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Getting Into University

International Baccalaureate: The international qualification with a holistic approach

Russ Thorne takes a closer look at the growing popularity of the IB

Students throughout the UK will receive the results of their International Baccalaureate diploma over the next few days. However, while it will be at the forefront of their minds, the qualification remains slightly less well-known than the A-level to many students and parents (despite being offered in the UK since the 1970s), and presents different opportunities and challenges to candidates.

Targeted at students between 16- 18, the IB occupies the same space in the curriculum as A-levels, taking two years of full-time study to complete.

“The qualification takes a holistic approach,” says Paula Holloway, Principal of St Clare’s school, Oxford which offers the IB. “Every part of the curriculum makes sense in relation to everything else; it’s a very different kind of qualification.”

The IB is split into six subject areas, three of which students take at a standard level, with the remainder studied to a higher level. The subject areas themselves cover students’ native language; a foreign language; humanities subjects such as economics, psychology, geography or history; sciences including physics and biology; mathematics; and music, theatre and art. Prospective students also have the option to go “back up the ladder”

instead, as Holloway puts it, taking a third language, another science, or another humanities subject.

In addition to the core subjects, students must follow three further programmes: a 4,000 word extended essay project; Creativity, Action and Service (CAS), spending at least 50 hours working in the community; and Theory of Knowledge, which encourages critical thinking.

As with A-levels, students are largely assessed by examinations.

However, the IB is not modular – there are no AS and A2 levels – so those on the programme must manage their time effectively from the start. It can be a demanding process (students spend an average of 5 per cent more time studying than their A-level peers), and with a minimum pass mark equal to 260 Ucas points (a B and two C grades at A-level), it might also be tempting to view the IB as an elite qualification. But Holloway doesn’t subscribe to this idea. “We have a range of students taking it, who gain an enormous amount from it and gain a rounded education rather than one that’s partial and selective.”

In fact, for those who take it on the real benefit of the diploma is in its breadth, she says. “It can suit young people who really don’t know what they want to do, for whom the specialisation associated with A-levels isn’t appropriate.” The emphasis on languages is also crucial, she argues. “We live in a world that’s far more interrelated and interactive than it used to be; having a proficiency in languages is something that’s valuable in terms of employment later on.”

Indeed, employers do regard the IB as a useful qualification in many situations. “It’s a great qualification to have on your CV because it is internationally recognised, allowing candidates to apply for jobs globally,” explains Michael Gentle, head of consumer marketing from Monster UK and Ireland. “Employers value it because it embodies a wide range of academic subjects, so often indicated as a rounded education.”

Likewise, universities can value an IB. “One of the IB’s strengths is that many social science degree subjects value the breadth of the qualification,” says a spokesperson from the University of Warwick’s admissions department. “Economics degrees, for instance, like the fact that IB candidates study at least one course in mathematics in addition to the range of courses from other disciplines.”

“Students with the IB perform well in their degrees,” adds undergraduate admissions manager Wendy James, from London Metropolitan University.

“We have no preference between IB or A-level qualifications when considering student applications,” she stresses, but notes that a 2011 study by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) found that approximately a fifth of IB entrants with a full-time degree achieved a first class honours award compared to 14.5 per cent of those with A-level or equivalent qualifications.

Of course, as with every choice in higher education the IB won’t suit every student, and those with a clear idea of the career path they’d like to follow may find the A-level or vocational routes more appropriate. But for those whom the IB fits, there are clear benefits. “I think it produces exceptionally well-rounded young people,” says Holloway. “The IB is a programme that requires consistent effort and I think it teaches them to balance the different aspects of their lives pretty well.”