Located in the university city of Cambridge, this is a state school offering a global education more typically offered by private schools in the UK and fee-paying international schools overseas. Impington Village College is one of those state schools that families will move house to enter the catchment area for. And for very good reason.
The school stands out in England for being one of the top non-selective state schools to offer the IB. It has been crowned the top non-selective International Baccalaureate (IB) World School in East Anglia in The Sunday Times Parent Power List for the past three years. Its 2022 cohort achieved a 100% pass rate in the IB Diploma Programme (IBDP), with more than a quarter of students obtaining 40 or more points; five students received offers from Oxbridge universities, and 36% of students received offers for Russell Group universities.
As well as its consistently strong results, Impington is the only state school in the UK to offer the IB Middle Years Programme (MYP), the Diploma Programme (IBDP) and the Career-related Programme (IBCP). And, while a private education can cost 15-25,000 GBP for the IBDP, the state-run Impington is delivering it for free.
Unsurprisingly the school is hugely oversubscribed; for September 2024, there were 323 first choices for 240 places, and there are 43 appeals to date. (The good news for parents is that admissions for the IBDP is open to both local and overseas students, providing they have a UK passport, or their parents are working in the UK or are British citizens.)
WhichSchoolAdvisor.com spoke with Principal Victoria Hearn and Vice Principal Jo Sale to find out how Impington is giving students from all backgrounds the chance to study the IB, and why the school’s passion for the IB programme is echoed by its students.
Impington is a large secondary school of 1,400 students, with a local and international student body; around 22% of students have English as an additional language and around 10% have Education, Health and Care plan (EHC) plans.
Q: How is a non-selective, state-funded school with a cohort of mixed ability of students achieving such strong results?
Hearn: "I think there are probably two key things that contribute to these outcomes. One, our teachers are fantastic, and they work exceptionally hard. We put a huge amount of effort and resource into professional development for our teachers. Our staff have 20% PPA (Planning, Preparation and Assessment) time, which is obviously what unions are trying to push for at the moment; I’m proud to say that our teaching staff have an hour a week of subject specific CPD built into their timetable.
"For example, the entire science department are off timetable together on a Monday afternoon, when the lead practitioners will deliver CPD. That might be relating to the IB Middle Years Programme (MYP), moderation, subject knowledge or pedagogy. It is prioritised every single week for all teaching staff, and they are never pulled out for cover during that time. We then know that our teachers are getting really good subject development. Every. Single. Week.
"Secondly, we know our students really well, particularly in the Sixth Form where the classes are naturally much smaller. We carefully group our students in the main school, and we look at the pairings between teachers and students, for example, to make sure that they are being taught by the right person for them. Our staff are really aware of every student’s needs and their strengths, so that they are given the best possible chance of success."
Sale: "There's such a groundswell of passion in the school for our IB programmes, and that's where a lot of the excellence comes from. Our staff are genuinely really passionate about delivering these programmes – and that is passed onto the students."
Impington is unlike most state schools in the UK in terms of curriculum – and it’s one that will certainly appeal to the more internationally-minded student.
This is a secondary school with a blended curriculum that follows a three-year IB Middle Years Programme with Years 7-9 to develop students’ inquiry-based learning approaches ahead of their GCSEs – and then a choice of the IBDP or IBCP in the Sixth Form. (The College is currently an MYP candidate school and awaiting authorisation from the IBO.)
Q: There’s a belief that the IB is only for the smartest – so why would a non-selective school choose this over the national curriculum?
Sale: "One of the things that sets the IB programmes apart from GCSEs and A Levels is its underpinning philosophy – it’s not just about maths or English or a language. It's about the programme. It's about education for a better world. It's about authentic assessment. It is about context and concepts. It’s not about some bolt-on qualification.
"I think it’s a myth that the IBDP is all about breadth and lacks depth. The IB offers students the opportunity to study subjects at two different levels of depth – Higher and Standard Levels – and that's what a lot of people miss. The three Higher Level subjects provide a similar depth to A Levels, while the Standard Level subjects and the core offer breadth – so students are getting a perfect balance. It’s not true that the IB is only for the really intelligent, as students can focus more on their best three subjects and less so on their weaker subjects.
"We have a basic entry criteria because our view is very much that an IB education should be for everyone – and that was the premise for us developing the IB Career Programme (IBCP). We recognise that the IBDP isn't for everyone, and we want to ensure that our IB education is relevant to all types of learners.
"While the IBCP is less academic than the IBDP, it is certainly not the 'easier' option. Many of our IBCP students do three Higher Level subjects in conjunction with an extended BTEC, which is an enormous workload. But, because the IBCP combines academic studies with career-related learning, it can be the better option for certain students.
"For the social and healthcare pathway, we have a partnership with Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge; in the performing arts, we have connections to places like the London School of Contemporary Dance; and then for sport, we work closely with leading national and regional teams, including Norwich Football Club."
It’s relatively new by educational standards but, since being introduced to the IB programme in 1994, the MYP has been adopted by schools worldwide. In the UK there is a small but growing number of schools in both the state and independent sectors (currently 27 schools) that have adopted this programme for 11-16-year-olds, Impington being one of them.
Q: What are the benefits of Impington offering a blended curriculum that teaches the MYP for Years 7-9 before moving onto GCSEs for Years 10-11?
Sale: "We have looked at offering the Middle Years Programme for many years and our legacy KS3 curriculum was based on some of the ideas of the MYP. We also feel the necessity to offer GCSEs for our students and what they want to do, and we are incredibly proud of our GCSE outcomes.
"Now that the IBO offers a flexible MYP, where you can do it for two, three or five years, we have opted to do it for three years. This means that we can have the broadest and most balanced KS3 curriculum possible, for as long as possible. It means that we can ensure our students have the richest education before they take their GCSEs."
Hearn: "We want to deliver GCSEs but through the IB’s Approaches to Learning Skills (ATL). We've given staff a huge amount of time to plan a new KS3 curriculum and we’re excited to see what an IB-style GCSE programme will look like. As well as continuing to improve outcomes, I think it will give our students a far more exciting experience than GCSEs alone can do.
"GCSEs are very different to the IB; they are very fixed in terms of the curriculum, and very regimented in terms of the questions that students are expected to ask. We hope to make it much more exciting by revisiting it and refreshing it. I think we are in a strong position to do that because we're working on the basis of very good outcomes.
"As well as ensuring that students are well prepared for the rigour of GCSEs, the MYP prepares students for continuing their IB learning journey with the IBCP or IBDP. However, should they choose to study A Levels, the skills and knowledge that they develop through the MYP will support students during their A Level studies,
"The decision to move to the MYP was the first thing that we did in March 2020 when I became Principal and Jo became Vice Principal. We immediately signed up for the online course – right in the middle of lockdown – and we had so much excitement from our staff. We now have the vast majority of staff teaching IB programmes, which I think is hugely exciting from a collaboration point of view."
A major consultation into the future of exams is underway in the UK amid calls for the end to GCSEs.
Q: As leaders of a state school that offers GCSEs, what changes would you like to see in the National Curriculum for England? Should we keep GCSE exams?
Hearn: "We see the benefits of completing coursework and understand that it helps to remove the pressure of exams for many students. However, when I look at our Year 13 students at the moment, who are just about to sit their IB exams having not done GCSE exams in 2021, they are finding it incredibly difficult. They haven’t experienced the external pressure of exams yet and now, suddenly, they're being asked to sit exams externally for the first time that are going to make the decision about whether they go to university or not."
Sale: "I think it’s important that students learn to sit exams before their final year. I think we all learned in 2020 and 2021 that when you pull those exams, you take away much more than just sitting in an exam hall and writing a paper. They are a real rite of passage. I think students learn incredibly important things about themselves and how they cope with pressure."
As well as offering breadth in the curriculum (it offers offer 10 at languages at Sixth Form and over 30 courses at GCSE), Impington runs is own timetabled enrichment programme called iCAS. This is encourages every student to get involved in creativity, activity and service activities as varied as pottery, sports leadership, yoga, swimming, first aid and Greek philosophy.
Q: How is this all-round learning experience helping your students to develop outside of the classroom and beyond exam grades – and why has iCAS become a model for success?
Hearn: "Getting into university is getting harder, and we’re making sure our students leave with more than grades and an IB score.
"That’s why we launched iCAS in 2018, and it’s now offered to all our students from Year 7-13; sixth formers can choose whether they participate in this for their CAS, or do something else.
"Most activities are delivered by teachers, based on their personal interests and hobbies – and these can be as varied as ultimate frisbee, fencing, baking, Aikido, Portuguese or Russian, Mandarin, ceramics and ballroom dancing… all sorts of things. Also, about 10% of the main school go out volunteering in the local community – to the local primary schools, to care homes, litter picking, all sorts of things.
"We believe we should provide our students with the best possible experiences, to rival some of the experiences that they might get in an independent school, because why not? Also, because they get that opportunity to do something that helps them develop a love of learning, and to undertake service learning because it makes them better human beings."
Sale: "It gives our students the understanding that learning is not just about what happens in the classroom. The concept of experiential learning is so important to the IB programme."
Hearn: "Our younger students get that sense of being a risk-taker, which is an important part of the IB Learner Profile. Students can try something new or something they think they won’t like or will be too hard – like Mandarin, tag rugby or yoga. When they try it, they see that they can do it – and they enjoy it.
"When you ask students what they like about the school, they’ll say iCAS. They really understand that it makes this school special. These opportunities to go and do something new sit outside of the mainstream curriculum, away from exams."
Q: What are your future plans for Impington?
Hearn: "There’s no room for us to expand, despite many requests from the local community. That's definitely not on the cards. Instead, our priorities are to develop the curriculum at Key Stage Four so that we can deliver a true continuum, and to continue to develop experiences for our students beyond the curriculum.
"We had the Turing Scheme bid last year, which was a massive success, and we want to explore that more over the coming few years. Just before Easter, we had students from France and Germany and Spain visiting on an exchange and things like that, and we want to provide students with the chance to go to amazing places
"Moving forward, we will also continue to respond to the challenges around funding and the recruitment of teachers. We may be an IB school, but we are also a state school with the same amount of funding as everybody else, and I have the same worries about things like the budget and recruitment. We work exceptionally hard to deliver what we do, and t to continue to do that will be a challenge."
Q: How has your own education influenced your outlook on what makes a great school for children today?
Sale: "The international mindedness of the IB is something that I’ve always been incredibly passionate about because it really chimed with various aspects of my boarding school education. There were many international students with very different experiences of life, and sitting alongside them in the classroom drew me towards teaching the IBDP and then leading the IBDP.
"I like the excitement of walking into a classroom and knowing that every student comes from a different background and has been educated differently. There’s an incredible spark from such a melting pot of students. It’s always been the IB that's kept me here, particularly the IB within the state sector, which is so unusual and so precious."