Bac... To The Future

14th February 2009

If you – or your offspring – are currently approaching GCSEs, then you’re probably beginning to think beyond the summer. A-levels are the obvious next step. Or are they?

Jill Glenn investigates an alternative: the International Baccalaureate.

Research and interviews carried out by Yvonne Ansari.

“The International Baccalaureate aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.” Not a bad goal – and one which is appealing to more schools and students year-on-year, both in Britain and abroad. It’s a qualification recognised in around 130 countries and taught across the globe from Angola and Argentina to Vietnam and Zambia. Over 170 schools (about half of whom are independent) teach it in the UK and the government intends that there should be at least one centre in every local education authority offering it by 2010.

The International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma is the antithesis of the traditional A-level, where specialism is encouraged, and the combination of arts and sciences in one programme of study is often frowned on, or hard to timetable. The IB promotes breadth and diversity, with a wide-ranging approach that can see students including strands as divergent as Japanese and Physics, say, or Economics and Visual Arts, in their two year course. It’s ideal if you’re undecided about future studies or life plans, or if you have strengths across a broad curriculum, or if you want something that’s just a little more exacting. Hannah, a current Year 12 IB student at St. Helen’s School, Northwood, describes it as “very challenging but rewarding”.

The IB offers six groups of classes, each consisting of a different type of element to increase the student’s learning ability. Students take a class from each group, three at a higher level, and three at a standard level. Standard level classes touch the surface of subjects, only going into depth in some areas, whereas higher level classes go into more depth overall, preparing the student for university in many different ways.

Groups One and Two are language groups. The Group One syllabus features the study of literature in a student’s first language (of which 45 are available), along with selections of world literature. It’s known as the ‘A1’ language. Group Two is a second language, either from scratch (‘ab initio’), or the continuation of a language already studied, or more extensively for those who show real flair: the ‘A2’ language option.

Group Three is called Individuals and Societies. Nine subjects are available, from Business and Management to History, from Information Technology in a Global Society to Philosophy. Group Four consists of Experimental Sciences: Biology, Chemistry, Design Technology, Environmental Systems and Physics.

Group Five, Mathematics and Computer Science, has four mathematics courses, designed to accommodate students of differing abilities (bearing in mind how well they did in previous maths classes), and to fulfil the requirements of university and career aspirations.
Students must study at least one subject from each of Groups One to Five. Group Six, the Arts, is a more creative strand, in which students can experiment – and be challenged – in Music, Theatre Arts and Visual Arts. New courses in Film and Dance are currently being developed.

Students can, if they prefer, choose a second subject from one of the first five groups. The result is a course of study that is personal, and that doesn’t close down options or passions. You could be studying English (A1), French, Social & Cultural Anthropology, Chemistry, Mathematics and Theatre Arts, with the first three at Higher Level, and the second at Standard; or try this: English (A1), Japanese (ab initio), Psychology, Philosophy, Design Technology and Mathematical Methods – mix and match Higher and Standard, as you choose. Makes you think, doesn’t it? Literally, as it happens.

There’s certainly plenty to keep a student occupied and stimulated. Opponents say it’s too demanding, especially for those struggling with a subject strand that they don’t particularly relish or shine at, but the type of learner at whom the IB is targeted should respond well to the variety and expectation. As Natasha (Year 13, North London Collegiate School) explains, “I am very busy all the time, but I love being busy, meaning I can also never be bored.” Classes are designed in a way that challenges and stimulates the student’s mind, preparing them for the future. The IB (developed by a Swiss organisation) is very keen to turn out independent thinkers, with a global outlook, and one of the ways in which it does this is by extending the course to cover more than just classroom-based learning. There are three further core components: the Extended Essay, the Theory of Knowledge (TOK), and Creativity, Action, Service (CAS).

The Extended Essay, on any topic that the student desires, functions as something similar to a university dissertation. Students are expected to produce 4,000 words, using theory as well as primary and secondary research, and developing skills (self-directed study, time management) that will stand them in good stead, wherever their career takes them.

The TOK explores the role and nature of knowledge, reflecting on cultural and personal biases, transcending the subject boundaries, and asking a fundamental question: how do we know?

Creativity, Action, Service – 50 hours each over the course of two years – stretches the student requirement beyond the academic. Creativity, for example, might include pottery or learning jazz dance or acting. Action could involve team or individual sport, or international expeditions, while the Service element requires something to be undertaken for the community, such as entertaining ill children in hospital, or talking to elderly people in residential care.

The purpose, of course, is to highlight that there is more to an education than just passing exams and handing in essays. Most students seem to find it easy – and enjoyable – to fit the CAS hours in. Hannah observed “I'm doing singing lessons for my creative hours, and for the service hours I was able to include a stage management project.” Natasha agrees: “It’s things that everyone normally does, but it counts as CAS.”

The IB diploma is made up of 45 points overall, of which 42 are obtained from the subject examinations on a 1 to 7 scale (1 being the lowest and 7 the highest). The remaining three points come from the Extended Essay, TOK and the completion of all the CAS hours. Less than one hundred students worldwide obtain the full 45 points as a rule.

The purpose of an A-level often seems little more than the rigid qualification itself, and the passport it offers to higher education; the IB appears to recognise that there is life outside a focused strand of study, and, indeed, life outside the classroom. But of course, that passport to university is important – so will the IB deliver that too? Answer: it will, even to Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard and Yale. Advocates say that admissions tutors are increasingly favouring an IB student, because of their breadth of knowledge, and the way in which the course has prepared them for independent learning, and independent thought. Students who wish to move on to international universities will also benefit from having that easily portable qualification.

Natasha feels that the IB “gives students a chance to do a lot before finishing education.” This underscores the fact that the IB is about more than just education, giving students a once-in-a-lifetime experience that they may not be able to gain from other educational programmes such as A-levels, which Hannah admitted she found “too limited” as an option.

It’s a big question, and there’s certainly a lot in favour of the IB. As Natasha says, though, deciding which to undertake “is a personal choice, and every person is different, so it depends on each individual.” A very measured IB-style observation…

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