Breaking the mould

Four private schools each year are signing up for the International Baccalaureate. Caitlin Davies examines its appeal
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The Independent Online

"A-levels are exams, the IB is a lifestyle." So says one Oakham School student firmly in favour of the International Baccalaureate diploma. And the IB is a "lifestyle" being adopted by an increasing number of independent schools. Last October, 48 UK schools - both private and state - offered the IB, now it's an impressive 61. Nearly half of these are in the independent sector.

"A-levels are exams, the IB is a lifestyle." So says one Oakham School student firmly in favour of the International Baccalaureate diploma. And the IB is a "lifestyle" being adopted by an increasing number of independent schools. Last October, 48 UK schools - both private and state - offered the IB, now it's an impressive 61. Nearly half of these are in the independent sector.

Yet the IB is not a new mode of study. Rather, it has been offered in Britain since 1970. The two-year diploma, devised in 1968 by the International Baccalaureate Organisation in Geneva, aims to cultivate internationalism and prepare students for university. Ask the latest British proponents of the IB why they like it and inevitably they'll say because it's broad. IB students select options from six required subject groups: first and second languages, humanities, sciences, maths, and the arts. They also write an extended essay of 4,000 words, undertake a theory of knowledge course, and complete 150 hours of supervised CAS (creativity, action, service) time.

For many students the advantage of the IB diploma is the ability to study a wide range of subjects, rather than specializing early on as the A-level system demands. Its international flavour is attractive for those thinking of studying or working overseas, and in theory it provides an education based on intercultural understanding rather than just passing exams. Put like this, it's hard to see how the IB could fail to appeal.

Oakham in the East Midlands adopted the IB four years ago and Head Dr Joseph Spence is full of enthusiasm: "I meet two or three people a day who want a school which offers the IB and my goodness, they are quality". The school's IB co-ordinator Jill Rutherford describes herself as "pretty missionary" about the IB, which she sees as a good educational package unmuddied by national politics. She approves of both the skills taught, and the way students are assessed with written and oral exams geared towards how well they communicate. Last year the first IB students at Oakham graduated, with an average of 33 points out of a maximum of 45.

Worth School in Sussex adopted the IB two years ago and its first graduates are similarly flushed with success. With a pass rate of 100 per cent among its 20 IB students, the head, Peter Armstrong, says the results will make the IB a very popular option. Student Henry Morgan graduated in May with 38 points and, after his gap year, will be studying Chinese at Edinburgh University. Originally he had wanted to take A-levels in maths, Spanish, geography and media studies. But timetabling difficulties meant this was not possible. With the IB, Morgan could still take the subjects he wanted at higher level, with the rest at standard level, plus he would have no exams in the first year.

His main worry was English. "After GCSE I couldn't wait to get rid of English, it was a lot of grammatical study and it was tedious. But with the IB we did a range of books from different cultures and it was a lot more interesting." He finished with 6 points out of a possible 7.

Haileybury School in Hertfordshire has been offering the IB since 1999. The head, Stuart Westley, says far from being the "risky, little-known alternative that some suggest," the IB is a widely respected, imaginative and demanding academic discipline. Westley feels the new interest in the IB is extremely significant because it highlights the narrow focus of Curriculum 2000 which aimed, ostensibly, to broaden the education on offer. He estimates that four independent schools a year are joining up to the IB programme and wonders why this figure isn't higher. He suspects it's all about a desire to maintain the status quo that doesn't necessarily suit pupils. "At Haileybury we have a commitment to breadth," he says, which means restricting pupils to just three subjects is far from ideal. He admires the rigour of the IB diploma, which encourages pupils to think for themselves, as well as rewarding community service. At Haileybury the initial impetus came from foreign pupils more used to a broader education, but in the last two years more British students are turning to the IB too.

But despite all the interest in the IB, Andrew Grant, head of St Albans School, says the number of independent schools opting for the IB has been seriously hyped. "There is no dramatic flight from A-levels in the independent sector," he says. "Of the 447 schools in membership of either the Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference or the Girls Schools Association, only 16 offer the IB."

However, with IB pass rates over the past six years remaining at around 82 per cent, Grant questions why the majority of independent schools are still sticking with A-levels. His answer is that the IB is a very demanding curriculum load and perhaps less suitable for students who might succeed on a two A-level plus two AS diet. "We've all seen examples of students who were quite ordinary at GCSE but, offered the opportunity at A-level to concentrate on what fires them, have turned into really high achievers," he says.

Not all students are necessarily suited to the IB. For those who want to specialize, for example the future doctor or engineer, the IB may not offer what they want or possibly need. And then there's the cost of introducing the IB in terms of time and personnel. In Oakham it meant hiring 15 new staff members.

But until an English diploma is established - a possibility being investigated by a government working party led by Mike Tomlinson - then the IB remains a popular choice for many. Grant, who is also chair of the HMC academic policy committee, believes that Tomlinson's recommendations and the reception they receive from ministers will crystallise some people's thinking about the IB. "If the Tomlinson proposals seem too close to what the IB offers," he says, "some people may feel they'd rather go for the real thing".

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