In my role as Director of Studies at Gresham’s School, where we offer Sixth Form students both A-levels and the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme, I actively encourage all students to consider the IB Diploma pathway.
If students explain that they have chosen to take A-levels because they are absolutely passionate about three particular subjects and are eager to have that bit more spare time to read around their subjects, and are likely to actually do so, then I will support their decision. In all other circumstances I will question why they have not selected the IB Diploma.
The experience of undertaking the IB Diploma tends to speak for itself. One of our ‘originals’ – the first cohort to take the IB Diploma at Gresham’s a decade ago – Will Ellis, explained that it’s important to “focus on what you want to get out of the two years – not just the final qualifications, not just the choice of subjects, but the enjoyment of the process too.” I couldn’t agree more.
IB Diploma students are more likely to have a timetable that looks similar to a GCSE timetable, with lessons in most periods and, therefore, more contact time with teachers. While this might seem like an easier option, the breadth of subjects (six – three at higher level and three at standard level) combined with the additional mandatory extra-curricular elements and less time within the school day to undertake independent study means that students need to ensure they are working efficiently outside the classroom. The IB Diploma therefore fosters positive independent learning practices as part of the taught programme. The programme also incorporates a style of learning which has much more by way of internationalism inherently at its heart; students are more likely to learn about their curriculum within a global context, with different local foci, rather than within a narrower, fixed curriculum.
One of the tragedies of education in this country is that, by limiting students to ‘specialising’ in just three subjects at the age of 16, we are adding to the current skills shortage. From STEM subjects to languages, creative subjects to classics, the breadth of subjects available to many sixth form students at A-level is dwindling, while at the same time students are self-restricting – selecting subjects that they are afraid to drop in case it is required at some future point, rather than opting for those that they know they would love to continue but that may not ultimately be relevant for their university destination or career ambition.
The IB Diploma simply allows students to enjoy these two years of education. Six subjects give room for them to choose the ones that they love most in addition to continuing those subjects they are hesitant to drop. The IB Diploma actually requires students to continue subjects that are deemed essential by employers, such as their first language, a science of their choice and, to some students’ initial horror, maths. There are three levels of maths on offer – higher level or standard level, and also maths studies, which is designed to maintain numeracy skills through sixth form. Whichever of these mandatory elements might be daunting to students, it is always fascinating to see, on results day two years later, that students are equally proud of their achievements in the subjects about which they were hesitant as they are of the grades they achieve in their higher level subjects.
As well as the breadth of the IB Diploma, the programme also promotes ‘internationalism’ through its ab initio language offering, whereby students can take up a language without any previous experience; it’s never too late to learn a language! We offer ab initio Spanish, French, German, Italian, Chinese Mandarin and Japanese, which is quite exciting really and generally wouldn’t be the case with A-levels. In terms of addressing the skills shortage in this country, encouraging students to take languages, maths and a science through to 18 is undoubtedly a positive step towards equipping the next generation.
There is more too to the IB Diploma than the academic opportunities and the focus on developing internationally-minded citizens. The CAS (creativity, activity and service) element of the IB Diploma is often one of the things that students look back on as being the most rewarding part of their time at school, and we have certainly had students who have been involved in education projects or overseas projects who’ve ended up going in to teaching or carework or international development as a result of the extra things that the programme enabled them to experience. What’s more, at a time when students are wont to put themselves under pressure to prioritise academic pursuits at the expense of extra-curricular activities, it can be refreshing for them to be able to justify to themselves the time spent in sporting teams or as members of the school choir or cadet force, as they too are integral parts of the IB Diploma – but also essential parts of living a balanced and fulfilling life.
Not only do students, their parents, and their teachers see the value in the IB Diploma – so too do higher education institutions and employers around the world. The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) compared students entering the UK’s higher education system who had studied the IB Diploma with students who had studied A-levels, and found that IB Diploma students have a 57% greater likelihood of attending one of the top 20 UK universities than their A-level peers. Achieving 45 points (the highest score available) enables students to stand out from the crowd and demonstrate more than they would be able to through A-levels.
We are increasingly seeing university admissions officers give credit to students who evidence language skills, too. With the language skills gap supposedly being worth billions of pounds to the economy, I think achieving a respectable grade in a foreign language shows not only intellectual flexibility and an aptitude that will impress university admissions officers, but also an interest in working in an international and interconnected world that is likely to impress future employers.
The positive effects of the IB Diploma last well into life beyond school and higher education too. The programme focuses on developing self-motivation and organisation, juggling workloads, and understanding communities and relationships. The IB encourages the soft skills that businesses value – things like teamwork, communication, and empathy – and the IB’s Learner Profile also helps students to consider their place in society, which means that they don’t just survive beyond school, but thrive, and will often try to make a difference.
As explained by alumnus, Will, “The IB Diploma was an excellent foundation for life beyond school; there was not much ‘breathing space’ and so developing the skills to effectively manage time were essential. Learning to prioritise, and to be open and honest with teachers, parents and peers about schedule and workload are good skills to develop early on. Being tasked with independent research and having the freedom to set work (such as choosing a suitable topic for the extended essay), was also invaluable.” Now a Senior Consultant in the Financial Services Advisory of Ernst & Young LLP, Will specialises in helping organisations avoid cyber-attacks and catastrophic system outages (think NHS and BA) and preparing for when they do inevitably happen. He suggests that, “It’s the type of individual who has broad interests and enjoys keeping multiple plates spinning at once who is suited for this role – and who is also likely to opt for the IB. Either way, the IB Diploma was the best preparation for my role.”
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