Education Choices magazine, Autumn 2020

Wellington College’s Deputy Director of Admissions, Tim Head, looks at the differences between International Baccalaureate and traditional A-levels.

IB or not IB – that is the question!

Ten years ago Wellington College offered its Sixth Form students the choice of either studying for the IB Diploma or the traditional A-level programme. In that first year 37 pupils from a cohort of 220 took up the challenge; by 2020 130 pupils out of 240 elected for the IB. In that same period the average IB score of a Wellington pupil rose from 35.1 to 40.2, the maximum possible being 45. An obvious success story, for sure, but what is it about the International Baccalaureate that makes it such a popular choice for young people these days – and what are the key differences between it and A-levels?

The most obvious one is the amount of subjects that students study: while those opting for A-levels study three subjects, most often chosen from roughly the same area of the curriculum (Maths, Physics, Chemistry, for example, or History, Politics and Economics), the IB Diploma requires students to study six subjects. Depth and specialism is provided by the three subjects taken at Higher Level, breadth and range catered for by the three subjects taken at Standard Level. Within those six subjects the IB student must study Maths, English, a Science, a Language and a Humanity. In addition the student will complete an Extended Essay that combines two subjects of their choice (think mini-dissertation), an assessed course in Theory of Knowledge and take part in the Community, Activity and Service programme (CAS), which allows the student to get involved in a whole range of valuable activities outside the classroom; while not formally assessed CAS is carefully monitored and reviewed and does much to get students to think beyond themselves. Taken all in all, the IB Diploma provides a balanced, international and socially engaged education for the whole person, producing students who are very much more than the individual sum of their parts. It also requires the student to be both committed and organised: at times there can be a lot of plates that need to be kept spinning!

An IB English class at Wellington College

An IB English class at Wellington College

On the surface it seems therefore that the IB is not an ideal choice for any student wanting an easy life, so what is it that makes it an increasingly popular choice at a school like Wellington which now sees roughly 50% of its Sixth Formers opting for it? Many enjoy the wide open nature of the curriculum: it is not just that they might feel that 16 is too young to narrow their educational gaze, but also they enjoy the emphasis the IB places on independent study and the development of critical thinking. There are good practical reasons as well: over the last 20 years or so there has been no IB grade inflation world-wide so the qualification is increasingly seen by UK, US and European Universities as genuinely ‘gold standard’. In particular Wellington has seen a noticeable link between increased take up of the IB and an increase in US University applications, where the US Liberal Arts route follows on organically from the eclectic and varied nature of IB subject choice.

Consequently universities make generous offers to IB candidates, as they recognise the rigour involved with the course: they know that an IB score of 38 means they have a good student on their hands, and that anything over 40 probably means a great one. But most importantly students choose the course because deep down young people enjoy being busy, they enjoy engaging with the life of the mind and they enjoy the fact that learning doesn’t end the moment they leave the classroom. Studying for the IB helps break down artificial barriers between subjects, encourages diversity of thought and allows for important connections to be made. Without being ridiculously stereotypical it helps Humanities students apply logic and produces scientists who think and feel. The international and outward looking nature of the IB has much to offer, and perhaps is a qualification that does more than most to equip the leaders of tomorrow with independence of thought and a desire to make the world a better place.

Published November 2020

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