International Baccalaureate: Why the broad IB beats A-levels

Ucas has given the IB its approval – and now more schools look set to take it up, says Nick Jackson

A decade ago teaching the International Baccalaureate was eccentric. Now, it seems, it is the future. In the past four years the number of schools teaching the IB in the UK has more than doubled. How has a little known curiosity stormed British education?

One hundred and one schools in the UK now teach the International Baccalaureate diploma programme to sixth formers. Nearly half of those are independent schools. The sector, with its greater freedom and willingness to experiment, has long pioneered the qualification.

Last year those pioneers landed a windfall when the International Baccalaureate was given what looked to many like a standing ovation by Ucas. Under the tariff, a common IB score of 30 gives a candidate 419 Ucas tariff points against just 360 for three As at A-level. A top score is equivalent to more than six As at A-level.

The result is that IB schools like Sevenoaks, North London Collegiate and King's College School now crowd the top of the league tables. And one teacher found that universities, including the points pedants at Oxbridge, were more lenient if a student dropped a grade on the IB Diploma than in A-levels.

The Abbey School in Reading is introducing the International Baccalaureate next year. The tipping point for head Barbara Stanley came last year when the new changes to the A-level became clear. "Instead of educationalists reforming A-levels it seems to be the politicians," she says. Populist grade inflation has ruined the A-level, she believes.

It is not just about grades. On the IB Diploma, students select options (specializing in three) from six required subject groups: first and second languages, humanities, sciences, maths, and the arts. They also write an extended essay of 4,000 words, undertake a theory of knowledge course, and complete 150 hours of supervised CAS (creativity, action, service) time.

"The depth and breadth is astonishing," says Stanley. "They can't really make a mistake. They're numerate, literate, have a language and a science."

A familiar concern is that the IB Diploma is too difficult for some. "It's a myth that it's only for the brightest students," says Carolyn Trimming, in charge of the IB diploma programme at The Godolphin and Laty-mer School in London. "I've taught the IB to children with dyslexia, with special needs. They do really well. It's perfectly accessible."

It's certainly a boon for the best. Godolphin's first year of IB students graduated this summer. Nearly a third achieved 40 points or more, worth 652 Ucas points, equivalent to more than five As at A-level.

It is not just a good way in to university, but also a preparation for success there. Trimming says she is often impressed by extended essays that read like undergraduate dissertations. And the essay gets students used to academic norms with a bibliography, abstract, and references.

But it may be a while before Godolphin dumps the A-level altogether. "Some subjects offered in A-level are not offered," says Trimming.

Since the IB's Ucas coup, much of the attention paid to the qualification has been because of its ability to open doors to the best universities. Katy Ricks, head at Sevenoaks School, says: "It's a terrific qualification that'll prepare students for university and for life."

Sevenoaks has now ditched A-levels and teaches only the International Baccalaureate. "It gives teachers and students more independence. We've found it liberating," says Ricks.

Several league tables put Sevenoaks top with an average of nearly 620 points, equivalent to over five As at A-level. The result has been more Sevenoaks students getting their first choice university.

And A-levels? Ricks has no regrets. "They've become much narrower, atomized and rigid; the IB is much more interesting," she says.