer this alternative to AS and A-levels. The programme has a 100-per-cent record of students going to university, many to Oxbridge. "For a small college in Wales, it's phenomenal," says Ms Phillips. "We were particularly lucky to have it, especially as the IB is being taken up by the more prestigious colleges and schools.

"It means that potentially our more deprived students in the Swansea area are given opportunities which people in better-off schools would be offered."

Despite its success the course attracts limited numbers. There are around 25 students in each year, a fifth of these are from abroad. "There seems to be a lot of entrenched traditionalism," says Ms Phillips. "Parents are reluctant to suggest to their children that they do something different - people aren't prepared to take risks."

The IB began in Switzerland more than 30 years ago, as international schools set up a common curriculum. There was also a touch of idealism, a hope that it would foster understanding between cultures.

Today 1,329 schools and colleges in 110 countries offer the qualification, designed for highly motivated students aged 16 to 19. The IB includes six subjects covering languages, maths, sciences and the arts. Students do theory of knowledge to develop critical faculties, while art, sports and community service get 50 hours each. A 4,000-word extended essay gives them a good grounding in independent research.

Llandrillo College in north Wales also runs the IB and has students from Sweden, Germany and Greece. "Almost 50 per cent of my applications for next year are from international students," says the IB co-ordinator Melanie Monteith. "That's an extraordinary situation where you have almost more interest from overseas than at home.

"It's exciting to have that international dimension in the college, particularly here in north Wales."

As part of the citizenship element of the programme, students have helped at a hospice and with reading at a primary school, maintained stone walls and cleaned up beaches. One trained in helpline support with the charity ChildLine. Running the baccalaureate is costly and staff-intensive - a factor that deters many state schools and colleges. How does Swansea manage it?

"We've got level 3 programmes across the college ranging from the IB to national diplomas to A-levels, and we look at that as a whole. As a group level 3 programmes are cost effective," says vice principal Howard Burton.

"We have made a decision that it's a profile of students we want to see. And it's part of our service to ensure that people will be able to compete to go on to Oxbridge and other universities."

Next September, 18 schools and colleges begin piloting the Welsh bac. This aims to cater for a wide range of abilities, unlike the IB which targets brighter students.

Welsh bac students will still take GCSE, A-level or vocational qualifications, alongside a mandatory core including key skills; personal, social and health education, and community service. Both Swansea and Llandrillo colleges will try out the new qualification next year.

"We pitched to pilot Welsh bac on the strength of our experience with the International Baccalaureate," says Howard Burton. "We do want the Welsh baccalaureate to succeed because of the notion of ensuring breadth. But also one of the agendas for the Welsh bac is about access and inclusion."

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