Benefits of the IB exam

The International Baccalaureate is gaining in popularity and Sevenoaks School has decided to abandon A-levels entirely. Hester Lacey examines its appeal for independent schools
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The Independent Online

There can be few parents who remain unaware that the A-level system is flawed, given the stormy debate that has been raging over sixth-form education. There are two main charges against A-level exams. The first, which has been around for many years, is that asking pupils to choose specialist subjects at the age of 16 closes many doors for good, at a stage where few can have decided on their future careers. The second anti-A-level argument, which has emerged more recently, is that attempts to make the sixth form accessible to more students have resulted in a lowering of standards; the ubiquitous "dumbing down".

No wonder, then, that heads, teachers and parents are looking for other possibilities. The International Baccalaureate (IB) has been available from free-thinking British independent schools for the last 26 years. Now some of those schools are planning to switch exclusively to IB for their sixth formers and abandon A-levels entirely.

So what is the IB? The International Baccalaureate Organisation is based in Geneva, and its diploma, now available at 1,488 schools in 115 countries, was devised in 1968. Worldwide, 19,276 students took the diploma in 2002. Candidates must select one option from each of six academic subject groups: first and second languages (including classics), humanities, sciences, maths (including computer studies), and the arts (though another subject from one of the other groups can be substituted for the arts option). Three or four subjects are taken at higher level, the others at standard level. Also compulsory: a Theory of Knowledge strand, which investigates philosophy and cultural perspective; a Creativity, Action and Service strand, which covers sport and community action, and an extended essay of 4,000 words on a topic of special interest.

Graham Lacey, the deputy head (academic) at Sevenoaks School, which plans to offer the IB only to its sixth form from 2005, says this structure has much to offer. "There is genuine breadth, flexibility and coherence; this is the crucial difference between the IB and the pick-and-mix approach of Curriculum 2000." There is, says Lacey, a widespread realisation that A-levels are no longer a "gold standard". "But our decision was not driven by negative considerations, rather by our realisation that the principles of the IB are sound, and its increasing popularity."

Sevenoaks School, which is a co-ed boarding school, has a sixth form of around 400; 350 have opted for the IB over A-levels. The school has offered the IB for 25 years, and staff, says Lacey, enjoy teaching the courses. "In a common room of 105, those who are not committed to and enthusiastic about the IB can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The content of the courses is not radically different from A-level, and though the IB has the reputation for being innovative, some of the courses are actually very traditional." For pupils and teachers alike one of the attractions is not being put through what he calls "the exam sausage factory" of A-level modules.

Tony Evans, the headmaster of King's College School, Wimbledon, has just seen his first cohort of IB students take their diplomas. The results for the 47 boys, he says, have been "fantastic". Out of a maximum of 45 points available, the average King's College score was 37.5, against a world average of 30.6. One boy achieved the maximum 45 points, one of only 40 students worldwide to do so. "We are very pleased in terms of the depth and rigour of the IB," says Evans. "We would never offer just A-level again. The question now is when we go over completely to the IB."

Evans says the perception of the IB as too demanding for many pupils is not correct, and that the exam is no more rigorous than the German, Swiss or Japanese equivalents. The workload and organisational demands, though, he says, are more demanding than those of A-level exams. "There has been a gradual but consistent dilution of standards at A-level." Evans was particularly glad to note that those pupils who gained an average score felt a sense of achievement equal to that of the highest fliers. "There was a real sense that they had done something worthwhile."

On a practical level, the school achieved the necessary levels of retraining and timetable juggling without too much difficulty. "The teacher-training courses are fairly intensive," notes Evans. "But if you are going to take on the IB, you can't do it halfheartedly." The main problems encountered at King's College School involve the practicalities of running both A-level and IB courses alongside each other; duplicating classes can strain resources.

Boyd Roberts is principal of St Clare's, Oxford, an international college and the establishment that has offered IB for the longest in England. The college's 27th IB intake is just getting down to work; around 200 students this year. "We have always thought that the breadth of the programme beat A-levels hands down," says Roberts. "We also appreciate the international dimension as we have always had an international clientele, though the largest group by nationality on our IB course is British."

However, says Roberts, despite St Clare's success with the IB diploma, it doesn't fit the entire sixth-form generation. "If you study for A-levels, you can take one, two or three, over time. An IB doesn't offer those options. There is no spiritual or religious element to the IB, and no teaching on citizenship. In a comprehensive curriculum you would need those." And, he says, the IB is less radical than it was. "It is still an excellent model. But if the IB wanted to be cutting-edge, it would be reformulated."

There is little merit, he says, in internationalism for its own sake. "There has to be a genuine interest. I don't think the IB should be adopted across the board; I don't think England in 2003 should be buying into a model produced in Geneva in the Sixties, though it could learn from it."

Roberts points out that the Government is investigating the possibility of an English Baccalaureate (EB). According to the DfES, the 14-19: Opportunity and Excellence document launched in January 2003 "notes that Baccalaureate-style qualifications work well in other countries and such a model, designed to suit English circumstances, could tackle long-standing English problems". The Working Group for 14-19 Reform is investigating further. Roberts thinks that many of the schools who offer the IB might switch to the EB if it gets off the ground. "Many schools that offer the IB are fugitives from A-levels and the IB is at present the only alternative. But those schools might jump ship back to the EB if it overcomes the current objections to A-levels."

For more information on the International Baccalaureate, see, the website of the International Baccalaureate Organisation. King's College School tel: 020-8255 5300, Sevenoaks School tel: 0173 245 5133, St Clare's, Oxford tel: 0186 555 2031,