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To IB or not to IB

In this fast changing world many students would benefit from the flexibility that the IB offers, argues Peter Gray, IB Diploma Programme co-ordinator at Malvern College.

Posted on: 04 Nov 2014

Categories: Independent Sector, Exams

The reactions of students to the possibility of doing the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP) can be quite varied. Certainly there are those who are enthusiastic about not having to give up subjects and relish the opportunity to be pushed academically in so many different directions. A more common reaction though is polite rejection. The reasons for this are largely two-fold.

Firstly there is the reluctance to continue with so many subjects, including those at which they are comparatively weak. Particularly when this may mean they miss an offer to read Engineering at a competitive university because they fail to get the necessary points in Spanish.

The second reason stems from the conviction that they know what they want to do, and knowing this they do not wish to be forced into doing the extra requirements included in the IB; neither the extra subjects; the Theory of Knowledge course; the Extended Essay nor creative, action and service activities. It can seem A levels respect their ability to make their own choices, whereas the IB is claiming it knows best what is right for them. So why do we, as IB teachers, feel so strongly that despite these very real misgivings, most students would benefit from doing the IBDP.

Firstly it is often said that the world has suddenly become very different. We are in a time of high youth unemployment and yet there is a shortage of skills. The twenty-first century skills that we are lacking have been summed up as creativity, critical thinking, communication, collaboration and civic mindedness. It is easy to see how the IBDP seeks to develop all these skills, it is not so obviously part of the narrow 3 A level route.

A willingness to learn is also often added to the list. Perhaps our prospective engineer might not achieve top grades in Spanish, but learning Spanish can only help him develop these flexible learning skills, as well as that other quality we hear so much about, ‘grit’. Who knows, with increased globalization he might even find himself unexpectedly managing a project in one of the emerging South American countries.

Students have to make judgments on what subjects they wish to do after GCSEs before experiencing the very different way these subjects may be taught in the sixth form. Someone who disliked English at GCSE could easily find that a greater range of texts in the sixth form wakes a latent interest; someone who struggled with French could find they love studying Italian.

In the other direction someone who enjoyed GCSE Maths might find that A level work is very different, and they suddenly need to look to other interests for a university course. Many students enter the IBDP at our school with their mind fixed on a particular goal, only to change direction completely and follow a route they have found they enjoy even more.

At a recent meeting for Headteachers in IB schools , the Chief Executive of UCAS, Mary Curnock Cook, said if there was one piece of advice they should take back to their schools it should be to ensure that any potential medics have an alternative career path in mind. For a student following the traditional A level route to Medicine, consisting of three sciences or two sciences and Maths, the alternatives are very narrow. There is a world of difference between wanting to be a doctor and wanting to be a scientist, and the latter prospect might not appeal at all. An IB student, who will also be studying three non-science subjects, has a much wider choice of options.

Often the choice of IBDP or A levels is not clear cut, but there is no doubt, in this fast changing world, many students, beyond those who simply want to carry on with as many subjects as possible, would benefit from the flexibility that the IBDP offers.


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The ISC Press Office posts blogs on behalf of ISC schools and Associations.