Celebration time for the 'new' diploma

The IB is 40 years old this month – and going from strength to strength
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The Independent Online

Forty years ago, a new educational qualification was born: the International Baccalaureate. The brainchild of teachers at the International School of Geneva, the two-year diploma was to provide 16- to 19-year-olds with a truly international education. Students would study subjects from a global perspective, learn new languages and appreciate different cultures.

Since then, the IB has proliferated. As well as the diploma, there is a middle years programme (for 11- to 16-year-olds) and a primary years programme (for three- to 11-year-olds). In the UK, parents who were among the first IB graduates are now seeking out IB schools for their children. IB teacher training will soon be available locally, and Ucas finally has a tariff that recognises the IB scoring system.

In 2006, there were 84 schools in the UK offering the IB; by next year that number is expected to exceed 200. By 2010, there will be 300 or more, according to Tony Smith, the chair of Ibsca (the association for IB schools and colleges in the UK and Ireland) and head of Dartford Grammar School in Kent.

He attributes the rise to Tony Blair's 2006 announcement that every local authority should have one school or sixth-form college offering the qualification. Today, Ibsca can barely keep up with demand from schools that want to join. "It has been an impressive expansion," Smith says.

However, some people still see the IB as a qualification only for high-flyers. This is because IB students study six subjects, when A-level students normally take three. IB students also write an extended essay, take a course on theory of knowledge, and do community work.

The Directgov website tells students that, if they want to study a wide range of subjects in detail, the IB may be for them. It describes the diploma as "designed for highly motivated students".

But fans of the IB say the diploma suits everyone. According to Terry Hedger, principal of the Westminster campus at Southbank International School, the diploma stretches the best students and benefits weaker ones because of its wide range of subjects. The IB prepares students for university life, he says, by teaching them motivation, while the extended essay is great preparation for independent work at university.

Southbank was the first British school to offer the IB at all three levels, and this year's results have been the best yet: an average score of 35. But it's when the IB score is converted to A-levels that problems arise. Until recently, many university admissions officers were confused about what offers to make. IB subjects are graded from one (the lowest) to seven. The maximum a student can get is 45 points (which includes three bonus points for the essay and theory of knowledge). A pass is 24 points.

Thomas Gizbert, a Southbank graduate who has just begun a degree in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at Cambridge University, found that quite a few universities knew about the IB but that their knowledge was "kind of blurred". At a university fair, he asked one British university what grade he would need, and was told 20 points – which wouldn't even be a pass.

On the whole, though, his experience is that universities tend to ask for very high scores, far higher than they would require from an A-level student. Southbank's admissions director, Margaret Anne Khoury, says that universities often ask for scores as high as 41 – equivalent to at least five A grades at A-level.

Gizbert, who got an impressive 43 points, sings the IB's praises. "I've always been one of those people who wants to learn everything, and the IB offers that," he says. "You really study in depth."

Ibsca has applied to run teacher training in the UK; at the moment, training workshops are held abroad, with schools paying to send teachers as far afield as South Africa. Ibsca is also looking for a new UK university liaison officer to sell IB to universities.

Terry Hedger, like many IB fans, is passionate about the qualification. "You can spot an IB graduate in later life," he insists. "They have an amazing level of confidence and ease with people, and they can operate in different cultures. My son, who did the IB, is like a human chameleon."