Can the IB promise ever be realised?

Tony Blair wants to give all sixth-formers the chance to take the International Baccalaureate. But critics say his pledge is misguided - and that demand will far outstrip places. James Morrison reports
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Rosie Pitman is a classic straight-A student. A focused, articulate all-rounder, she has a conditional offer to read French and Spanish at Cambridge, and is as safe a bet as any to achieve the three top A-levels that she would normally need to get there.

Except that Rosie, 18, is among a growing number of high-flying state-school sixth-formers, including nine of her peers at Waingels College in Reading, who won't be sitting A-levels. She's opted to bypass an exam long championed by successive UK governments as the "gold standard" pre-university qualification to study the International Baccalaureate (IB), the multidisciplinary diploma now taught in some 2,000 schools in 124 countries from Brazil to Bangladesh.

Given the choice between jettisoning all but three subjects and continuing with the broader-based education offered by the IB, Rosie saw no contest. "Apart from physics and chemistry, there was nothing I wanted to drop. I liked the idea of keeping up arty skills as well as maths and science, and I want to do a languages degree, so the international aspect is an advantage," she says.

It is this "international" currency, combined with a desire to inject new credibility into Britain's 16-18 qualifications amid the debate over declining A-level standards, that has persuaded Tony Blair and the Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, to belatedly embrace the IB. In November, they pledged to give comprehensive pupils everywhere the choice of studying A-levels, a new vocational 14-19 diploma, or the IB. The latter will be offered by at least one sixth-form institution in each local education authority area.

The move followed an announcement by the university admissions body Ucas of the introduction of a new "tariff" designed to make it easier for admissions tutors to distinguish between an ever-increasing number of "straight-A" applicants. Controversially, the tariff gives the maximum IB mark of 45 a score of 768 points, equivalent to six-and-a-half A-grade A-levels. With 94 British institutions already running the IB (including 52 in the maintained sector) and the number set to double by 2010, tensions have rarely run higher between diehard supporters of the A-level and a growing band of critics who regard it as too narrow, too superficial, or simply too easy.

At Waingels, there are no such divisions. The 290 A-level candidates happily coexist with a handful studying the IB, and the relative merits of the two systems are conversation openers rather than causes of rivalry. GCSE entry requirements for each pathway are the same, so students choose one or the other for individual reasons.

Stuart McKie, 18, an A-level student who hopes to read classical archaeology at Oxford, says: "I knew what I wanted to do at university, and thought choosing the subjects I was best at and enjoyed most was for me. In terms of getting a good grounding, I had that at GCSE."

IB students find much to commend it, though. Rosie enjoys the camaraderie and the fact she's studying "something different". Lara Wann, 17, adds: "Class sizes are so small; in higher biology, I'm the only one."

But there are downsides. The programme is notoriously demanding, encompassing three "higher" and three "standard" elements, including English, a second language, an arts option and a science option. Students also have to undertake community service, and study a seventh, compulsory, subject: theory of knowledge.

The timetable leaves scant room for free periods, and on top of exams at the end of the two years, each student must write a 4,000-word extended essay in a specialist area. This resembles a potted undergraduate dissertation.

"It's frustrating occasionally," Lara concedes. "Your friends have more free time than you, and you never seem to get a break."

The daunting curriculum may be one reason that Waingels' IB intake has scarcely risen since its introduction two years ago. Back then, eight students enrolled; this year, there were 12, two of whom have since switched to A-levels.

But the IB's rigorous demands are winning respect in the higher education sector. If the new Ucas tariff had already been introduced (it comes in next year), Waingels' average IB score last summer - 30 - would have equated to three-and-a-half A-grade A-levels. Every candidate progressed to their first- or second-choice universities. Nigel Cooper, the vice-principal, says: "If those results were translated into A-levels, we would probably be the top state school in the country."

Waingels' experience is far from unique. Hockerill Anglo-European College in Bishops Stort- ford, Hertfordshire (the only state school to have scrapped A-levels entirely in favour of the IB) topped The Independent's exam tables last summer, and is now planning to reshape its lower-years curriculum on the IB model. "Admissions tutors are commenting that the IB is better preparation for university and IB students are often stronger once there," says Dr Robert Guthrie, the principal.

Not everyone is convinced. Tony Little, the Head Master of Eton College, which is considering introducing a "Pre-U" qualification developed by University of Cambridge International Examinations in place of A-levels, says: "The IB's not a panacea. There are subjects you just can't do on it - it limits choice. Eton is particularly strong on medieval history, but there's no history syllabus before 1800 on the IB."

Some existing IB institutions point to the financial burden imposed on schools through the stringent standards of its validating body, the Swiss-based International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO). Dr Iain Melvin, the headmaster of Dorchester's Thomas Hardye School, had to find £20,000 from his existing budget to send 20 teachers to Athens for training before launching it last year. Waingels' principal, Dr Richard Green, cites annual costs including a £5,000 registration fee and £600 to send papers abroad for marking.

One English teacher, who works at an independent school and has asked not to be named, criticises the IBO's "opaque" marking criteria and remote moderation system. She says: "All A-level examiners attend standardisation meetings, and are in regular contact with their team leader. With the IB, your team leader could be in the US and papers marked thousands of miles away. In our second year, oral exams were sent to Togo."

Of the new Ucas tariff, she remarks: "Places such as Warwick still offer places for 36 points - but that's what our duffers get!"

Not all top universities have embraced the tariff. Geoff Parks, the director of admissions for the Cambridge Colleges (which won't be using it), says: "With the IB, 39 points works out at five A-grade A-levels. Students with 39 points are good, but not necessarily better than those with three top A-levels."

Others are more concerned about the pace of the Government's reforms. Chris Woodhead, the former chief inspector of schools who two years ago criticised his successor, Sir Mike Tomlinson, over recommendations for a new diploma containing only elements of the IB, approves of introducing an academic baccalaureate alongside the proposed new vocational diploma. But he sees the pledge to allow thousands more children to take the IB as "completely stupid", because demand will vastly outstrip available spaces.

"It's undeliverable," he says. "What's Blair saying? That every LEA should provide one IB school? If you live in Ludlow, Shropshire, and the nearest one is in Shrewsbury, that's 30 miles away. It's nonsense."

The IBO insists that the Government's aim of validating 100 more institutions by 2010 (a target that will put Britain second only to the US in the global IB league) is manageable. Some of those already offering the diploma are wary of being oversubscribed when the floodgates open, though.

Dr Green says: "We're at our limit now with 300 sixth-formers. To offer more IBs, we'd have to offer less A-levels."

But the idea of deciding for yourself which qualification to take plays well with a generation sold on the idea of choice. "I don't think the IB suits everybody," Lara says. "People should be able to choose."

A brief history of the qualification

The founding aim of the International Baccalaureate was to foster the movement of students between nations by providing a diploma qualification recognised worldwide.

It now promotes "international education" as a way of fostering peace and some 70,000 students a year complete IB diplomas at 1,912 institutions in 124 countries

The UK currently has 5,000 diploma students at 94 institutions (42 independent)

By 2010, the UK will have a further 100 institutions, making it second only to the US (with 520) as the biggest national IB provider. JM