The way we live now

John Claughton delves into the world of the International Baccalaureate and its place in the independent education sector

In 2014, the Royal Society produced a survey about 16+ education of which the first recommendation was as follows: 

‘In order to ensure young people have a broad and balanced education through to age 18, baccalaureate-style frameworks should be introduced. Inspirational science and mathematics curricula should be placed at the heart of these, and should emphasise practical work and problem-solving. The new frameworks should incorporate subjects in the arts, humanities and social sciences and place equal value on vocational learning.’

Of course, the eminent figures who produced this report did not specify the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma, but they might just as well have done. After all, it does do exactly what they ask. It offers a breadth of study rather than narrow specialisation; it explicitly aims to teach skills, communication, teamwork, problem-solving, independent research and study. It even has some aims and values: 

‘The International Baccalaureate aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect [and 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.’ 

Despite this grand support and noble purpose, the IB Diploma still remains a minority activity. The number of students completing the Diploma in the independent sector may have grown by 7.8% in 2016 and by 21% since 2011 but that is still only 2,177 students out of 37,242 who took exams in Year 13 – and that is less than 6% of the total.

There are plenty of reasons why the IB Diploma is not more widespread. On the one hand, in schools that offer both IB and A-levels, it’s not easy to convince students (and parents) to lay aside the old dispensation, to take on more work, to continue with six subjects when the university games allows them to do only three. On the other, it’s a massive – and risky – call for an independent school to abandon A-levels entirely and set forth onto the unknown ocean of IB, and only IB. There are financial implications too, in that running a dual economy does create smaller set sizes and thereby higher costs and IB’s training, although cheaper and more accessible than it was, is an additional expense.  

Even so, there are lots of different independent schools that are deeply committed to the IB Diploma and are seeing it grow. This article is a compilation of the voices to be heard in some of those schools, from Taunton to Scarborough via Warminster, Bradfield, The Abbey School in Reading, St Edward’s, Oxford, the Stephen Perse Foundation in Cambridge and Oakham. It sounds like a verse from The Slow Train by Flanders and Swann. In all but one of those schools, the IB Diploma dwells alongside A-levels and is taken up by between 20% and 50% of the sixth form students. At Scarborough College, however, it’s the only game in town – apart from cricket, of course. 

These different schools took up the IB Diploma, whether in 2001 at Oakham or in 2011 at Bradfield, for similar reasons. There was, of course, the negative reason – the growing, and as yet unresolved, dissatisfaction with A-levels and the desire to escape from, as Rachel Dent, Head at The Abbey School, put it: “the increasingly rickety A-level model, and to insulate them from the vicissitudes of government interference with syllabuses and exam boards.” There can be commercial reasons, too – the desire to differentiate what you offer from the competition or attract students from a wider pool, particularly overseas. However, the positive reasons were more important: the desire for greater challenge and rigour, the broadening of academic and intellectual ambitions.

In the end, most of these schools took up the IB Diploma because it matched the kind of schools they were or the kind of schools they wanted to be. The Diploma was aligned with the education that schools aimed to provide and Nigel Lashbrook, Head of Oakham, speaks for most heads when he says: “At Oakham, with its focus on learning inside and outside the classroom, a strong service element in the school and its successful DofE programme (we call all this the Total Curriculum), IB was very much in line with our school’s educational philosophy. We felt that we had been an IB school before we even started teaching the Diploma.”

The word ‘international’ in International Baccalaureate mattered too, and perhaps matters more now, post-Brexit and, as I write, pre-Trump. 

Of course, rhetoric is often the specialist subject of heads, but the reality doesn’t always match the rhetoric. So, what is that reality? Well, these schools would all agree that the IB has done what they hoped and made a material difference to the education of their students and the nature of their schools. It has created more challenge and excitement in lessons, more questioning, more thought, and especially more thought across disciplines. The heads at Scarborough and St Edward’s in Oxford, agree that their schools feel more academic and intellectual, with a lot more purpose. The Learner Profile, a list of qualities from ‘reflective’ to ‘risk-taking’, actually does inform the education of IB students, and many schools are taking these ideas down into their younger years. The structure of IB really does allow students to keep their post-school options open for longer. No head had the audacity to say that all of his/her staff loved the IB, but all agree that the vast majority of staff have been glad of the change and the challenge and can see the difference in their lessons: there is more going on, more thought, more questions, more connections. As for the students themselves, it isn’t always love at first sight. After all, there is an easier A-level life visible to them all, a life in which they can give up on Maths or English or a language and have more free periods, a life without Extended Essays and Theory of Knowledge presentations or the unremitting demands of Internal Assessments and Term 4. So, the students are ‘glad in the end, or ‘come to see its value’ or ‘love it in the end’.

One reason why they may come to love it is that IB students are finding themselves in a buyer’s market in terms of university entry. It really can no longer be said that universities do not understand or value IB, even if Cambridge really do need to think again about their offers. It’s not only that a growing number of universities, like King’s College London, Leeds, Birmingham and Bath, are actively recruiting by lowering their offers. It’s the fact that IB students are getting more and better offers from better universities and are very often getting accepted even if they miss, and miss by a distance. Several schools talked of 100% (or close to it) success rate in students getting to their 1st choice university. Of course, the universities cannot come out and say they prefer IB, but one head said: “Our students tell us they felt as if a red carpet had been rolled out for them on Open Days, admissions tutors tell us informally that they cannot say how much they want to recruit IB students without being politically incorrect.” 

From my experience at King Edward’s, Birmingham, IB has done wonders for medicine applicants and Oxbridge. The most striking area of agreement is that it is the middle-ground candidates, not the very best, that benefit most from doing IB: the very structure, demands and discipline of an IB course might just be good for them. One school said that even their Diploma failures were still getting university offers. Once at universities, the IB students constantly celebrate the advantages they felt in their first year in being prepared for presentations, research and independent learning. The Core of the Extended Essay and Theory of Knowledge can seem more chore than core during the programme, but it is these things that students value most in their university years.

Lest, dear reader, you think that this is only IB propaganda, these heads – and I – would of course make these comments, but the land of IB is not all sunlit uplands. Just as heads agreed on the advantages, they also agreed about the flaws and the wrinkles. IB is hard work – ‘gruelling’ is one word that was used, and the average IB student probably is working 20/30% harder than an A-level comparator; there are frustrations with some marking and with bureaucracy and cost; and it remains true that HL Maths is too hard and can be a great dissuader. However, the biggest regret that all heads have about IB is that they can’t get more of their students to take it on, particularly more of their homegrown students. Heads may have to be even-handed between A-levels and IB in their public pronouncements but, in the privacy of their studies, they know that then IB Diploma is a true education, not just a syllabus, some past papers and some mark schemes. 

So, what of the future for IB in these schools? All the heads want IB to grow in their schools and, in almost all cases, they can see that growth, albeit incremental. None of the IB/A-level providers can see themselves becoming 100% IB because they like the breadth and choice of doing both. However, there are other developments, too. Warminster School is only the second HMC school to take on the career-related programme, which combines two Diploma subjects with a range of other qualifications and courses which are more vocational. Mark Mortimer, Head at Warminster, believes that this course really can fill the void between the vocational and the academic and provide for the range of talents in his schools. It may just be that, just as the Diploma programme is doing what the Royal Society, and others, want, the career-related programme could be an answer to another unanswered question in British education.

John Claughton is Development Manager at International Baccalaureate Schools and Colleges Association and he is a former Chief Master at King Edward’s School, Birminingham (2006–2016)

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