The platinum standard

Academy take note: the International Baccalaureate offers the best preparation for higher study, argue John Oakes and Anthony Seldon

May 12, 2011

As head teachers of two very different schools, one state, one independent, our jobs are quite different. But our views about the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme are identical and are shared by a growing number of schools. We would argue that of all the qualifications that are available to secondary schools, the IB is best suited to preparing our pupils for study at the very highest level and providing them with the intellectual breadth, depth and skills needed for employment beyond university. The IB is the platinum-standard qualification for an interconnected world.

Whereas modular examinations such as A levels can all too easily promote spoonfeeding and teaching to the test, the IB diploma promotes independent study and analytical thinking.

These qualities are reinforced throughout its structure, including the extended essay, a 4,000-word assignment that is the best indicator of academic commitment and aspiration we have encountered.

Universities want students who can think in the abstract, and the IB's theory of knowledge course, which is more akin to epistemology than a conventional philosophy course, does just that. Oxbridge-style questions figure prominently in each lesson and its written assessment.

Around this core, IB students study six subjects: three at higher level and three at subsidiary level. The mere fact that diploma students sit six exams at the end of the upper sixth rather than the usual three A levels (upon which most universities narrowly base their offers) should give all pause for thought about the comparative workload. Nobody who has actually looked at, say, a higher-level maths paper could claim that the six IB subjects lack depth. The diploma's beauty lies in providing breadth and depth, a tangible emphasis on creativity and built-in time for reflection. The IB "learner profile", meanwhile, develops scholarly and ethical qualities in students.

Universities in the UK should be trumpeting the IB diploma. Our experience, however, is that not all of them fully value or even understand it. University staff all too rarely visit schools beyond "introduction to higher education" events and talks. Thus, they do not appreciate quite how hard the IB students work over two years; nor do they really grasp how much more intrinsically challenging the courses are than A levels.

The summative examinations held at the end of IB diploma courses provide students with an overview of their subjects, as opposed to the compartmentalised instruction for A-level modules that exposes a lack of subject coherence and relevance. IB students build on their knowledge, rather than dumping it after every module. Further, grade inflation has not devalued the diploma - unlike A levels.

Admissions tutors specifically need to do more to understand the more exacting demands made by the IB. We are constantly surprised that students sitting the diploma are asked for the highest grades at higher level (7) while their A-level contemporaries are asked for As, even though the latter might have had three attempts at getting those "easier" grades.

Furthermore, IB students are frequently double assessed, with offers being made of, say, 40 points, but with an additional sting that they must also gain marks of two 7s and a 6 in their higher-level subjects. These are unreasonably high offers.

This perception of unfairness is shared by the education secretary, Michael Gove. At a recent conference in London hosted by The Spectator magazine, he said: "I love the IB: it is a very effective way of preparing young people for the future, but some universities have not adjusted their admission policies to acknowledge its difficulty."

If our experience as heads is valid, why do we tolerate the status quo? The regrettable consequences are seen in schools that offer both IB diplomas and A levels, and can struggle to attract students to the former. Every vice-chancellor take note: achieving three grade As at A level is seen to be easier by students and their parents than 39 points in the IB. In undervaluing the IB, some universities are actively contributing to the dumbing down of high-quality education.

Recent research by the Higher Education Statistics Agency on behalf of the International Baccalaureate Organisation provides evidence of the benefits of an IB education: 19 per cent of students who took the diploma achieved first-class honours degrees compared with 14.5 per cent who sat A levels or equivalent qualifications.

As public institutions committed to intellectual and academic advancement, universities should be passionate advocates of any school exam that encourages real learning and scholarship. The IB curriculum, created by educators, is rigorous and free from tampering by the varying predilections of the state.

In addition to the IB diploma, universities need to become more familiar with the IB's curriculum for 11- to 16-year-olds, the Middle Years Programme. It is a fast-growing offering in schools and is far more intellectually challenging than the GCSE or the International GCSE.

We have a great deal of admiration for universities and are mindful of the problems they are facing in the wake of cutbacks. But we call upon universities from vice-chancellors downwards to take more trouble to understand the IB for the sake of schools, universities and the country.

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments