Ali Lawrence and Jill Witkamp, founders of Palma College in Mallorca on the challenges of opening the island’s first international sixth form college
LB: Congratulations on the opening of the College. When did you open?
AL: We opened for our first students in September of 2013.
LB: How did you both meet?
AL: We met through a mutual contact who was looking into setting up an online college.
JW: We were both working freelance for another company on the island.
LB: Can you tell us how the business idea came about?
AL: 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.
JW: About seven 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 on 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.
LB: How easy was it to set up a College on Mallorca? What were the highs and lows of the process?
AL: 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 government 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.
JW: Setting up any business is hard and firstly you have to be sure it is viable. We spent the first year and 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 examination board, finding the right building, enrolling the first student and many more.
LB:Where are you both from and what brought you to Mallorca?
AL: I am originally from Edinburgh in Scotland and have taught in independent schools of the highest calibre for many years. I came to Mallorca after the death of my mother intending to take a normal teaching job. I did this and then began to see where the independent sector could be improved in Mallorca.
JW: 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 9 years ago to Mallorca and took over a Yacht Management business, which my husband still runs today.
LB: Tell us about the College, its philosophy and what sets it apart from other schools on the island.
AL: 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.
JW: Our aim is to not only to help students achieve their academics 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.
LB: What curriculum does the College follow?
AL: Presently we are delivering A Levels in the following subjects: Art and Design, Biology, Business Studies, Chemistry, English Literature, French, German, Mathematics, Physics, Psychology, Performing Arts, Travel and Tourism and Spanish. Additionally from September we will be running short courses in subjects such as Photography and Finance. We are looking towards offering some vocational courses in the near future for students who have a particular interest in, for example, media.
LB: How is a pupil’s day typically structured?
AL: 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!
JW: The college hours are from 9am till 5pm but when they have free periods they can go into Palma. In reality the average student does not have many free periods and love being in the college in their free times. They will normally study 3-4 A level subjects spread over the week, plus attending the enrichment programme which is held every Thursday afternoon.
LB: Where is the College located? Why did you choose this location?
AL: We are in the beautiful street of Can Veri which runs parallel to Es Born in the centre of Palma.
JW: In the heart of Palma 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 college we knew it was the perfect place. It was formally an art & design college and in the early days a shoe college!
LB: How did you find the premises?
AL: We had to find premises which already had an Educational Licence from the Counsell. We were lucky to find this space which was previously a school of design and before that a shoe making school! The building was filled to the rafters with old equipment and machinery and it took a number of months to get it fit for our opening.
JW: I spent a lot of time scanning website and estate agents for the right property. We were also limited to a building that already had a licence for a school or college otherwise we would have the huge problem of changing its usage. The college was advertised on a website.
LB: What is the typical profile of alumni at the College?
AL: There isn’t one! We have over 12 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 16 years before the start of the term in September as we are post compulsory education in Spain.
JW: 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.
LB: Approximately what is the ratio of local pupils to non-Spanish pupils? How many nationalities do you currently have within the College?
JW: Most of the students this year were already living on Mallorca but we have one that came from the UK and one from Israel. In September we will have a student coming from Switzerland. Nationalities include; English, Spanish, Dutch, German, Israeli, Danish, French, Swiss, Russian, etc.
LB: What sort of support networks do you provide for new families that come to the College from abroad to help them integrate and settle in?
AL: We have a group ‘Friends of Palma College’ which is made up of existing parents and also people from all walks of life in Mallorca who support us. This group exists to support both the students in extra curricular events (such as Charity Fundraising) and also to welcome new parents and families.
JW: We try to help where possible with families or students moving to Mallorca. As I have lived here for a while I can point them in the right direction for help with residency, student visas, housing, etc. We have even helped arrange “home stay” for one student. 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.
LB: What are the greatest advantages and benefits for a family from, or living in Mallorca, to give their children a British education in such an international setting?
AL: 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.
JW: 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 world.
LB: What is the most rewarding element of running the College?
AL: The relationships amongst the staff and students – watching the encouragement of these young people by adults who really have a vocation.
JW: 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.
LB: What are the future plans for Palma College?
AL: We have already have had to extend our premises to incorporate more space for Drama and Art. Our maximum number of students is 50 (25 per 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 each Lower Sixth pupil 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.
JW: The core business will always be a sixth form college but we hope to be able to offer some vocational courses and art master classes.
LB: Can you describe Palma College in three words?
AL: Encouraging, stretching, rewarding.
JW: Inclusive, inspirational, international.
LB: And finally, tell us your favourite things about Palma itself.
AL: The architecture, the family life, the buzz and the sun!