Conor Ryan: Why ministers should follow Eton on the IB

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The Independent Online

Leading independent schools plan to drop GCSEs, moving their students straight into AS- and A-levels instead. Eton College students will also have the option of taking the International Baccalaureate (IB), joining some 50 private and state schools where the IB is offered.

The news should give the Government pause to reflect on whether it can strike the right balance between inclusion and rigour in its new examination framework. And rather than trying to invent an entirely new system that covers every base, might it not be better to use the trusted IB as its model for the state sector?

After all, the IB does everything that the Government could wish for. Students study English and maths. They learn a second language. They study a social science and physical science. They can study an arts subject or specialise more in languages, or their favoured science. They learn the "theory of knowledge", which promotes critical thinking. Students must take part in drama, sports and voluntary activities. And they must investigate a special topic for an extended 4,000-word essay.

In some respects, Mike Tomlinson's initial proposals for a new diploma for education from the age of 14 to 19 look superficially like the IB. His diploma would make English, maths and computer skills compulsory. And there could be credits for sporting and volunteering achievements. But the proposed new diploma appears to lack the IB's overall breadth and depth.

To be fair, Mr Tomlinson had a tough job. His remit meant that he had to offer a qualification available at "foundation level", as well as GCSE and A-level standard, while at the same time offering a "clear summit" for the most able students. Last month's progress report tried honourably to meet such potentially conflicting objectives. But by attempting to do too much, the new diploma is in danger of doing nothing very well.

For a start, "foundation-level qualifications" at a standard achieved by most students early in secondary school do not belong in a diploma intended for pre-university studies. They risk dragging down overall standards. There is a stronger case for enabling students to complete their studies at their own pace between the ages of 14 and 19. They could gain a good grade in GCSE-standard English by Year 10, but might wait until Year 12 to do so in maths. They could then progress to an advanced or higher-level programme in their chosen specialist subjects for the full diploma.

Moreover, the existing IB Advanced Diploma is more difficult than three good A-levels. Headteachers insist on five GCSE grade Bs for IB students, rather than the five grade Cs normally required for A-level studies. To maintain and improve staying-on rates, there should be an advanced and an intermediate diploma, reflecting students' actual achievements by the age of 18. This should appeal to colleges that bring many students up to GCSE standard at 17 and 18. And the advanced qualification would be at a demonstrably high standard.

The new diploma is also being pitched as covering vocational as well as academic subjects - another case of trying to do too much. More applied maths or science options could certainly increase their perceived relevance. But the new diploma should not try to become the main route for those students who wish to take a wholly vocational route. When GNVQs gave way to vocational GCSEs and A-levels, many felt that they became less relevant to the world of work.

The Government wants 28 per cent of teenagers to achieve modern apprenticeships. Instead of trying to subsume them into the new system, attention should focus on improving them, not least their completion rates. There are already "foundation" and "advanced" levels of apprenticeship available from age 16, and these could be available from the age of 14.

So instead of creating a whole new system, the Government should adopt and adapt the IB. Doing so could offer real opportunities for progression and inclusion, without compromising the standards that make the IB attractive. And by avoiding any attempt to reinvent the wheel, it could avoid a repeat of the problems that bedevilled the most recent A-level reforms, too.

The writer was political adviser to David Blunkett from 1993 to 2001 and is editing a book on 14-19 education for the Social Market Foundation, to be published in the autumn