The IB: a better world through education?

As the International Baccalaureate (IB) celebrates its 50th year, John Claughton reflects on the programme’s history

‘At our heart we are motivated by a mission to create a better world through education.’

Thus speaks the International Baccalaureate and it has now been saying this for 50 years since its creation 1968. That mission is not some dreamers’ charter. It informs the design of everything that IB offers:  

‘The International Baccalaureate aims to develop young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect. IB’s courses encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.’

In those 50 years, education secretaries have come and gone, and A-levels have been marched up to the top of the hill and down again. In those same 50 years, the IB’s purpose has remained constant, offering breadth not specialisation, teaching skills and thought rather than just content and memory, making curriculum form assessment not vice versa, immune to government intervention and grade inflation.

However, the International Baccalaureate has not lived in a steady state universe. In 1968, seven schools offered the newly created Diploma Programme. In 2018, 50 years on, 1.5 million students from 4775 schools in 153 countries study the IB which now comes in four flavours, the Primary Years programme (PYP) the Middle Years Programme (MYP), the Original Diploma Programme (DP) and, the most recent creation of 2012, the Career-related Programme (CP).  

The global graph for IB draws a line that leads constantly upwards. The story in the UK is less linear. There was a time when that nice Mr Blair spoke of an IB school in every LEA and, a decade ago, there were over 200 IB schools in this country, of which the vast majority were in the state sector. Now that number is nearly halved, even if the number of IB candidates continues to increase. And independent schools are substantially in the majority. 

The state sector story is a simple one to tell, a game of three halves. The schools that have committed totally to IB, like Dartford Grammar School, Tonbridge Grammar School, Hockerill, Anglo-European School have prospered greatly. On the other hand, schools and sixth form colleges offering both IB and A-levels have very often not been able to bear the costs in hard financial times. On the third hand, the most significant development has been the growth of the CP programme, a curriculum that bridges the academic/vocational divide. There are 25 schools in Kent offering the CP, with nearly as many in the pipeline, and independent schools, Ryde, Warminster, Sidcot and Stonyhurst, are taking it up, too, because of its quality and flexibility.

In the wider independent sector, the story has been more complex. Some UK independent schools, like Sevenoaks, KCS Wimbledon, North London Collegiate School, Cheltenham Ladies’ College, King Edward’s School, Birmingham are amongst the highest-performing IB schools in the world. However, some high-profile schools have retired from the IB fray, albeit reluctantly, because of a lack of take-up. And it does remain a wrestle for schools offering IB and A-levels to attract students to the greater challenge of IB’s six subjects, plus an Extended Essay and Theory of Knowledge, when the alternative is the simplicity of three A-levels. 

For all that, there is growth, and often substantial growth, in the majority of independent schools. St Edward’s Oxford has seen the biggest change, from 11 Diploma students in 2011 to 76 now in Year 13: the majority of sixth form students now study the IB. Wellington College has gone from a year group of 35 in 2010 to 101 in the current Year 12. Bradfield College, with 16 IB pupils five years ago, will have over 90 in September. North London Collegiate School’s numbers have increased from seven to 44 in two years. Christ Hospital’s Year 12 in September will be 60% higher than the numbers of 2016. And so it goes on. 

Why? Sam Thater, Head of IB at Whitgift School, summarises some of the key ones: “There is a growing awareness of just how excellent (and well-respected) a qualification IB is among students, parents and universities alike. The attractive nature of some university offers has certainly played its part, as well as the success rate among recent Oxbridge applicants. The myth that it is solely for an academic élite, or that it doesn’t provide adequate depth, has largely been de-bunked too.”

The substantial lowering of offers by universities like King’s College, London, Leeds, Birmingham, Bath, has, undoubtedly, made a big difference: schools can see that their IB students are getting more and better and more accessible offers than non-IB students. Richard Atherton from Wellington College would also add the high success rate of IB students in application to Ivy League universities. Madeleine Copin, from North London Collegiate School, puts it very simply: “Students want more than just ‘three A-levels’ from their education, and have realised that the IB is fantastic preparation for university and beyond.”

However, after 50 years, IB’s time may have finally come because there are more and more voices calling for an end to the specialisation that has beset British education for decades, if not a century. Perhaps the most significant of those voices is the President of the Royal Society, Professor Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, who said in October 2017: “The UK risks falling behind its global competitors as a result of maintaining a narrow, outdated model of post-16 education. Our narrow education system, which encourages early specialisation, is no longer fit for purpose in an increasingly interdisciplinary world.” 

You’d have to be brave to disagree with the President of the Royal Society.

John Claughton is Development Officer at International Baccalaureate Schools and Colleges Association (IBSCA). For more info, go to: 

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