'The sky's the limit': International Baccalaureate allows British teenagers to broaden their horizons

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The Independent Online

No matter how good a teacher you think you are, teaching the International Baccalaureate (IB) is not the same as teaching A-levels. It's a totally new challenge. Two years ago, I taught IB English in the sixth form at the leading academic girls' school, North London Collegiate, where the IB is offered as an alternative to A-levels.

The first obvious difference is that, as the name suggests, the IB is much more international in outlook than A-levels. As the International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO) states: "Life in the 21st century... requires a sense of international-mindedness".

As a consequence, it promotes the study of a more ambitious range of books. The whole approach is on world literature – that is, indeed, what part of the English section of the IB sixth-form diploma is called. There is immediate excitement, therefore, even for experienced teachers, in choosing texts from these wonderful new possibilities. The sky's the limit: African, Brazilian, American-Indian writers – they're all in the mix as literary equals, offering a stimulating alternative to tried-and-tested English and American favourites, such as Wuthering Heights and The Great Gatsby.

Not that the timeless classics are neglected. Brontë, Conrad and Shakespeare are all IB-approved texts. But there are many other exciting new options: writers such as Milan Kundera and Gabriel García Márquez. Most challengingly, there are books and writers on the syllabus about whom most teachers and pupils will know very little, such as Bao Ninh's powerful Vietnam War-based The Sorrow of War. This immediately encourages further research and reading outside the classroom, so that sixth-formers can learn more about these writers' backgrounds. There is also the added benefit that both teachers and pupils approach new writers like these with open minds. Unlike Shakespeare or Larkin, there are no preconceptions to push aside.

I ended up teaching Albert Camus' The Outsider, Voltaire's Candide and Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. All were available in translation, all were excellent and all required teachers and pupils to be more international in their thinking, covering as they do diverse subjects such as colonialism in Algeria, the follies of 18th-century Europe, and Stalinist oppression. Wide-ranging texts such as these open up philosophical, political and historical issues that teaching A-level English will not necessarily achieve. Class discussions are less didactic, more two-way, with teachers having to be less reliant on outdated notes from their own university days. What's more, in schools where the IB is taught, sixth-formers tend to read more widely and internationally in their spare time, with non-English writers such as Isabel Allende being favourites.

I really liked the oral commentary part of the IB English course. In addition to writing essays, students have to make a presentation on books they've studied in sharp and scholastic depth, having researched all the material themselves. This helps foster a greater enthusiasm for literature; it also enables them to escape the straitjacket of endless written coursework.

Having pioneered the IB for many years, some independent schools such as Malvern College have attracted large numbers of European and overseas students. This, too, inevitably broadens horizons for domestic teenagers, as they are constantly surrounded by a wide range of accents, languages and opinions.

There are drawbacks to the IB, however. Chief among these were that most of the bright sixth-formers I taught were not actually specialising in English: it was merely one of their many subjects. This can be frustrating. The broader base of the IB, with six subjects studied instead of only three, means that sixth-formers, more than capable of studying English at university level, inevitably have other priorities. In contrast, one of the enduring strengths of A-levels is that they encourage specialisation and in-depth knowledge. A-level pupils have the time to become experts in a subject, in a way they cannot in the broader-based IB.

Nor does the IB suit everyone. The simple fact is that weaker pupils will struggle with the requirement of taking six subjects at sixth-form level, and can no longer simply drop subjects they dislike, such as maths and sciences. Indeed the son of a friend at Malvern College who recently flopped in his IB exams confirmed these suspicions: "He'd have done better at A-levels. It's not easy taking six subjects."

But there is no doubt that the IB calls for a less predictable approach. I believe I became a better teacher, and certainly more international in my outlook, from the experience. I hope my pupils benefited, too.