Bacc to front?
The international baccalaureate association in the UK has seen enquiries from schools shoot up since the government rejected the Tomlinson diploma. Julie Nightingale takes a critical look at the IB to see whether it can be a viable alternative.
The government's rejection of the Tomlinson diploma to replace GCSE and A levels has sent ripples of disappointment through the profession.
A need to protect the 'gold standard' of A levels was one justification for retaining the current system. However, the international baccalaureate (IB) has already shown it can be done within an overarching diploma.
The IB, designed and accredited by the International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO), is offered by schools worldwide including more than 70 in the UK.
Over two years, students follow six academic subjects - including at least one language and one science.
Either three or four are taken at higher level, which demands in-depth study, while the rest are taken at standard level, which gives broader knowledge of the subject area.
What marks the IB out is the three additional strands: theory of knowledge, which develops critical thinking skills; creativity, action, service (CAS), which incorporates voluntary work, sport and other extra-curricular activities and promotes good citizenship; and an extended essay on a topic of the student's choosing.
Grades run from one to a top mark of seven which is generally deemed to be much tougher to attain than an A level grade A (worldwide only a tiny percentage of students achieve sevens in all subjects).
Dartford Grammar School, a selective state school in Kent, introduced the IB in 1996 as an enhancement to the school's new specialist language college status.
This year, around 130 out of 220 sixth form students are doing it, the largest cohort from a state school in the UK.
Less able students
"It's a more balanced curriculum as it doesn't allow students to drop anything that we would consider important," says Peter Fidczuk, the school's IB coordinator. "It develops the students in a much more holistic way."
A more able student will certainly be more stretched by it, but he believes the benefits are not confined to the outstandingly gifted.
"I don't think it suits a student who isn't very able because there are elements that would be difficult, such as the theory of knowledge. But an average student will do better with the IB than at A levels."
At Exeter College, a state school win Devon, ten per cent of sixth formers opt for IB. One of its key selling points since it was introduced 12 years ago is how it helps students adapt to higher education.
"We tell our students that it prepares them better for university study and makes the transition less of a jump," says Andy Truscott, IB coordinator.
A core programme and small subject groups have the effect of bonding the students more closely.
"We have a group of students who are together for the majority of their working week and you get a good atmosphere among them. There are only a few of them and they see much more of each other.
"The ethos that pervades is that it's good and exciting to learn and there's no stigma attached to saying you're going home to do some work this weekend."
Bedford School, a fee-paying boys' school, is a recent convert to the IB way. Its first cohort of sixth formers - around a quarter of the year group - will complete their diploma this summer.
It was introduced at Bedford partly in response to the dramatic rise in A level standards which left universities struggling to differentiate between waves of students all trailing strings of A grades.
Another advantage is the credit given for extra-curricular activities under the CAS strand, while the theory of knowledge course in critical thinking is "simply extraordinary", says Colin Baker, the school's director of studies.
"There are elements of philosophy but it's really asking 'How do we learn?'"
While his students have not found the switch from GCSE abnormally tough, the rigour of IB demands more than natural academic prowess, he thinks.
"Your concern really is with students' self-motivation. The IB definitely makes them more focused. But it's not for those who have difficulty in keeping to deadlines.
"If they don't have a strong work ethic to begin with, they will find the IB difficult, however bright they are."
At the Anglo-European School in Essex, Headteacher Bob Reed is an old hand at IB. He is also president of the IB Schools and Colleges Association.
His school was the first in the UK to offer the programme, which it started in the late 1970s.
What began as a straightforward alternative to A levels has now been woven into the mainstream, creating a mixed economy of courses and subjects.
A third of the sixth form - around 60 students - do the full diploma but A level students now routinely add IB standards courses to their study programme of two or three A levels.
"It was an opportunity for us to offer a third A level for students struggling to find one they liked or was suitable," Bob explains.
"They do two IB standards and two A levels, and universities have been happy to take that as a second or third A level.
"Some students are now adding a standards course to three A levels, adding breadth, which is what the Tomlinson proposals would have done.
"The advantage is they do the course over two years with an exam at the end of May in the second year. It means the lower sixth curriculum is less crowded at a time when students are still maturing anyway."
One consequence is that 70 per cent of sixth formers at his school are studying maths, either as part of the IB, at A level or as an IB standard course, a proportion rarely seen elsewhere.
The whole sixth form also follows the CAS strand of the diploma. "It's part of our approach to citizenship," Bob adds. "It means we are giving them elements that were envisaged in the Tomlinson review."
All the schools acknowledge that the IB is not perfect. It does mean significantly more work for staff, says Colin Baker.
Not only are the syllabuses different - though not necessarily radically so across all subjects - but, in chemistry for example, the six assessment areas differ from those used for A level, so staff have to learn both. And it is more expensive to provide, because the set sizes are smaller.
The diploma is also relatively inflexible, says Andy Truscott. "You can change the options within subjects but you can't choose to deliver them in a different way. Plus, the second year is shorter as exams take place in early May.
"I also think that theory of knowledge tends to go by the board more in a state school. We would prefer to do more of that but we don't have the money to cover it."
A benefit cited by schools is the rounded education which gives students a solid preparation for university.
Yet some schools have found that - while universities familiar with the IB programme tend to be enthusiasts - there are plenty whose lack of understanding prejudices them against IB candidates.
Andy Truscott says: "You do get some funny offers. Grade 7 at IB is higher than A level. It's equivalent to A*, if there were such a thing.
"Yet we have students who have scored 40+ points, which only around seven per cent of IB students worldwide achieve, who don't even get interviews at Bristol and Durham.
"There's certainly an education process required and I know the IBO have appointed a progression office to deal with these issues."
(On the other hand, anecdotal evidence suggests that diploma holders make better university students who tend to drop out less and are better prepared for higher education study.)
Parents, too, can be wary. Last September, Dartford began the UK's first trial of the IB middle years programme for its Year 7 students, working in a consortium with Dartford Girls Grammar and Leigh City Technology College and funded by the government's Innovation Unit.
The programme is a framework of study for Key Stage 3 and 4 and can lead to its own qualification.
However, Dartford has decided to stick with standard GCSEs, feeling that parents would not accept an unknown qualification, particularly one which no other schools were taking.
Peter Fidzuk says: "In a more flexible system where different qualifications could be accepted as part of the diploma it might work. At the moment we can't see our parents going along with it."
These caveats aside, all the schools here firmly believe the IB has a part to play in resolving some of education's key issues around breadth and depth of the curriculum, personalisation and integration of extra-curricular activities into teaching and learning.
Bob Reed has seen inquiries about the IB multiply since it was announced that the Tomlinson plans would not be going ahead in full.
Schools who have previously dismissed it as 'elitist' should take another look, he thinks. "If you want to run an inclusive sixth form, IB can be part of that package."
© 2013 Association of School and College Leaders