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The IB demystified

By Talk Education
02 December 2021

Once your child is happily settled in their senior school, you’d be forgiven for breathing a sigh of relief and presuming that the most crucial school-related decisions are over for now. But what about their all-important final two years of school? In the not-too-distant past, most sixth forms followed the straightforward path towards A-levels (and sometimes vocational courses, such as BTECs, too), but now, more and more schools are turning towards the IB.

Recent research carried out by YouGov on behalf of Fulham Senior School found that 46 per cent of parents haven’t heard of the International Baccalaureate. There are countless benefits of this internationally-recognised, fully holistic sixth form programme – but it’s not for everyone.

Even if the sixth form feels like a world away, it’s vitally important to look into the various options available at your child’s school. Some schools offer A-levels only; some may let pupils choose between A-levels and the IB, and others might only offer the IB. Faced with the choice, how do you know which academic pathway is right for your son or daughter? We asked a handful of the top IB schools in the UK to help us unpick the basics, and bring you everything you need to know about the IB…

First things first: what is the IB?

Founded in 1968, the IB was designed as a global qualification for citizens of a global world. Over five decades later, it is now offered in over 100 schools in the UK, and more than 5,400 schools in 159 countries worldwide.

‘The IB is education’s best-kept secret’, says Chris Cockerill, the head of Fulham Senior School. Its main draw is its breadth: similar to A-levels, the diploma is studied by sixth form students over the course of two years, but rather than specialising in three or four subjects, pupils pick from six different subject areas. English, maths, a language and a humanities subject are all compulsory. On top of this, they take a course in the Theory of Knowledge (where students ponder philosophical questions and develop critical thinking skills), complete a 4,000-word Extended Essay (on any academic subject of their choice), and participate in a Creativity, Action & Service (CAS) programme, which involves over 150 hours of co-curricular activities, from sport to community service.

Students are assessed on each academic course (three of which are studied at Higher Level, and three at Standard Level) through a combination of coursework and final exams. Each subject is graded from 1-7 points, with an extra three points up for grabs for the Theory of Knowledge, Extended Essay and CAS modules. A perfect 45 points is considered the ‘gold standard’ of IB.


Fettes College

Why have some schools decided to offer the IB alongside or instead of A-levels?

‘In searching for a future-proof curriculum which readies students for the 21st century workplace, it would seem that the IB fits the brief better than most’, says Alastair Armstrong, the Director of Teaching & Learning at Fettes College, which has been offering the IB (alongside A-levels) since 2005.

That’s because it’s not just academic breadth that the IB promotes, but a fully holistic education focusing on ‘soft skills’ outside the classroom too. ‘It is more than simply a qualification: it is a broad and coherent educational vision, combining academic strength, broad co-curricular opportunity and a powerful service ethos’, adds Jesse Elzinga, head of Sevenoaks School, one of the UK’s earliest pioneers of the IB.

St Edward’s School in Oxford has been offering the IB since 2010. ‘The number of pupils in the school opting for the IB diploma and A-levels is now 50/50, a split the school is very proud of’, says Anna Fielding, the school’s IB Diploma Coordinator. ‘The aims of the IB Diploma fit very well with the aims of the schools: to encourage lifelong learners who thrive and aim to make a difference’.

After over a decade of offering just the IB, King’s College School Wimbledon brought back A-levels in 2013, giving students the opportunity to make their own decision about which academic pathway to follow. ‘At King’s we have been delivering the IB Diploma Programme for twenty years, and this has had a significant educational impact throughout the school’, says Paul Lloyd, the school’s acting head of IB. ‘The IB Diploma is an invigorating and inspiring experience’.

Others are newer converts. Rugby School in Warwickshire has a longstanding reputation as an A-level school (with excellent results to boot), but as of September 2021, IB is now an option too. ‘Both A-levels and the IB demand hard work from students and both will lead to well-respected qualifications’, says Ed Davies, the school’s deputy head academic. ‘The IB is truly international and intercultural and we felt it was an excellent fit with our ethos of ‘Whole Person, Whole Point’. The introduction of the IB means that our students now have a choice – an important motivating factor for their final years at school’.

Fulham Senior School only flung open the doors to its sixth form this year – yet for students joining the school, it’s IB all the way. ‘As a modern, forward-looking education provider, we decided to offer the IB diploma because we believe it gives students unrivalled preparation for university and the future job market’, says Mr Cockerill.


King's College School Wimbledon

What are the benefits of the IB, and how does my son or daughter decide if it’s right for them?

In the early days of the IB, it was often regarded as a trickier route. ‘When we first started teaching the IB, we felt it was only accessible to our most able students’, says Mr Armstrong. ‘But over the last ten years, that outlook has changed, and we now feel that as well as offering stretch and challenge for the top end of our ability range, it also provides the necessary structure and support to allow any student to fulfil their potential’.

That said, it won’t suit every child. So, what are the key things worth bearing in mind when deciding whether to pick the IB over A-levels?

TO SPECIALISE OR NOT TO SPECIALISE?

If, by the time they turn 16, your child has a very clear idea about what they’d like to study at university and beyond, A-levels could be the right choice. ‘A-levels allow young people to choose freely from a wide selection of subjects’, says Deborah Kirkby, the Director of IB at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, ‘and for those who wish to specialise entirely – perhaps in say, maths, or physics – the A-level programme remains a popular and appropriate choice’.

But what if they don’t know what they want to do next? ‘The IB programme, however, allows pupils to retain breadth in their subjects, which for those who do not yet have a clear career path, or who are bright and struggle to choose what to give up at 16, is ideal’, she continues.

The IB maintains an academic breadth of study right through to the end of school, which many now see as so important in preparing students for what comes next’, adds Mr Armstrong. ‘It is difficult to argue with a diploma that encourages students to maintain their mathematical, scientific and humanities studies beyond the age of 16, and promotes a more holistic and philosophical approach to learning and teaching’.

The IB's interdisciplinary element plays to its strengths too. ‘By studying maths, pupils have the skills that help with studying data in sports science. The two main parts of the ‘core’ (Theory of Knowledge and the Extended Essay) feed into all subjects; for example, in a history lesson, it might be helpful to discuss how historians’ views change over time and are influenced by the time period in which they write’, says Ms Fielding.


Stonyhurst College

COURSEWORK VS EXAMS

Another key difference between A-levels and the IB is the way in which they are assessed. In general, A-levels do not involve coursework – bar a few exceptions such as art. This can be a boon for pupils who enjoy the challenge of an exam, but a disadvantage for those who don’t work well under pressure.

In the IB, every subject has coursework, which means that IB students can walk into the exam room ‘feeling confident that they already have some marks under their belt, and with the reassurance that their results will not only be about how they perform on the day’, explains Mrs Kirkby.

A PACKED TIMETABLE VS MORE TIME FOR INDEPENDENT STUDY

Think about how you work best. Choosing the IB means you’ll be studying many more subjects – which in turn will lead to a busier timetable. Most A-level students have a number of study periods integrated into their weekly timetable so they can really hone in on their chosen subjects, but if you’ve chosen the IB, there’s likely to be much more structure in your working week. 

‘We emphasise the importance of being ‘intellectually agile’, continues Mrs Kirkby. ‘Those who benefit most from an IB education are those young people who are able to, and really enjoy, the fact that they are moving between very different subjects and disciplines in their day’.


Malvern College

PREPARATION FOR UNIVERSITY AND LIFE BEYOND SCHOOL

One of the major benefits of the IB is the role it plays in helping set students apart from their peers. ‘For those with the ambition to go to the world’s top universities, the possibility of scoring up to 45 points on the Diploma provides a way to stand out from the large numbers who attain the A* equivalent at A-level, says Mr Davies.

‘Students often report how useful Theory of Knowledge lessons have been for university interviews and for university study’, says Paul Lloyd, the acting head of IB at King’s College Wimbledon. ‘The Extended Essay helps students to develop the research and writing skills they will find essential for university, and gives them a wonderful opportunity for genuine independent learning. It is also an excellent opportunity to clearly demonstrate to universities one’s commitment to a particular course, through the choice of topic and title’.

Then there’s the versatility and flexibility of the diploma. Students can easily transfer onto the IB Diploma Programme from other IB World Schools (check out our guides to the best schools in Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, Switzerland and Australia – and many more territories to come – to find out which schools offer the programme). Thanks to the course’s proper global outlook, international students flock to UK schools offering the IB, including Malvern College in Worcestershire, another of the country’s earliest adopters of the IB, where there’s a wonderful cosmopolitan feel.

If you’re thinking of studying abroad, picking the IB certainly helps. ‘The IB also opens doors internationally, with 23 per cent of our students going to top universities in the US, Canada, Asia and Europe’, says Mr Elzinga.

‘Although all UK and overseas university systems recognise and support both IB and A-level applications, those pupils wishing to study in the US will find that the breadth provided by the IB is particularly well-suited to the US approach to university education’, adds Jennifer Akehurst, Malvern’s IB Diploma Coordinator.

And there’s a final, particularly topical benefit too. ‘Another significant advantage of the IB Diploma Programme is that it is run by a non-profit external body, the IBO, and it is not subject to the whims of the government’, says Mr Elzinga. After the results fiasco of the past two years, that will certainly be music to the ears for many.


Rugby School

And finally… What do students have to say about the IB? 

“I would say that studying the IB provides you with the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding and enjoyment of your subjects, not only through the specific academic content but also the cross-curricular links you form thanks to the holistic nature of the programme. I find that the smaller set sizes and structured timetable means that you have constant support, and a sixth form experience which you can truly tailor to whatever suits you!’, says one recent IB pupil from King’s College School Wimbledon. 

‘The aspect of the IB that I found the most appealing was its sheer breadth; it allowed me to pursue a large variety of disciplines, with a focus on independence throughout the course. This was just one of the many Malvern Qualities that was consistently encouraged by my teachers. Through the range of internal assessments, I was able to delve deeper into topics of interest within each subject, adds a Malvern College pupil. ‘The quality of teaching and support I received at the College was exceptional, with teachers always willing to go the extra mile to guide and support me throughout my time studying the IB and across all aspects of my school life’. 

‘The IB is an amazing education’, sums up another King’s College School Wimbledon student. ‘I just have so many fantastic things to say – it is about shaping students into bright, curious and vibrant individuals’. 

High praise indeed.

To find out more about which schools offer the IB, head to our school search page and use our search filters to select ‘International Baccalaureate’ in the drop down list of sixth form options.  Schools. And keep an eye out for our dedicated IB focus page, launching early next term.

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