International Baccalaureate: The seal of approval

Students need no longer fear. The IB is now widely accepted by universities
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When Reinhardt Volschenk, 19, arrived in the UK from South Africa three years ago, one of the first things his family did was to compare the A-level system with the International Baccalaureate diploma. They decided that the diploma offered a more rounded education, and chose a school accordingly. Now Volschenk is about to achieve his childhood dream: to study at Oxford University.

Until recently, many UK university admissions tutors regarded IB graduates as an unknown quantity. They were unsure what the IB was about, or what offers to make. But with more UK schools offering the diploma (80 at the last count), more IB students are applying to university than ever before.

"Five years ago, offers from universities were very high, with Oxbridge often asking for 40 points and above. Now, Oxbridge is more likely to ask for 37 points, and in general universities are crying out for IB students," says Malcolm Kay, superintendent of the three American Community Schools (ACS International) in the UK. He cites a 2003 survey in which almost 60 per cent of admissions officers at 71 UK colleges and universities said that, as preparation for higher education, IB had an advantage over A-levels.

The IB has been offered in the UK since 1970, overseen by the International Baccalaureate Organisation in Geneva. Diploma students select options from six required subject groups: first and second languages, humanities, sciences, maths and the arts. The subjects can be taken at higher or at standard level (with higher generally equal to A-level and standard equal to AS). Students also write an extended essay of 4,000 words, undertake a theory of knowledge course, and complete supervised community work.

Subjects are graded from one (the lowest) to seven, with six or seven points in a higher level subject equal to grade A at A-level. There are also three possible bonus points awarded for the extended essay and the theory of knowledge paper. The maximum a student can get is 45 points, while a pass requires 24 points.

Delyth Chambers, director of admissions at the University of Manchester, describes the theory of knowledge and the extended essay as very helpful for those making the transition from school to university. While IB students may have covered less subject content, for example in maths, they have no problem catching up. "The IB diploma is generally very highly regarded as a preparation for higher education," says Chambers, "and on average it's taken by the brighter students."

Volschenk attended ACS Egham, where he studied maths, physics and economics at higher level and Afrikaans (his first language), English and history at standard level. "I'm very much in favour of the IB because of its multifaceted nature," he says. "You don't end up as a typical A-level student; you are given broad, general challenges rather than being force fed, and you also learn the skill of time management."

However, Volschenk found that some of the universities he applied to didn't understand the demands of the IB and the offers were "unbelievably high". But he found Oxford and Imperial College London to be more conversant with the IB. Oxford's offer was 37 core points (not including the possible bonus points). Volschenk scored 39 points, and will be going to Oxford to study economics and management.

Most university websites now quote the number of IB points required for admission. But because of the spread of subjects, universities tend to request an overall score as well as specific subject scores, and offers vary enormously. To study nursing and midwifery at the University of Cardiff, for example, requires an IB score of 26, while to study economics at Bristol requires 36 points.

Felicity Chamberlain, also a pupil at ACS Egham, intends to study international business and French. She says that the IB diploma is a good way to set herself apart from other applicants: "I have friends who have got four A-levels at school and are applying to basically the same universities as I am, but they are having a much harder time distinguishing themselves and getting accepted by their top choices," she says.

She and her mother spoke to several university heads of admissions and most had a fairly good understanding of the IB curriculum. Her offers range from 29 points at the University of East Anglia to 36 points at Manchester. The IB workload is rigorous and demanding, she says. "Sometimes I wish I had taken the easier option," she concludes. "I am so glad that I didn't."