Making the right choice

In the April issue of Independent Schools Magazine, Joe Davies, Master at Haileybury School talks about making decisions about what to do post-16. 

It doesn’t seem that long ago when making decisions about what to do post-16 was relatively straight forward. One chose the three or four subjects to study at A Level (usually your favourite and invariably your strongest) that gave you the best chance of getting the grades to head off to a well-regarded university. Curriculum 2000 changed the situation. Students were to choose 4 AS subjects, ideally from a broad spread of disciplines. Universities were encouraged to expect as much. However, within a couple of years universities made it apparent they didn’t all expect a fourth AS. It was rarely part of an offer and hence many pupils lost interest in their fourth subject; psychologically “dropping it” after less than 9 months to concentrate on the three that mattered. Students also had to be mindful of the A Levels they were choosing. Whether they were, in the eyes of university admissions tutors, ’hard’ or ’soft’ subjects was more important than finding them intellectually interesting. Students now have to be aware that there are ten ’facilitating’ A Levels.

The common denominator in all of this is university demands. Haileybury, like all good schools, wants its pupils to obtain a place at their first choice university. However, one can’t help but feel that having an overly narrow emphasis on this result can lead us all to being a little short-sighted in this regard; are we focussing too much on a three year course rather than a 43 year career? 

Against the backdrop of politically induced A Level instability other post-16 options have come to the fore. Comparatively new qualifications have emerged such as the AQABacc and the Cambridge Pre-U, whilst a rather less new qualification has grown in reputation and uptake. The IB Diploma is now over 40 years old and in that time
changed relatively little in structure and average grade award. Haileybury has been teaching both Diploma and A Levels since 1998. Much has been written about the Diploma in
the last decade and its compulsory breadth and the challenging nature of Higher Levels and Core course (Theory of Knowledge and a 4000 word Extended Essay) should make
it highly desirable to university admissions tutors. Despite claims to the contrary universities appear, however, to have been slow to understand the demands of the programme. Many admissions tutors seem to focus almost entirely on the supposed A Level equivalent, HL scores in the range of 766, whilst ignoring over 600 hours of studying for 3 SL subjects and the Core requirements. Otherwise many have set total points score offers that are in no way equivalent to three modular A Levels. Few if any seem to acknowledge the UCAS Tariff table which equates , for example, AAA to just 29 points. Haileybury’s average last year was just over 39, the equivalent of 4A*s and a B according to UCAS but not, seemingly, the universities themselves.

And so we return to choosing at 16. At Haileybury pupils are fully informed about the nature and demands of both programmes and encouraged to think about what will be beneficial for them when they are 25 or even 35, not just when they are 18. However, it is understandable that as university applications loom on the horizon, parents are certainly aware of the nature of most IB Diploma offers. The attraction of emphasising just three subjects rather than dividing efforts across six is hard to ignore. Why study
Maths or French, for example, when you’re not very good at them? Particularly if it means you miss out on your 38+ points requirement. The long-term benefits of studying
two more years of Maths or another language just don’t feel important enough at the time. Therefore, many universities are inadvertently dissuading bright, ambitious 16 year
olds from choosing the IB Diploma.

This problem has widespread implications. Many schools are opting not to offer the IB Diploma because uptake will be low from their own pupils and they will become dependent upon overseas pupils filling the places; an option only available to boarding schools. By reducing the number of Diploma graduates universities are reducing the pool of multi-skilled, openminded, balanced individuals who will go on and perform well in Higher Education and beyond. The April 2011 HESA concluded that IB Diploma graduates were, in most subjects, more likely to achieve first and upper second class honours awards. King’s College London recently announced their intention to lower their IB Diploma requirements and hence publically recognise Diploma Graduates’ potential, confirming what we have known at Haileybury for nearly 15 years. The IB Diploma programme is an exciting, holistic curriculum that prepares pupils for the academic and employment challenges of the 21st century. We understand that for some pupils a pure “Scientific” Sixth Form experience is preferable: Maths, Further Maths and two or more sciences is a combination not available within the IB Diploma but welcomed by Cambridge and others. Interestingly we have had more IB Diploma pupils, than their A Level peers, go on to read Medicine (regarded as another area requiring the specialism of A Levels) in recent years. In September Haileybury added a “third-way” for our Sixth Formers. Pupils can opt for A Levels but are strongly encouraged to also join their IB peers in studying Theory of Knowledge and/or completing an Extended Essay. This has the twin benefits of bringing our Sixth Formers closer together, our A Level and IB Diploma pupils share ideas in class and experience the challenge and rewards of these courses, whilst better preparing our A Level pupils in the fields of epistemology and research. This year alone, over half of our A Level pupils have taken up this route.

I have no doubt that the IB educational experience will have long-term benefits for Haileyburians; whether other universities join KCL in recognising this and giving pupils due credit for the IB Diploma, in part or whole, remains to be seen. Universities should welcome Diploma graduates from the UK and the rest of the world with open arms. We, at
Haileybury, look forward to hearing of similar news from other Russell Group universities. In the meantime we will stick to our principles that a Haileybury education is for life and more than just a ticket to university.

Click here to read the article © Independent Schools Magazine.