A diploma for our times

Headmaster - Nigel LashbrookSunday Times, 10.07.16,  HMC member Nigel Lashbrook, headmaster of leading independent Oakham School in Rutland writes in favour of the International Baccalaureate.

Quietly, carefully and with due credit to Carlsberg, some British schools have been teaching what they believe to be “probably the best sixth-form education in the world”. A course considered globally to be the most academically rigorous currently in use. Yet it remains relatively unknown in the UK.

It is the International Baccalaureate Diploma, the sixth-form offering from the IB programme that also educates students from age three.

Now its reputation might just be set to grow, because its cornerstones, everything it represents and offers to students, are front-page news. The IB provides outstanding breadth at a time when the curriculum is narrowing. It develops students’ key skills at a time when businesses and universities are complaining they are grossly lacking. It gives students a world-renowned qualification.

But crucially, at its very core, the IB seeks to encourage all pupils to think globally. Its mission is “to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect”. Very few people could dispute, regardless of how they voted in the referendum, that this is a near perfect definition of what education should be focusing on right now.

The IB is not for everyone, but it certainly should be discussed and considered alongside all the other educational programmes available — including A-levels, BTECs and apprenticeships — before settling on the one that fits best. That’s why in my school we offer both IB and A-levels. But the advantages of IB are such that surely the time is right for the diploma to take centre stage in the UK’s educational provision.
Its popularity is certainly growing. The number of students studying for the IB in the UK has doubled in the last 10 years, from 2,402 students in 2006 to 4,891 in 2015. But while the UK has the third largest cohort of IB students in the world, we still have some way to go before we catch up with the US (78,449 students) and Canada (10,544 students).

Recent changes to A-levels provide be the push needed for parents to now consider the IB. The new, linear A-levels have either no or much-reduced coursework. Every IB subject, by contrast, has 25-55% of internally assessed components. For example, pupils studying English will undertake coursework worth 55% of their final grade, including a written assignment, an oral exam and spoken literary analysis of an extract of a text they have studied. This suits children of different aptitudes and, most vitally, develops a range of skills beyond the ability to simply do well in a written exam.

It’s the development of these highly valued skills in communication, independent research and teamwork that may begin to tempt more families to choose the IB — especially when a lack of employability skills is becoming headline news. The British Chambers of Commerce recently announced that 88% of businesses think school leavers are unprepared for the workplace.

IB students can hone these much-needed skills, not just through their coursework but also by participating in a challenging critical-thinking course called Theory of Knowledge, and undertaking the Extended Essay, where they write a dissertation-style research project. Both prepare students for the rigour of university by teaching them to do independent research, analyse evidence and prepare their thoughts into a well-written (or verbalised) point of view. It is no wonder, then, that universities value the IB Diploma more than other qualifications (evidenced from research by ACS International Schools and from our own experience).

Indeed, we find they actively want IB students, as they find they settle in more quickly and feel more comfortable with the self-sufficiency demanded by higher education. Their offers certainly reflect this: from our experience, over the last 15 years, we have seen a typical offer lowered because universities really value IB students. Just one example is King’s College London, where the highest offer they will now make to IB students to study any of its courses is 35 points (34 is equivalent to AAB).

Another reason for families to now choose the IB is its breadth. The current educational climate is one that values a narrow, academically focused curriculum, where the arts and non-core subjects are in danger of being sidelined. The Diploma doesn’t narrow life down at age 16; instead it begins to open up the world to its students in their university choices and career pathways. This is because they have to study more subjects (six instead of the comparable three A-levels) across a broader academic spectrum, including maths, their own language, a foreign language, a social science, an experimental science and an arts subject.

The IB Diploma really is a game-changer, not just for those who study it but for the influence it will have when these students move out into the workplace. Given all the changes coming to our society, our economy and our politics, the IB’s ethos — to “encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right” — has never felt more apt. Perhaps it should be mandatory for all our future politicians to study for the IB Diploma.

Read more © Sunday Times