Breaking out of the confines of A-levels with the IB

The Telegraph, 25/04/15, supporters of the International Baccalaureate – and there are many – claim it teaches pupils how to think, says Eleanor Doughty. HMC member schools Fettes CollegeStephen Perse FoundationSevenoaks SchoolSedbergh School feature.

To IB or not to IB? That may indeed be the question. As examination reforms continue to roll out with the introduction of linear A-levels, some teenagers will be faced with more than just a choice of subjects, come the end of their GCSEs.

Over the past decade, schools nationwide have been finding the source of a curricular itch: the International Baccalaureate Diploma. The qualification that first established its headquarters in Geneva in 1968 is said by some to be the fix for a well-rounded further education syllabus.

It comprises a wide-ranging selection of six subjects, three of which are taken at standard level, and three at higher. A further two modules are sat in the Theory of Knowledge (ToK) and Creativity, Action and Service (CAS), and the final push is an extended essay of 4,000 words.

Immediately then, the IB offers more variety than the standard A-level trifecta. Assessed with exams at the end of a two-year period, it is marked out of a maximum total of 45 points, seven for each subject, and a further three on the extended essay and ToK elements.

The unofficial “pass rate” is 24, for the diploma is only awarded to those that have achieved north of this number. At Trinity College, Cambridge, prospective English literature students need 40-41 points, with 7-7-6 across the higher-level subjects. This compares to an A-level expectation of A*, A, A.

The diploma is not, however, the norm. Just 135 schools in the UK offer it – 79 independent schools, and 56 state. Of the top 20 best state schools for the IB, just under half are grammar schools.

Edinburgh’s Fettes College is the only school in Scotland to run a concurrent IB and A-level programme for its sixth form. They first began to consider the IB when the Curriculum 2000 reforms were being introduced at the beginning of the noughties.

“We weren’t sure whether the gold standard of A-level would be tarnished and wanted a rigorous academic alternative to put in its place,” Andrew Shackleton, director of studies and IB coordinator, explains. “We wanted to offer an alternative curriculum that would ensure that we were allowing all pupils to play to their strengths.”

The diploma is doing well at Fettes, and with the uncertainty of new A-level reforms, there has been a “significant growth in interest” in it. “There is no longer a large difference between an A-level and an IB subject.”

One fundamental distinction remains: all IB pupils must study mathematics, and also a science subject. Maintaining this scientific core has a “massive impact” on possible career directions, says Simon Armitage, the former head of sixth form who introduced the IB at the Stephen Perse Foundation, Cambridge, in 2008.

The school now has a 50/50 take-up, A-level to IB. “Some find that they are surprised by how their love of science develops and also the connections and applications to humanities. You can mix this into A-level but it is harder and the choices less varied.”

But the shining light for the IB is the breadth of the curriculum outside the standard triple-subject scope of A-levels. The Theory of Knowledge module is universally popular.

“The IB offers a clear vision of what an educated 18-year-old in the 21st century looks like,” says John Sprague, director of IB at Sevenoaks School in Kent, which boasts the only fully-IB sixth form in the country. “Theory of Knowledge provides students with the opportunity to explore the higher-order thinking associated with weighing up the various approaches to knowledge that they are presented with.”

The IB is not only useful for life at and beyond university, but getting into it too. More than 90 per cent of the 200-pupil-a-year cohort at Sevenoaks make it into their first-choice university every year.

“Questions about the various uses of evidence, methods, conclusions and implications of knowledge are those elements that universities seem to be most interested in during admissions interviews,” Sprague says. “Whereas other students might get tripped up on these, IB students have already spent a significant amount of time reflecting on them.”

“No one ever regrets doing the IB at the end of the course,” Shackleton says, but getting them there might be a different process entirely.

A common hesitation is that academic interests might lie specifically in one camp or the other: science and maths, or humanities and arts. While the two are not mutually exclusive, the A-level allows for a specialism one way or the other, and the IB limits choice. “We may have pupils who are really only interested in arts subjects, and if, so, then the A-level may be right for them.”

While compulsory maths and science might appeal to policymakers, critics argue that it is wrong to pressure children into studying subjects that they are not good at.

“We do not believe that IB students who are weaker in maths and science are negatively affected,” Briggs says. “The maths studies course is an excellent preparation for the practical maths that will be found in the workplace, and is accessible to students of a wide range of abilities.”

In a world of IB-only further education, there could be no gender split for STEM subjects, and no discernible lack of mathematical intelligence among graduates entering the workplace.

But while some independent schools have welcomed the IB, not all have embraced it. At Sedbergh School in Cumbria, A-levels are still the only choice at 16-18.

“The inflexibility of the diploma rules it out for schools that respond to pupils’ individual interests – the scientist must study languages and the artist must study science,” headmaster Andrew Fleck says. “For many pupils it would be like Shredded Wheat – good for you but not entirely enjoyable.”

While academically, the IB isn’t for everyone, the added extra elements certainly have appeal. At the Stephen Perse Foundation, both A-level and IB students study on the Theory of Knowledge and CAS modules.

“ToK is simply too good to be kept for the IB students alone,” Armitage says. “We often find it is the thing that IB students refer back to when they get to university.”

Preparation at school for the independent learning, thinking and studying element of university is certainly advantageous. While the University of Cambridge claims “there is no academic bias between A-level and IB”, American universities are more positive.

“Students who apply with IB credentials are assumed to be mature, curious and creative,” Pamela Horne, assistant to the provost for enrolment and director of admissions at Michigan State University says. “My eyes light up when I see 'International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme’ on a transcript.”

Some would argue that the IB’s wider elements should be introduced to the new A-level curriculum. If they were, then perhaps the linear system would face up to its increasingly present rival.

“The Theory of Knowledge course is essential in the IB’s mission,” Sprague says. “It trains students how to think.”

If that isn’t a tantalising advert for the International Baccalaureate, then it’s hard to know what is. For whichever path one takes in life, that “thinking” might just come in useful.

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