Teaching for a smarter, brighter future?

With its broader outlook, Russ Thorne asks if the Baccalaureate is the more rounded choice

Although the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma is being offered by a growing number of schools as an alternative to A-levels, the qualification itself has been present in the UK since the early 1970s. Aimed at students aged 16 to 18 and studied over the same two-year period as A-levels, the IB mission statement sets out to “develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world” (see ibo.org for the full mission statement).

In practice, this means taking a broad approach, with all students continuing to learn maths and modern languages, as well as taking part in activities promoting independent learning, communication and citizenship.

“The IB offers breadth, which can suit some students better than others,” says Peter Dunn, head of communications at the University of Warwick. “It can particularly suit those who haven’t chosen a particular academic direction and want to keep their options open, and it also appeals to young people who excel in a range of different disciplines, still enjoy them all and simply don’t want to give up that range of learning yet.”

The diploma is organised into six subject groups, with students choosing one option from each : a first language (usually their native tongue, with studies of either literature, language or both); a second language; an experimental science (such as biology or chemistry); maths; the arts (including music and drama); and society (history or geography, for example). Students elect to study three subjects at a “higher” level (involving around 240 hours of study time) and three at “standard” level (around 150). Assessment is mainly by examination, although there are some elements of coursework.

“The variety of the subjects appealed and kept me motivated throughout the course,” says Emma Mercer, who took the IB at Brockenhurst College. “If I was fed up with science, I could work on language or literature for a while.”

In addition to the six groups, students also undertake three core activities: theory of knowledge (TOK); creativity, action and service (CAS); and a 4,000-word extended essay. The essay is linked to one of the six subject areas and must be based on independent research (Mercer investigated the antibacterial properties of tears), while for CAS students devote 50 hours to each of the three components (which Mercer translated into ceramics, rock climbing and volunteering in a special needs school).

TOK, meanwhile, teaches students to think critically and analytically. “It makes you question,” explains Sarah Jinks, a teacher at St Clare’s school in Oxford, “asking ‘what is science?’, for example, or ‘how do you apply logic?’” Although some students find this part of the course difficult, others enjoy the questions it poses. “The discussions can be very interesting,” says Devyani Garg, who graduated from ACS Hillingdon School this year.

“It really makes you reflect on what you learn, you begin to question what you think to be true.” Jinks believes that the IB helps students develop a broader world view, but also that the emphasis on independent learning is better preparation for higher education than A-levels. “Things such as TOK and the extended essays can be very helpful once at university,” she says. “Professors I’ve spoken to much prefer IB students because they’re better at getting on with their work.” Garg, who starts at LSE this Autumn, agrees.

“The IB teaches you skills such as time management, organisation and self discipline, which will stay with you for the rest of your life.”

With IB students putting in around 5 per cent more study time than their A-level counterparts on average, and with a minimum pass grade (24 points out of a total of 45) equivalent to 260 Ucas points (a B and two C grades at A-level), the IB can be a demanding programme of study. Nonetheless, of those students who do secure a place at university some 44 per cent gain entry to a top 20 institution (compared to 20 per cent of students who take A-levels) according to the UK Higher Education Statistics Agency.

This suggests that Baccalaureate students can generally expect to go on to earn a higher average salary than students who follow the more common A-level path. For Jinks, though – who has taught both A-level and IB programmes – the real value of an IB education is the personal effect the course can have on her students. “By the time they leave they’re more independent and quite happy,” she says. “You’re not just taught how to pass exams – you’re taught to live. I feel good knowing that our students are going to leave here and be okay out in the world.”

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