International Baccalaureate: Is this the new gold standard?

Unlike A-levels, IB pass rates have stayed stable over the past 20 years. Caitlin Davies examines an increasingly popular qualification
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The Independent Online

And this is why IB schools - including 27 in the independent sector - have developed an unofficial conversion table, turning IB scores into UCAS points. These are distributed to the press and formed into league tables.

Some newspapers amalgamate the results with those of A-levels; some print the IB scores separately. Yet there is still some confusion over how the two compare. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority recognised the equivalence of the IB and A-levels two years ago. It found that, broadly speaking, the exams were "comparable in the demands they placed on the candidate at the level of the individual subject."

A UCAS working group is currently trying to come up with an official comparison between the IB and A-levels, although its final report is not yet out. In the meantime schools have worked out their own comparison - given the significant differences between the IB and A-levels, this has proved complex.

The IB has been offered in the UK since 1970 and is overseen by the International Baccalaureate Organisation in Geneva. There are three programmes - primary years (for students aged 3-12), middle years (11-16) and the diploma (16-18).

Diploma students select options from six subject groups: first and second languages, humanities, sciences, maths and the arts. The subjects can be taken either at higher or at standard level. Students also write an extended essay of 4,000 words, take a theory of knowledge course and complete supervised creativity or community service time.

Students usually take six exams, normally at the end of two years, and subjects are graded from one to seven. There are also three possible bonus points that can be awarded for the extended essay and the theory of knowledge course. The maximum a student can get is 45 points; the pass mark is 24.

According to the unofficial tariff designed by IB schools, IB higher-level subjects are equal to A-level, while IB standard level is equal to AS level. A student who gets six or seven points in a higher-level subject is equal to a grade A at A-level; five points is equal to a B.

The IB results from many independent schools are impressive. At Southbank International School in London, the average pass rate for IB students is 96 per cent. Bedford School this year recorded a 100 per cent pass rate in the IB, with 90 per cent of its boys getting the equivalent of A or B grades. Two students got the full 45 marks - an achievement shared by only 60 students worldwide. At Sevenoaks School in Kent, one of the first in the world to offer the IB, this year four students got the maximum.

Such is the success of the IB that King's College School, Wimbledon will drop A-levels from September 2007, and another independent school, Felsted, in Essex, has announced plans to offer the IB from September 2006.

Nigel Hughes, the head of Southbank, says he has been working for years to ensure that the achievements of his students are recognised alongside A-level qualifications. He is not alone; the number of schools offering the IB has nearly doubled in the past year.

Seventy-one UK schools or colleges run the IB diploma, most concentrated in the south of England. This is expected to rise to 100 next year, according to Hughes, who is also chair of the IBSCA, the association of IB schools in the UK. In two years time, the number could rise to 200.

It is an interest partly fuelled by the government's recent decision to scrap plans to replace A-levels with a new diploma. Schools are concluding that the diploma already exists in the form of the IB. At an IB workshop earlier this month, representatives from 18 schools said they were in the early stages of considering the IB. Most of these were private schools.

However problems remain when it comes to comparing the IB to A-levels.

Graeme Salt, the IB coordinator at King's College School, explains that the press compile results into league tables in various ways. One method is to look at points per candidate; another is to focus on points per subject. While IB students do well under the first method, the second works less favourably because it is harder to achieve a strong average in six, rather than three, subjects.

Then there is the question of how to put a UCAS weighting on the extra elements of the IB. Salt says the theory of knowledge and the extended essay enable students to make a direct transition to the sort of work they will be expected to do at university. He hopes UCAS will give credit for these parts of the course.

However, he also thinks that comparisons between the two systems could be embarrassing because they will highlight the grade inflation that A-levels have suffered from recently. Over the past 20 years IB pass rates have stayed relatively stable at around 82 per cent, with only around eight per cent of students getting the top grade.

The IB has also become far better known as a way into university. The IBO has now funded a part-time post for John McCabe (a former chief examiner) to act as university liaison officer for the IB with UK universities. Before his appointment, the job of promoting the diploma had been done by the schools themselves.

"We achieved a great deal in putting the diploma on the university admissions map," says Hughes. "Gone are the days when university admissions officers ring up to ask what sort of an offer they should be making. But the IB is still a bit of an unknown quantity for many parents, most of whom did A-levels themselves. They may think, wrongly, that universities don't know about the IB, whereas in fact they are in favour of them."

So, if your child is considering the IB, you can rest assured it will be a broad, demanding course with exam results at least equal to A-levels and recognised by universities. Some would go further, like George Walker, director general of the IBO, who recently asserted that the IB is the new educational gold standard.