Should A-levels be replaced by the International Baccalaureate?

There's growing pressure to replace A-levels with the International Baccalaureate. But must it be one or the other, asks Martin Priestley, whose school offers both courses, according to students' strengths
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The Independent Online

So the Royal Society has joined the debate regarding A-levels and alternative courses of pre-university study, such as the International Baccalaureate Diploma, as reported last month in The Independent. The Society is concerned by the decline of A-level physics (which 16 per cent of schools now don't teach at all), and wants to see a reform of A-levels on the lines of the IB.

As headmaster of a school that has, for the last five years, offered its sixth formers the choice between A-levels and the International Baccalaureate Diploma, I feel well-placed to judge the differences and relative merits of the two programmes. We try always to be even-handed in our advice. We recognise that neither route is "better"; rather, we look to match the student to the programme – or vice-versa. To illustrate the point, our current lower sixth cohort has opted for the two programmes in roughly equal numbers.

Even though the IB Diploma is hardly the "new kid on the block", having been created in Geneva in 1968, it is still the road less travelled by – so its structure, limitations and benefits require greater explanation to parents and prospective students than the better-known A-level route.

That is changing, of course, but in the meantime, I would argue that the great strengths of the IB programme can be summarised succinctly in the concepts of breadth, independence, internationalism and stretch. Studying six subjects instead of four gives breadth. Many young people are not ready, at the age of 16 , to "declare their hand" and specialise.

The IB Diploma, with its requirement of maths, a science, a humanities subject, a foreign language, one's own native language and one other "elective" subject, provides a highly respected but broad liberal-arts education. Its independence over the last 40 years from the meddling of national governments of different hues secures it from the buffeting of adversarial politics and also from the diminution of credibility that ensues from grade inflation. Not only does the IB provide an "international academic passport", which is widely accepted across the globe, but the culture of internationalism pervades the teaching of subjects to the benefit of its students.

Most strikingly of all, universities have increasingly, in our experience, been drawn to IB graduates because of two particular core elements of the Diploma: the "extended essay" and the "theory of knowledge". It is here that the Diploma most valuably stretches its students, preparing them for the challenges ahead. The extended essay allows sixth formers the experience of writing an extended piece of work along the lines of what they will be required to do at university; the theory of knowledge, which focuses on critical thinking skills, enables students to arrive at university not only organised, focused and industrious but also equipped with the requisite thinking skills for success at this higher level.

In an era in which one in four UK students fail to finish their courses and in which the escalating cost of higher education serves only to raise the stakes, the importance of this is huge. Our experience is that our IB graduates feel well equipped when they arrive at uni. It is not a question of coming up with the right answers; rather, of being able to pose the right sorts of questions. To me, it's not enough simply to get young people to university: we need to ensure that they have the requisite skills to thrive when they are there.

Of course, the IB isn't for everyone. For many, their happiest school day will come on the day they give up maths, or foreign languages, or English, or (in my case!) chemistry. Many will, therefore, choose A-levels over the IB in order to avoid certain subject areas – there is nothing ignoble or invalid about that. Others will wish to specialise as soon as possible: they know where they are headed and want to reach that destination as directly as possible. That is simply the way some people are hard-wired.

Some destinations lend themselves to specialisation even at an early stage: for engineers and "straight scientists", or those wishing to study veterinary science, we therefore tend to recommend the A-level route.

In this sense, the choice between A-levels and IB should be a very personal one, reflecting how the student looks at the world.

Where we at Warminster School have found perhaps unanticipated benefits is in terms of curricular cross-fertilisation. The benefits of IB have prompted us to consider how such features might be introduced to enrich the experience of our A-level cohort. The critical thinking element of the "theory of knowledge" has been reproduced by introducing critical thinking AS; almost all our A-level students take this alongside four other AS levels. We have also introduced the "extended project qualification" at A-level, which allows students to create an independent piece of work so that our A-level cohort can also acquire the skills that will be needed to thrive at university. Many have enthusiastically and successfully pursued this option and the universities seem to be equally enthusiastic.

While adding such elements to the A-level curriculum cannot entirely replicate the coherence or unity of the IB Diploma, such an approach is of undoubted benefit to our A-level students. In that way, perhaps most unexpectedly of all, A-level students have also benefited from the IB.

Martin Priestley is headmaster of Warminster School in Wiltshire, a co-educational day and boarding school for pupils aged 3 to 18 and was recently elected to membership of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC) which represents some 250 of the UK's leading independent schools.