Difficult times ahead?


The IB has enjoyed an increase in popularity over the last few years (close to 200 schools teach it) but is now experiencing its most difficult period. While the numbers of pupils taking the IB has been on the rise, for the first time schools are beginning to drop the award. The most recent to do so is a leading independent school, Kings Wimbeldon. The award is widely seen as more challenging than the A level and claims, with some justification, not to be a victim of grade inflation. But it is also seen by teachers and pupils alike as more challenging.  No bad thing, say supporters ,who say it’s the opposite of by rote learning, encouraging breadth and real understanding of the subjects studied. The ideal IB candidate is self-motivated and inquisitive. The Diploma also requires more teaching time, so it is more expensive to deliver. Already schools complain that they spend too much on exams and testing so any award that is relatively costly, at a time when budgets are under pressure,  is going to have the cards stacked against it, whatever its merits. There is another issue that is sometimes glossed over. The IB requires the post 16 study of maths and a science, subjects that pupils are often very keen to drop.

The IB, which it is often forgotten, operates at three levels: the Primary Years Programme for students aged between 5 and 11, the Middle Years Programme for those aged 11 and 16 and the Diploma Programme in the Sixth Form. The last is the most common in the UK. The Primary and Middle Years levels are rarely taught in the UK (mainly international schools for the middle years programme -and of course Wellington College-whose Head Anthony Seldon admitted that introducing the MYP was a  risk). Although some state schools run the IB most of the take-up is in the independent sector. And quite a few schools who offer the IB, also continue to offer A levels as an option.

Students on the diploma study six subjects, and specialise in three. They choose these from six subject groups to ensure a breadth of learning: first and second languages, humanities, sciences, maths, and the arts. They also write a 4,000-word essay, take classes in the theory of knowledge, and commit to 150 hours of CAS (creativity, action, service).

Running the IB programmes, though, is a challenge for schools and is not a task that should be lightly undertaken. Marlborough College is still searching for a Head having stipulated that it wanted someone with a sound knowledge and experience of the IB Diploma. Rumour has it that the candidates that they have seen who were proficient in all matters IB ( fishing in  relatively small pool) had perceived  deficiencies elsewhere. (no names no pack drill)

It is fair to say that the IB  may be in some danger of becoming an obsolete qualification and disappearing as a mainstream award  over the medium term  unless universities play their part in keeping  the award  alive. In theory IB students should be attractive to Higher education institutions and their admissions tutors  as it encourages the kind of  self-reliance and lateral  thinking that they are on the look- out for in candidates , but   as things stand, see  far too little of.   But its not that easy.  Indeed, supporters of the IB believe that admission tutors are being far too harsh on IB candidates and must take decisive action and insist that the offers for IB students reflect the depth and breadth of study it demands.   Rather too many IB students believe the IB is receiving unsympathetic offers from universities, and this is having a direct impact on the number opting to sit the IB Diploma. If you hear of disappointed IB students not getting the offers they thought they might , then you, as a pupil , begin to worry and this is shared in spades by parents and  slowly   confidence leaches away.

UK universities are systematically underestimating top candidates with IB qualifications in their admissions procedures, according to recent research by Professors Anna Vignoles and Francis Green of the Institute of Education .They found that at the top end of the scale, universities are demanding higher scores from IB candidates than from their A-level equivalents. Overall, universities systematically deviate from the official recommendation (provided by UCAS) in the offers they make to IB students. Universities tend to ask their IB applicants for higher IB points than officially recommended, but adjust too far at the top end of the scale. The report states “In institutions with IB students having an average grade of 37 or more, for example, we find that the IB students are 5.4 percentage points more likely to achieve an upper second class degree or better.”

Dr Anthony Seldon, the Master of Wellington College, put the concerns as follows in a letter to Times Higher Education Supplement –  ‘My own experience as the head of an independent school offering both A Level and IB informs my alarm.  It is deeply frustrating to see two students of comparable ability being asked for (for the A Level student) three grade As at A Level and (for the IB student) 40 points with – and here is the sting – two 7s and a 6 at Higher Level.  That A Level student, doing modular A Levels, is almost assured of gaining his or her place; for the IB student there is far less certainty.  Students are being penalised for taking the tougher option. ‘

With competition for places at top universities getting harder all the time the very idea that IB students are not getting a fair deal has the potential to undermine the qualification. Those who support the IB as an important qualification and absolutely suited to the requirements of some pupils, which I do, need to work hard with stakeholders to resolve the  outstanding issues and the sooner the better.

Note; The IB Diploma should not be confused with the other Diplomas introduced by the last government which were neither  vocational nor academic qualifications  –so had a bit of an identity crisis right from the start. (qualifications should be demand- led not prescribed, top down by politicians and officials).  Poorly conceived, marketed and managed,  they never quite managed to establish themselves  as robust qualifications among stakeholders,  though championed and over-sold  by education ministers in the last government.


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