A world of choice

The IB is gaining ground among students keen to combine breadth with rigour. Amy McLellan explains its popularity
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The Independent Online

A quarter of head teachers in England would prefer to drop A-levels in favour of the International Baccalaureate, according to a recent poll. That would mean pupils studying six subjects instead of the three at present.

The uncertainty about the future of A-levels - and the dulling of their reputation as the educational gold standard - has contributed to the rise of the International Baccalaureate (IB) in the UK. Some 74 schools have been authorised by the Geneva-based International Baccalaureate Organisation - and the tally is rising.

Some schools, such as Sevenoaks in Kent and King's College School in Wimbledon, are ditching A-levels altogether. Others are easing themselves in gently. At the North London Collegiate School, now teaching its first IB cohort, the head Bernice McCabe says that the IB provides an alternative academic route to higher education. This is echoed by Fiona Cordeaux, head of St Dunstan's College in south-east London, which has also introduced the IB. "This is not about undermining A-levels," she stresses. "It's about offering real choice and real opportunity because the two methodologies will suit different students. We have no plan to do away with A-levels."

In fact, A-levels may have little to do with the surge in popularity of the IB. Gareth Rees, the vice-principal of the United World College of the Atlantic, in Wales, which has offered the IB since the early 1970s, declares: "Our students are not refugees from the A-level system." Moreover, waning confidence in A-levels certainly wouldn't explain the worldwide rise of the IB, now taught in 1,462 schools from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe. Instead, it seems that the central tenets of the IB - its breadth, international ethos and emphasis on developing the young person as an active citizen of the world - are gaining ground in our fraught and competitive times.

Cordeaux describes the IB as an "educational euro" because of its international currency. "It gives students a competitive edge in a globally mobile world," says Cordeaux. "We are a multinational school in a very diverse community, so our pupils and their parents already have an inherently global outlook."

For their IB diplomas, pupils study six subjects, which must include languages, the arts, science and, importantly, maths, as well as tackling Theory of Knowledge, a 4,000-word essay project and participating in creative, sports and community activities. This breadth is a real draw for 16-year-olds not yet ready to specialise, such as Meg Inman, 18, now in her final term at Atlantic College. "I was stuck when choosing my A-levels because I found it hard to pick just three subjects," she recalls. "I liked science and design but I also wanted to do geography and languages. The IB meant I could do everything."

But breadth does not come at the expense of rigour, a fact appreciated by universities. Point-based scoring allows for differentiation between students - the maximum score of 45 is sufficiently rare to be a real gold standard of achievement, and a score of 36-38 is accepted by the likes of Oxford and Cambridge. "It's regarded very highly by the Ivy League and liberal arts colleges in the States," says Rees of Atlantic College, where more than a quarter of his student body scored 40 points or more last year. "It's also loved by most universities in the UK, although there are some tiny corners where admissions tutors are not as well briefed as I would like."

Parents, however, might feel less at home with the IB and its array of subjects. While traditional arts, sciences and humanities make up the bread- and-butter of the IB, students can also study world religions, peace and conflict studies, or Asian history. Ari Cantwell, 17, a student at Atlantic College, which has worked with the International Baccalaureate Organisation over many decades to develop original modules for its students, has taken full advantage of this. "Before I came here, I wanted to do either English or theatre studies, but meeting people from all around the world has made me really interested in learning about other cultures," says Ari, who hopes to study Arabic and development at the School of Oriental and African Studies.

The American Community Schools, based in Cobham, Egham and Hillingdon, with a combined head count of 2,500 pupils, have started to develop their own modules. The superintendent, Malcolm Kay, says: "I think this will be very worthwhile. It's important we prepare our students for a world that in 20 years' time could be quite different. We want to be on the cutting edge because we think it will serve our students well."

Yet the IB isn't for everyone. The workload is heavy and requires a certain independence of thought. Those who are keen to specialise will be better suited to A-levels. The time management challenge of juggling six subjects, an extended essay and various extracurricular activities will not suit all teenagers. The compulsory maths element can also, unfortunately, be a turn-off.

Nor will all schools be willing to adopt the IB. Some estimates reckon that it adds 4 per cent to costs through the additional burden on the timetable. And, while teachers are used to regular curriculum change, the IB authorisation process requires rigorous training and extra work, which may well come on top of the existing A-level workload. The economics of the situation will be likely, eventually, to force many schools offering the dual system to choose. Whether that choice is for A-levels or the IB, only time will tell.