Internationalism at Southbank

Cut Southbank in half and you will find at its centre the word ‘international’. For good reason, the opening sentence of the school’s mission statement reads that it is “committed to developing students who are internationally minded”. Such commitment has not been a recent cosmetic addition to the school’s image. Since its foundation, long before internationalism became a fashionable marketing tool in other schools, Southbank’s identity was built on this foundation.

That said, developments beyond the school’s influence have since helped to strengthen this identity. It would, for example, have been difficult to predict in 1979, when the school was founded, that London would develop into one of the great cosmopolitan capital cities of the world. Southbank was superbly placed to benefit from such development, reflected in the national backgrounds of the 750 students who are now enrolled here. As I write, the student body is made up of 71 nationalities, drawn from as far away as Australia, Venezuela, Russia and South Africa.

A further shot in the arm to the cause of internationalism was the school’s decision to adopt the International Baccalaureate in 1984. Again, such a development did not involve tinkering with the curriculum to give it an international appearance behind which a more Anglo-centric curriculum could lurk. Southbank was in fact the first school in the UK to adopt all three IB programmes of learning: the Primary Years Programme for the early years, through the Middle Years Programme for Grades 6 to 10, to the Diploma programme in the last two years.

Just as internationalism and multiculturalism lie at the core of the school’s character, so do they for that of the IB whose aim is “to develop internationally minded people who, recognising their common humanity and shared guardianship of the planet, help to create a better and more peaceful world”, according to its mission statement. Put the two together, and you have a school whose identity and mission are so clear that prospective parents and students should know exactly what to expect. If our students do not leave us with international and multicultural knowledge, interest, awareness and understanding, something must have gone wrong.

Such a melting pot of different cultures and nationalities, as well as providing immense benefits, also presents its challenges. We are all familiar with the difficult question of how far in our commitment to cultural understanding and tolerance we should go before a line has to be drawn. What limits, if any, should we impose on cultural tolerance, and should they be any different from those imposed in a less cosmopolitan institution? How do we reconcile our commitment to multiculturalism with an educational programme whose philosophical roots lie in western society values? Where should the line be drawn between the celebration of diversity, and the need for a school to function effectively on a common set of values? These are tricky questions that offer no easy answers in a school which rightly celebrates and promotes diversity, individualism and tolerance.

But one thing a good education should teach us is that there are no easy answers to the world’s complex questions, and that any individual or political movement claiming there is should be viewed with appropriate scepticism. Doubt is surely an intellectual strength not a weakness, and it is our responsibility to develop it in our students, even if it is seen as a virtue more by some societies than others. Or, as the IB puts it, we should develop “learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right”.

With globalisation continuing to blur lines between national borders and cultures, never has there been a greater need to develop in our schools students with a global outlook, awareness and knowledge. That is why schools like Southbank will continue to thrive, and – without sounding too starry-eyed – we can afford to be cautiously optimistic about our planet’s future.