International Baccalaureate: Out with the old and in with the new exams

An IB gives pupils an exciting degree of choice, says Jessica Moore

At Sevenoaks School in Kent, A-levels are off the curriculum. Since 1978, their students have been offered the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma – a system that sees 16- to 19-year-olds studying a range of six subjects, rather than three or four A-levels. Head teacher Katy Ricks explains: "When we started teaching the IB, it was primarily for overseas students who wanted to board in England but do something international. In 1999, we decided to phase out the A-level altogether. We have now gone completely over to the IB."

Diploma students take three major and three minor subjects (or, in some cases, four major and two minor). These include their first language, a foreign language, maths, a science and a humanities subject. Pupils also study theory of knowledge, where they learn how to analyse evidence and express an argument; creativity, action and service, which involves theatre, music or sports activities or community service; and an extended essay, which the students set themselves.

The two-year course leads to a single qualification, assessed by final-year exams. This makes it significantly different from A-levels, which are modular and result in separate qualifications for individual subjects.

Ricks describes the diploma as "a very open and imaginative programme" that has been "an unmitigated success" for her school. She believes it raises levels of attainment, increases enthusiasm for learning and prepares students for work and further study in both the UK and abroad.

The IB diploma is popular, too. According to the International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO), 217 UK schools currently offer the diploma (139 state-maintained and 78 independent). At Sevenoaks, Ricks says students and parents have embraced the diploma wholeheartedly. Meanwhile, teachers at the school find it inspiring because it gives them "a chance to think afresh". They receive regular training through the IBO, sharing ideas with colleagues from all over the world and from a range of learning environments.

A little newer to the IB model is Taunton School in Somerset. It has taught the diploma alongside A-levels since 2007. Martin Bluemel, IB co-ordinator at the independent school, says: "In America especially, it is viewed as a stable, solid currency you can trust. With GCSEs and A-levels, some people argue that it's easier to get the top grades now than it was previously, but the educational value of each grade in the IB hasn't changed." With the impending UK university fee hike, an increasing number of students are looking to study abroad. Bluemel believes the IB will put them in good stead.

An admissions tutor at a leading Russell Group university says: "Students who have taken the IB qualification are generally much better prepared for a degree than those who have taken A-levels. IB students tend to have better independent study skills, greater ability to take sensible notes in lectures, and are more able to deal with open-ended and multi-part questions than their A-level counterparts."

But is the qualification right for everyone? "We tend to advise that it is good for those getting GCSE grades B or above," says Bluemel. "GCSEs are a 'learn and churn' operation, and have to be because of the modular way they are devised. To convert from that to [the IB's] more holistic way of learning takes some getting used to."

Ultimately, the best judges of the diploma must be its students. In March 2010, Taunton surveyed the opinions of its first IB cohort, who studied the programme from 2007 to 2009. All but one said that, if they had their time again, they would still choose the diploma over A-levels. Taunton graduate Kieran Gajraj, now studying medicine at Birmingham University, says: "Had I studied A-levels, I may have been a science and maths kind of person. Instead, I also speak good French, have developed invaluable oral presentation skills, as well as critical analysis and interpretation."

In our increasingly demanding, competitive and global education system, these are valuable skills indeed.

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