If A Level reform is the question, is IB the answer?

The UK Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan who inherited Michael Gove’s planned return to linear A levels, is under pressure from the sector to keep AS and A level qualifications coupled together. In contrast, schools who have opted for the International Baccalaureate Diploma programme don’t face the uncertain prospect of A Level reform.

The IB has a long and stable history, a proven track record and it enjoys a high reputation with universities. Founded in 1968, the IB is an educational foundation based in Switzerland which offers four educational programmes to over 1,240,000 students aged 3 to 19 years. The IB operates in 3,967 different schools in 147 different countries. In May 2014, the IB world cohort of Diploma candidates totalled 67,302, of which 4,770 students were in the UK.

The IB Diploma, is often recognised by university admissions tutors  as the gold standard and the ideal preparation for university. It has a number of distinctive features frequently welcomed and applauded by admissions tutors. The Diploma requires students to concentrate on a total of six subjects, with three of them studied at Higher Level, which offers both breadth and depth of knowledge. The Diploma programme develops students’ transferable research skills, acquired through the 4000 word scholarly Extended Essay on a topic and title of their choice. Furthermore, students reflect on the nature of knowledge and knowing and develop their critical thinking skills through the Theory of Knowledge course.

In short, universities can rely on the IB as a good measure of academic ability and potential. Not only does the score out of 45 enable universities to distinguish between the able and the very able, so they can make nuanced offers, but the evidence also points to the overwhelmingly positive performance of IB students at university. The HESA data shows that IB students are more likely to attend one of the top 20 higher education institutions in the UK and are also more likely to be awarded a first class honours degree compared with their A Level counterparts.

With A Level reform under discussion, and the possibility of AS grades being removed from the equation, universities again have to face an old dilemma, how can they best select the most suitable applicants? Cambridge University uses AS Unit Module Scores as a reliable indicator of ability, in contrast to Oxford University which relies heavily on students’ performance in admissions tests as an entry requirement for many courses. One alternative is for universities to go down the American route of SAT style tests and application essays.

Given that the IB offers linear assessment with final exams at the end of the course, universities rely on a number of factors when deciding whether to make an offer. These include the personal statement, the school academic reference, GCSE or equivalent scores (if the student has them), predicted IB grades and sometimes admissions test results for certain courses. For example UKCAT or BMAT for medicine, or LNAT for Law, and many others. The IB is a good qualification for all university applicants including STEM subjects, and medicine.

The IB continues to be an appealing and attractive qualification. It does much more than churn out candidates with an academic qualification. All IB students learn a modern language. They all study maths, english, science, and a humanity. It is significant that IB teachers typically become  IB become proselytisers – there is something to believe in with the IB. The learner profile with its 10 Aristotelian attributes recognises the value of certain virtues and qualities. It also requires students to get involved with creative, action and service projects. It promotes international mindedness. It’s no wonder that employers want to seek out IB students.

The IB is a philosophy, a sound pedagogy whose intrinsic value is obvious. In short the IB is an education, not a qualification. Until the same can be said of A Levels, Nicky Morgan and any future government will struggle to win hearts and minds.

This blog post will be appearing shortly on the following site: http://unibox.uea.ac.uk/

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