Ali Lawrence and Jill Witkamp, founders of Palma College in Mallorca, which opened for students in September 2013, talk about the challenges of opening the island’s first international sixth form college.
Ali: We met through a mutual contact who was looking into setting up an online college.
Jill: We were both working freelance for another company on the island.
Ali: After discussing our backgrounds and mutual beliefs it appeared that there was a gap in the market for sixth form provision. Jill’s daughters had had to leave the island as the subjects they wanted to study at A-Level were not available.
Jill: A number of years ago I was approached by a group of parents who were hoping to start a college and were looking for someone to help set up, run and market it. Nothing came of it in the end, but it gave me the first idea that there was a need for a dedicated sixth form college. A few years later my own daughters decided to go to the UK for sixth form as they could not study the subjects they wanted to on Mallorca. When they were at college in the UK I saw the benefits of them being in an environment with only students of 16 years and older. I knew there was a market here in Mallorca but I am a business person, not an academic educator, so could not take it further until I met Ali. We soon realised that we shared the same ideas and beliefs about the college and wanted to take it further.
Ali: Not easy at all! The legalities of opening anywhere which provides education are stringent. We had to satisfy the criteria from both local and national governments in Mallorca. We also had to satisfy the examination board in the UK that we were competent in all areas of delivering courses; that our staff were qualified and we were subject to an on-site inspection which in fact was hilarious as the day the inspectors were due they forgot to come! They rearranged for the next day though so you can imagine tensions were running high.
Jill: Setting up any business is hard and firstly you have to be sure it is viable. We spent the first year and a half gathering market research to confirm that there was an actual need for the college and to see what people were missing for this age group on Mallorca. After that, there has to be a good flexible business plan. Then it was time to start looking for a location, staff, students, etc. Frustrations arise from having to wait for things to be approved and you learn to be patient and to adapt and cope with anything that arises so that you can keep moving the project forward. Highs in this process have included getting approval from the examination board, finding the right building, enrolling the first student and many more.
Ali: I am originally from Edinburgh, Scotland and have taught in independent schools of the highest calibre for many years. I came to Mallorca intending to take a normal teaching job. I did this and then began to see where the independent sector could be improved in Mallorca.
Jill: Originally I am from Windsor, England, but left a long time ago. Before moving to Mallorca I lived for 13 years in Holland with my husband and two daughters. We moved as a family 13 years ago to Mallorca and took over a Yacht Management business, which my husband still runs today.
Ali: Our ethos is very much a focus on the individual. We are not a school but a college and as such the environment provides a stepping stone between being at school and becoming a young adult. We work in collaboration with the students to meet their needs and encourage them to become more independent learners. We do of course value academic achievement and demand the highest standards from our staff and students but alongside this, we run an intensive programme of enrichment designed to give students skills in many areas of their lives. This could be something as simple as learning to cook basic meals; balancing finances; interview skills; first aid certification; how to write CV’s and much more besides. Our first student graduated last year and many exciting degrees are underway worldwide. We have students going to the US, Japan, Brazil, the UK, Germany, France and Holland. Courses range from International Business Degrees to Creative Writing; from Haute Couture to Fine Art; Languages to Computer Games Design or Media related courses to Science Degrees of all disciplines. Some students take a GAP year to work with charitable organisations around the world and some go onto apprenticeship schemes.
Jill: Our aim is not only to help students achieve their academic aims but to guide them to university or their chosen career path and give them the tools to become well-rounded individuals. Palma College treats students as individuals and all our policies are based on respect, first for yourself, then people around you and the environment. Palma College is not for everyone and when we interview prospective students we make sure that they not only have the academic ability to study the two year A level course but are open to being part of a community, happy to be in small classes and are willing taking part in our enrichment programme
Ali: Presently we are delivering International A Levels in the following subjects: Art and Design, Biology, Business Studies, Chemistry, English Literature, ICT, French, German, Mathematics, Physics, Psychology, Theatre and Drama, and Spanish. We are looking towards offering some vocational courses in the near future for students who have a particular interest in, for example, computer skills.
Jill: Our core qualifications are the International GCE A-Levels, but we also offer preparation for IETS and sometimes support with IGCSE and the extra entrance examinations for America and Spain. We also offer support to those with Special Educational Needs.
Ali: Students do not follow a set pattern. They attend College for the subjects that they are taking and can leave when their own classes are finished. In their free lessons, they can use the facilities of the Common Room and the IT that is provided. However, they are free to come and go including visiting the local coffee shop!
Jill: The college hours are from 9 am till 5 pm but when they have free periods they can go into Palma or stay in College to study. In reality, the average student does not have many free periods and love being in College in their free time. They will normally study 3-4 A level subjects spread over the week, plus attending the enrichment programme.
Ali: The majority of students go to university or further education, the rest we help to find purposeful GAP years, apprenticeships or work.
Jill: Now with our sixth-year group starting in September 2018, we have had 95% of students who apply to university, starting at their first choice and quite a few of them being given unconditional offer (a guaranteed place). We have students studying all over the world from Spain to America to Japan.
Ali: We are in the beautiful street of Can Veri which runs parallel to Es Born in the centre of Palma and our Science, Maths and Drama classes are held in our second building located adjacent to the beautiful Palma Cathedral.
Jill: In the heart of Palma with easy assess to public transport. in a beautiful old building. You go through a courtyard and up the stairs to our first-floor college. We wanted to be in Palma from the beginning but it was very hard to find the right property. As soon as we stepped into the main College building we knew it was the perfect place. It was formally an art & design college and in the early days a shoe college! We now have a second building near the Parliament and Cathedral.
Ali: There isn’t one! We have over 22 nationalities here and no one particular group dominates. The language of teaching is English so all students must be competent in this in order to access the courses. Students must be in their 16th year before the start of the term in September as we are post-compulsory education in Spain.
Jill: They are all individuals, of 16 years and older, who hopefully believe in what we are trying to achieve, are open to learning, aiming to achieve not only their academic goals but also are willing to start taking responsibility for their own futures.
Jill: As stated above we have fluctuations in each year but nationalities in the past have included: Mallorcan, Swiss, Estonian, Irish, English, Spanish, Dutch, German, Israeli, Danish, French, Swedish, Italian, Thai, Russian, Iranian, Brazilian and more
Ali: We have a group of people from all walks of life in Mallorca who support us. They support both the students in extracurricular events (such as Charity Fundraising, Enrichment classes etc).
Jill: We try to help where possible with families or students moving to Mallorca. As I have lived here for over 13 years I can point them in the right direction for help with residency, student visas, housing, etc. We have even helped arrange a “homestay”. In college, we have an all-inclusive, community environment and will support all international students with language, academic, cultural skills and make sure they settle quickly into their new home.
Ali: Well, we don’t consider ourselves as a ‘British’ school but rather an international college which has chosen the best of the courses available to young people in order for them to be able to access universities worldwide.
Jill: The A level qualifications are recognised worldwide and offer students the opportunity to study subjects they like and are good at rather than having to take a range of subjects that they do not enjoy or are not relevant to what they plan to do in the future. English is still a very important language in business and when backed up with the international environment of Mallorca puts students at an advantage in the very competitive world we live in. Most of the students at the college speak at least two languages and many of them can easily communicate in four. They are also exposed to a variety of different nationalities and cultures, which open their eyes to the bigger wider world.
Ali: The relationships amongst the staff and students – watching the encouragement of these young people by adults who really have a vocation.
Jill: Seeing students develop and grow into well-rounded adults is the most rewarding part of running the college. It has been amazing seeing how far they come in such a short time, whether it is their skills in art, acting or academically, or their understanding of what they want and where they fit in.
Ali: We have already have had to extend our premises to incorporate more space for Drama and Art. Our maximum number of students is capped each year and we will not go beyond that. If we did the atmosphere would change and we would not be able to give the individual attention that is so vital – for example, every student has an additional 15 minute tutorial each week with each of their subject teachers – this personalisation is crucial for us and we would not want to lose this by having huge numbers.
Jill: The core business will always be a sixth form college but we sometimes offer some vocational courses and art masterclasses. In an ideal world, we would like to have one building in Palma, where we could offer everything under one roof.
Ali: Encouraging, stretching, rewarding.
Jill: Inclusive, inspirational, international.
Ali: The architecture, the family life, the buzz and the sun!