Advocates of the International Baccalaureate (IB) praise its academic rigour as the best preparation for university study. But the organisation behind it is now targeting vocational qualifications as it attempts to attract more state schools.
The IB career-related certificate (IBCC) is being offered in 13 schools this term following a successful pilot scheme. It is an alternative to the traditional IB, which some state schools have complained is under-funded.
Earlier this year, the high-profile Harris Federation of academies suspended its IB courses citing poor funding levels and poor take-up among pupils. The IB is regarded as equivalent to six A levels, but is only funded to the tune of 4.5.
Supporters of the new certificate, which combines traditional vocational courses with core IB subjects, say it is cheaper to provide and offers an alternative for pupils who want to combine vocational education with academic work.
Heads involved in the pilot say the certificate could go some way towards filling the void left by the work-related diploma programme, developed at considerable expense under the previous Labour government but largely scrapped by the current government.
The RSA Academy in Tipton, West Midlands, took part in the IBCC pilot and now has 40 pupils studying for it. Vice-principal Steve Sharples said that the IB label helps to attach "kudos" to vocational study, which has often had a "bad press".
"We are in a working-class community with students with no family history of going to university and (the IBCC) has raised aspirations," he said. "(It) has broadened our offer."
About 80 per cent of the school's sixth form are now taking IB-related courses. The academy works with companies such as digital piano makers Roland and engineering company Caparo to provide work experience and industry mentors.
"It is really important to open up the IB to a wider range of students," said David Barrs, co-headteacher of the Anglo European School in Ingatestone, Essex. The school joined the IBCC pilot in 2010 with 10 students; 18 are due to take the course this term.
Along with an existing career-related course such as a BTEC, students follow two academic IB subjects and a foreign language, plus a "core" including community service, an "approaches to learning" course to build transferable skills, a "reflective project" and work experience.
Mr Barrs said that during the pilot most universities did not know what the certificate was. The school spent a "lot of time convincing them about it". It paid off: all the pupils who took the certificate were accepted to their preferred universities.
Adrian Kearney, head of the IB in the UK, admitted that there has been a slowdown of growth in the IB in UK state schools because of budget constraints, but he added that the new certificate will blend "an international standard of education with national vocational courses". The IBCC is currently only available in schools that already offer the IB diploma.
The move came as the IB used the end of the Paralympic Games to launch its search for pilot schools to take part in a programme for athletes in full-time training. The organisation wants to recruit schools in the UK and around the world to run the courses, which will allow elite athletes to train and study at the same time.
The initiative is supported by former Olympic sprinter Frankie Fredericks. "Your athletics career might finish at 30, but then the rest of your life starts," he said. "If a company wants to hire someone, they expect qualifications and a CV."
82 UK private schools offer the standard IB diploma.
112 UK state schools offer the standard IB diploma.
11 UK schools offer the IB middle years programme.
13 UK schools offer the IB primary years programme.
45 schools around the world will launch the IB career-related certificate this term. Thirteen of those schools are in the UK.