Do not throw that IB pearl away, richer than the impoverished A level

Anthony Seldon's plea to v-cs: stand up for the International Baccalaureate before it is too late, or the academy will suffer

February 9, 2012

Credit: James Fryer

Dear vice-chancellors,

I know you have intense pressures and demands on your time, but you need to be aware that something serious is happening on your watch that requires urgent attention.

You will be aware that for many years A levels have been losing their intellectual power. The breakdown into bite-sized modules has encouraged the culture of regular resits until top grades are attained. The content has been getting lighter, the examinations more susceptible to intrusive teacher and exam-board influence. Three times as many A grades at A level are awarded than a generation ago. The three A grades that your departments are asking for your top courses are acquired more through rote learning than thinking.

Your admissions staff seem not to fully realise what is happening. The schools themselves naturally do not want to tell them or break their cosy oath of omerta about A levels. Exam boards certainly are not going to let on, and are working closely with schools to ensure the savvy ones get even more A and A* grades. The Department for Education isn't going to tell you: it wants to boast a year-on-year improvement in results. All join in the rictus dance around the league table totem pole, in an ecstasy of ever-increasing frenzy and mirth. All are in on the cover-up. You are being deceived and students are losing out while schools revel in their league table glory.

Don't believe me? The examiners' reports on the University of Oxford's finals papers leaked two weeks ago starkly illuminate the problem. Many candidates, the reports say, fail to display critical thinking and respond in an "A-level style" by merely regurgitating knowledge. Alison Wolf, professor of public sector management at King's College London, told Parliament's Education Committee last month that the drive to make school exams more transparent and accountable had narrowed learning and made it steadily more banal.

GCSEs and A levels are in deep trouble and we need you to stand up and say so if your universities are to recruit students who can think independently and love knowledge. The A* grade, introduced two years ago to "toughen" the A level, has done no such thing. It has merely made schools play the exam system in an even more sophisticated way - and independent schools are better at this game than state schools.

The International Baccalaureate (IB) is totally different, and is best known for its diploma, which is offered in sixth forms. It is the jewel in the crown of British education, but it is expensive to run and state schools in particular are finding it difficult to afford in the current climate. The IB diploma will retreat to a smattering of international schools and affluent independents unless you champion it. We may one day soon look around at a monochrome, A-level-dominated sixth form and ask ourselves: "How did we allow this to happen?" More than anyone else, you have to take decisive action and insist that the offers for IB students made by your admissions departments reflect the depth and breadth of study the exam demands.

Students at my school and elsewhere increasingly believe that the IB receives unsympathetic offers from some universities, and this is having a direct impact on the number opting to sit the diploma. Recent research by Anna Vignoles and Francis Green of the Institute of Education uncovered a systematic underestimating of top applicants with IB qualifications. But those IB students who are accepted by top universities, they find, tend to perform better than similar A-level students and are more likely to achieve upper-second-class degrees or firsts.

Some of your universities are more geared up to the IB than others. The best of your admissions staff realise how extraordinarily demanding it is to take six subjects without any chance of resits and at a level where students are competing against the best in the world. They value the "theory of knowledge" paper and the independent learning and discipline required for the extended essay. They understand the diploma is the most testing school exam in the world.

There is a wider issue here. Do you truly want students joining you at 18 or 19 who can think critically and deeply, understand the interconnectedness between six subjects of different disciplines and are capable of independent study and thought? Or do you want students with narrow specialist knowledge in one subject, even if it is spoon-fed? Because it is the latter you are getting.

Michael Gove, the education secretary, has said that he loves the IB and wants your admissions staff to acknowledge its difficulty. He may need to do more if he isn't to see an A-level and GCSE monopoly.

I implore you to become better acquainted with the IB at the diploma and "middle-years" level (which is the alternative to GCSE) and to adjust offers for IB students in line with leading universities abroad who acknowledge and reward fully the IB's intellectual challenge and depth. The quality of your universities will suffer immeasurably should the IB be lost.

Yours sincerely, Anthony Seldon

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