Why parents need to prepare for the International Baccalaureate

Some students failed to win university places after underperforming in exams
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The Independent Online

The number of schools teaching the International Baccalaureate is expected to double in the next two years. But schools attracted to the IB have been told they must do their homework first, and not expect success to come easily, after a string of schools offering the IB for the first time suffered disappointing results this summer.

Once the preserve of a handful of schools, there are now 196 institutions authorised to teach the IB in the UK, while 107 more are on the road to gaining authorisation, and another 100 have expressed interest in running it.

Parents need to prepare thoroughly if students are to make the most of the IB, says Terry Hedger, principal of Southbank International School, for over 20 years one of the UK's leading providers of the qualification.

"I suspect that some schools have gone in a bit quickly, particularly in terms of staff training," he says. "It's a very different ethos, a different philosophy and a different approach to A-levels. It's much more teamwork orientated, working together rather than just teaching a subject."

Mr Hedger estimates that it takes an experienced A-level teacher more than a year to become IB-proficient. He urges schools thinking of introducing it to consider having a longer bedding-in period, and more teacher training.

Parents need to do their bit, too. "Parents underestimate the amount of work that the students have got to do," he says. "The IB is difficult, and takes a lot of determination from the students. I don't think the parents understand that. They need to do their own research and understand what is involved. In most cases their kids will be working harder during their IB than they will in their first year at university."

Students on the diploma study six subjects, and specialise in three. They choose these from six subject groups to ensure a breadth of learning: first and second languages, humanities, sciences, maths, and the arts. They also write a 4,000-word essay, take classes in the theory of knowledge, and commit to 150 hours of CAS (creativity, action, service).

Sandra Morton, chair of the International Baccalaureate Schools and Colleges Association (IBSCA), puts the qualification's growth down to its ethos and anxieties about A-levels.

But this summer some students from schools struggling to get to grips with their new system found themselves without a university place after underperforming in exams. Intense competition for places saw oversubscribed universities taking an unusually unforgiving approach to applicants who narrowly missed their offers. Disgruntled parents complained that the move to the IB had been a gamble, and that their children had been let down by some universities that were poorly informed about the diploma.

IBSCA, which has seen its membership balloon in recent years, hopes to ensure that all universities have a proper understanding of the IB, and has appointed an experienced liaison officer for the task.

While the qualification is seen as more challenging than A-levels, a range of opinion exists on how fairly universities have responded to its popularity. Mr Hedger singles out UCL and the LSE for making offers to IB applicants that are "much too demanding". He says it is not uncommon for good universities to demand IB students gain a minimum of 36 Ucas points for admission, the equivalent of four and a half A-grades at A-level.

But Dr Geoff Parks, director of admissions at the University of Cambridge, says that when it comes to tutors making tough calls on borderline applicants, students taking the IB stand a better chance than their A-level counterparts of getting an offer. "Because the IB differentiates better than A-levels, (at present – the introduction of the A* grade may change this), if we are hesitating about making an offer at all, we would be more likely to make an offer to an IB student than an A-level student," he says.

"This is because we can pitch IB offers at levels that will resolve the doubt, while an AAA offer to an A-level student would not resolve any doubt. Thus, at the margins an IB student might be more likely to get an offer, but it is an offer that they may fail to meet."