International Baccalaureate: Are we ready for the toughest exams in the world?

With GCSEs set for reform, this could be the moment to bring in the IB, its advocates say. But, as one head tells Richard Garner, it would mean a revolution in the way we see teaching

"We're talking about an international exam which is the best in the world," says the speaker as we discuss what will happen now that the GCSE appears to be in terminal decline. "Why are we not bringing it in?"

The speaker is Dr Anthony Seldon, headmaster of Wellington College. The examination in question is the International Baccalaureate (IB) and its Middle Years Programme (MYP), which enables 13- to 16-year-olds at Wellington College to prepare themselves for the full IB.

The question is in part rhetorical. The answer is that it would take a revolution in the approach to teaching, with teachers being given much more freedom to devise their own assessments rather than to stick rigidly to a formula to cover the various units that go towards making up a full GCSE course.

So far, only a handful of pioneers have adopted the IB's Middle Years Programme (MYP) – 11 schools in the UK including two state schools, Dartford Grammar School for Boys in Kent and the Hockerill Anglo-European College in Bishop's Stortford, Hertfordshire. Both use its approach to learning but still put pupils in for GCSEs,

But there is an opening for it now with the announcement that the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, is seeking to replace GCSEs with his own English Baccalaureate (EBacc) in the core subjects from 2015 – with the first students sitting exams in the new "rigorous" papers in 2017.

They are two very different animals: the MYP offers a far broader curriculum of studying eight subject areas –English, maths, science, a language, the humanities, art, technology and PE. In the final year, pupils do a special project – writing up their own research into a particular topic.

The EBacc, meanwhile, is still in its infancy, but so far would only cover the core areas of English, maths, science, languages and the humanities – history or geography. What will happen to the other subject areas is still unclear and has led to critics claiming it will provide too narrow a diet for pupils and leave many who cannot aspire to top-grade passes in the core areas without any qualifications at all.

Fears have also been expressed that – in addition to sounding the death-knell for GCSEs – it could spell disaster for art and music and technology, with these subjects being left on the sidelines.

What will also be of interest, though, is what will happen in the interim years. Dr Seldon was far more colourful in his description of the future for GCSEs than just saying they were due for replacement. He said they had been "smashed to smithereens" by Mr Gove's announcement .

"Dumbed down", "not fit for purpose" and engaged in a "race for the bottom" as competing exam boards vie for custom are just some of the more colourful phrases used by Mr Gove to describe GCSEs in the past couple of weeks. Indeed, many heads are predicting a growing number of schools will abandon them before their time – resorting to the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) perhaps (built along the lines of O-levels with an emphasis on end-of-course tests and thus considered better preparation for the more rigorous EBacc).

According to Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, heads may well see it as attractive because it is not subject to any political interference and thus will remain constant in its format. In addition, Mr Gove has urged all schools to consider adopting it in the run-up to the EBacc as a better preparation for the new qualification.

The same, though, can also be said of the MYP (and, of course, the IB itself, which has been in operation for 45 years and seen no grade inflation during that period).

One of the criticisms of it is there is no external assessment – the assessment is carried out internally and moderated externally with samples of pupils' work chosen for inspection. However, all this may be changing soon as the IB is embarking on a review of how it operates.

Dr David Jones, head of IB at Wellington College, is enthusiastic about the impact the adoption of the MYP has had on pupils' learning. At present, about 40 per cent of pupils do it while the remaining 60 per cent stick with GCSEs.

"It is almost like a third way in its approach," he says. "It is an independent organisation outside the control of Whitehall. We can provide courses that are suited to the needs of our students."

Dr Seldon gives an example of teaching about Battle of the Somme in history to illustrate the difference in approach to teaching through the MYP. "You tell them, 'if the Germans had this and the British had this, what do you think would happen?'" he says. "You let them work it out for themselves."

Pupils are enthusiastic about the new approach. Frankie Dale, 16 – who is in the lower sixth and is now studying the full IB course, says her parents had believed the baccalaureate approach would put her in better stead for gaining a university place in the United States. "They sent me to Wellington College because it was co-educational and they wanted me to do the IB," she says. "It was more difficult. It definitely pushed you more."

Both Dr Seldon and Dr James say they have noticed that their MYP students show more confidence and are possibly more inquisitive.

Millie Lloyd-Wlliams, who is in the last year of the MYP programme, adds: "I used to do French GCSE and it was more structured. With the MYP you learn more about France and French culture."

Dr James compares it with a more "Gradgrind approach" in the GCSE and adds: "I would expect the number taking it to increase from 2014 because they'll be offering [externally marked] exams from then, with the teachers devising their programmes, you can in fact look at history and think which are the more interesting periods to study than the Henrys and Hitler."

The question, of course, poses itself as to how this will fit in with – Gove's proposed new EBacc – which will involve English, maths and science from 2015. "I think he's about two-thirds right about the EBacc," says Dr Seldon, "He's absolutely right about depth and stretch and challenge and scholarship and not patronising students, Two things he has to address, though. The exam needs to be based much more on active thinking rather than passive memory. The classroom has to be seen much more as a laboratory of the mind rather than a factory shop floor in its approach.

"Also, in the most successful countries such as Singapore, they have a proven commitment to character education, holistic education and leadership education and Michael has to talk about this in its wider sense rather than making you feel you just get the exams job done."

It is a criticism that is echoing around the education fringe meetings at the Liberal Democrats' conference this week. A sense appears to be emerging that the price of their support will be the turning of the EBacc into something offering a much broader approach to education.

If it does not happen, one could see trouble ahead and a delay in implementation with both parties (and Labour) battling it out their vision of education in the 2015 general election.

By that time, though, more head teachers may come round to the idea that they would be best served by putting their eggs in a non-political basket when it comes to education and the MYP and the IGCSE could flourish.

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