International Baccalaureate: Everyone needs a helping hand

Residential Easter courses dedicated to IB students are giving thousands a revision boost, says Alex McRae
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The Independent Online

It's that horrible sinking feeling. With only a few weeks to go before your exams, you ought to be whipping through your revision. Instead, you find yourself staring bleakly at a jumble of books, wondering how you're going to remember everything.

Eileen Polgreen remembers that disheartening scenario all too well. She used to teach economics to sixth formers studying for the International Baccalaureate. But when exam season rolled around, she was taken aback to realise there were very few revision resources available for her IB students. And with final exams in six subjects, a 4,000-word extended essay, plus extra-curricular activities on their plates, Polgreen says that revision is just as important for IB students as it is for those studying A-levels. "I've had experience teaching both regimes, and found the IB to be much more challenging," she says.

When she saw her son struggling too, she decided that it was time to take action. "The whole thing started because my son was getting nowhere. He worked so hard, it just didn't seem fair."

In 1990, Polgreen set up the first residential school holiday revision course for IB students, Oxford IB Study Courses. Students stayed in the university's colleges, studied and went to revision classes during the day, and went out together in the evening.

In the first year, 60 students came. In the second year, that number doubled. Now, more than 1,200 students from all over the world attend OSC courses in Oxford and Cambridge every year, and the organisation also publishes revision study guide books aimed specifically at IB students, which sell tens of thousands of copies a year.

Part of the reason the course is so popular, says Polgreen, is that revision is difficult to do alone. "When I was teaching IB kids, I used to wave them goodbye at Easter, thinking: 'I know they're not going to open a book.' Remember how yucky it was when you were up in your room while the rest of the family were downstairs having a nice time, and how many distractions there were? It can feel just impossible to settle down and concentrate for seven hours a day."

She says that studying with other people who are in the same boat is more than just motivating: for some students, it can be a liberating experience to focus on getting to grips with a subject. "Everybody's together on the courses, so everybody's supporting each other. You're away from the whole 'it's cool to be dim' ethos, in a place where nobody is criticising you, and it doesn't matter if you ask a daft question. The sheer joy of being on top of your work is a real buzz."

The teachers are happy, too, some returning every year from IB schools as far away as Australia. Polgreen says that she finds the OSC teachers by word of mouth, and that they are so enthusiastic because they enjoy teaching the small groups, the beauty of springtime Oxford and Cambridge, and the supportive atmosphere. "At 6pm, we sit them down with a glass of wine and we all talk through how the day has gone and how the students are doing."

Polgreen is also keen to make it clear that the courses don't take any glory away from the schools' hard work. "We never publish the details of our successes. As far as we, or anyone else is concerned, the students' exam results are the schools' achievements."

Nearly 17 years after the courses started, Polgreen says she has narrowed down why the IB revision courses are so successful. "I know as a teacher that the weakest students tend to be the worst at revision, and that the most hard-working students tend to get very wound up. This is a way of making sure that they do revise, but that it's not a traumatic process for them. We show them how to do it and what works."