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Why the International Baccalaureate matters

Posted on: 22 Dec 2016
Posted by: John Claughton

In his new role as development manager at the International Baccalaureate Schools and Colleges Association, John Claughton, former Chief Master of KES Birmingham looks at the strength of the 50-year-old qualification.

There are out there voices, more and more voices, that echo with the suggestion that the current 16+ curriculum, with its narrowing specialisation and its concentration on qualifications rather than skills, is not preparing young people for the land, unknown and constantly changing, that lies beyond school.


One such voice came in 2014 from the most august of all academic institutions, the Royal Society. The central recommendations of their paper, Vision for Science and Mathematics Education, were the introduction of 'a baccalaureate type system [with] a broader curriculum (including core English, mathematics and the Extended Project qualification)' and 'a framework for key competences which includes: communication in English and in foreign languages, competence in mathematics, science and technology and digital competence, learning to learn individually and as part of a team, personal, interpersonal and intercultural competence.'


In the same year, the giant education group Pearson’s produced a similar survey under the leadership of Sir Roy Anderson of Imperial College, London and came to similar conclusions: 'Baccalaureate-style frameworks should be introduced. Inspirational science and mathematics curricula should be placed at the heart of these, and should emphasise practical work and problem-solving. The new frameworks should incorporate subjects in the arts, humanities and social sciences and place equal value on vocational learning.'


Sir David Bell, the Vice-Chancellor of Reading University and former Permanent Secretary in the Department of Education feels the same way: 'Let us finally build cross party consensus on expanding A-levels into a broader, richer baccalaureate-style system – with core specialist subjects supplemented with extended project work and top-level literacy, numeracy, computer science and softer, non-cognitive skills. The sciences need the arts. And the arts need the sciences. The economy and society is changing out of all recognition - and yet we still have an out-of-date system, when the UK can least afford it.'


And so does Naomi Climer, the President of the Institute of Engineering and Technology, Europe’s largest engineering institution: 'For years there have not been enough young people studying Maths and Physics. If we don’t drastically reverse this trend, we cannot expect to address the skills shortage as millions of our future generation will continue to inadvertently shut the door on exciting and creative careers in engineering and technology. One way of tackling the challenge would be if more schools were to offer the International Baccalaureate. This would mean that fewer young people would be forced to make choices at 16 that can limit their career options later on.'


And so, for slightly different reasons, does Andreas Schleicher, the Director of Education for OECD and the overseer of the much-vaunted PISA tests: 'Education today is much more about ways of thinking which involve creative and critical approaches to problem-solving and decision-making. It is also about ways of working, including communication and collaboration, as well as the tools they require, such as the capacity to recognise and exploit the potential of new technologies, or indeed, to avert their risks. And last but not least, education is about the capacity to live in a multi-faceted world as an active and engaged citizen.'


As A levels return to the narrowness and linearity of the past, the International Baccalaureate Diploma, fundamentally unchanged since its inception nearly 50 years ago, continues to offer three distinct aspects that answer these demands for the future of education. The first is that it does generate, through its six subjects, the breadth of education to replace the specialisation of the past: every student does do what these , bridging the gap between maths/science and the humanities, above all the study of two languages, one’s own and someone else’s. And it does this whilst preserving, through Higher Level subjects, a depth that is just as deep as any A level depth. In the end, the IB Diploma does end the schism of the Two Culture that has beset this country for a century.


The second is that the IB Diploma is not just a set of qualifications, a syllabus, some past papers and some mark schemes. It actually and explicitly specifies some skills that it aims to develop, thinking skills, communication skills, social skills and the capacity to work with others, research skills and self-management skills. These may be the very things that university and the world of work are now demanding – or pining for – but IB has been on this for years.


In 1972 Alan Peterson, one of IB’s founders, wrote: 'What is of paramount importance in the pre-university stage is not what is learned but learning how to learn … What matters is not the absorption and regurgitation either of fact or pre-digested interpretations of facts, but the development of powers of the mind or ways of thinking which can be applied to new situations and new presentations of facts as they arise.’


Well, fancy that. And the third goes yet deeper into the nature of education, or even what it means to be a human being. The International Baccalaureate actually has an aim and here is some of it: '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. These programmes encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.'


Nor do I think that aim is nebulous or vacuous. Through the Core programme, particularly Theory of Knowledge and Creativity, Action and Service (CAS) students really do learn to think and question and argue and care and such things may be particularly significant in a world where it seems that politicians can say anything and then say they didn’t mean it, where xenophobia and demagoguery are just fine, where unquestioned belief can lead to dreadful acts.


Of course, the IB is not the only education that can address these issues, but it is the only one that does so explicitly. Of course, the IB Diploma isn’t easy – or economical – for schools to run and it certainly isn’t easy for students to study. But who said that 'easy' was best?

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About John Claughton

John Claughton is former Chief Master of KES Birmingham, a boys' day school in the heart of the second city priding itself on accessibility to all boys of ability, whatever their situation.