The IB: A Brave New Education

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The IB: A Brave New Education

Thomas Hollands on why the International Baccalaureate qualification should be taken seriously

A-Levels have long been a cornerstone of English education: the traditional qualifications with which prospective applicants hope to impress university recruiters. Over the last decade, an upstart program has emerged, offering a broader, more culturally diverse perspective: the International Baccalaureate.

IB Diploma students take six subjects, three at Higher Level, and three at Standard Level. These six must include English, a foreign language, maths, at least one natural science, and at least one humanities subject. In addition to this, IB students take a compulsory Theory of Knowledge course, and have to write a 4,000-word Extended Essay on a subject of their choice.

Sounds like a lot of work? You’d be right.

Students studying four A-levels have roughly 20 hours of taught classes per week. In my international school by comparison, school started at 8:15 and ended at 15:45, with only a total of an hour break per day. That amounts to over 30 contact hours per week with, in my case, at least an hour’s worth of homework each night.

This constant bombardment of Internal Assessments, problem sheets, and group projects serves one purpose: to prepare the student for the looming final exams. Much like university, exams are virtually the be-all and end-all of the IB.

Another aim of pre-university education is to mould students into the nebulous image of “well-rounded young adults”. In this vague arena, the IB clearly surpasses A-levels. All IB graduates have studied two languages, and in most cases can at least write and speak well in one of them.

Maths is also mandatory. Graduates of the IB without the slightest mathematical inclination still understand basic algebra and statistics. At A-level, the combination of quantitative subjects with the arts is optional; in the IB it is required. The IB produces physicists who can write, and visual art students who can interpret graphs and data; a far cry from the often one-dimensional A-level student.

A vital component of the IB is choice. A-level students are asked to determine the direction of their future at sixteen years old. With almost no detailed knowledge about the subjects they’re weighing up, I think this is unfair. The comparative breadth of the IB allows the student to make a more informed decision about her future.

Critics of the IB concede that it offers more breadth than A-levels, but argue that this sacrifices going into greater depth as a result. However, Ella, a current IB student, counters this: “we are told that a standard level subject is comparable to an AS level, while a higher level subject has at least as much content as a full A2”.

UCAS confirms this view. The minimum IB requirement for a physics degree at UCL is 38 IB points out of a possible 45, or 567 UCAS points. The A-level equivalent to this is A*A*A*A*. For A-level students, the minimum entry requirement for physics is AAA.

Clearly, UCAS believes the IB to be a more difficult and detailed course than A-levels, but why haven’t universities caught up yet?  This lack of understanding exhibited by British universities ultimately results in students, both home and foreign, missing unrealistic offers at top universities.

The International Baccalaureate provides not only more breadth than A-levels, but is more difficult too. It teaches students how to think, not how to verbally regurgitate. The IB program is a conveyor belt, dependably delivering well-rounded, university-ready students. UCAS has recognised this.

British universities, what are you waiting for?

Featured image credit: Steven S.

The IB: A Brave New Education Reviewed by on November 8, 2015 .

Thomas Hollands on why the International Baccalaureate qualification should be taken seriously.



  • William Forde

    Good call Thomas. I think you can extend your decade – I won a place at UCL in joint hons Anthropology/Geography 1985 with the IB. The points requirements then were less stringent than your physics entry, however at times during my UCAS applications it was still felt like an uphill struggle to compete with the acknowledged and understood A level framework. I completely agree with your view that it offers a broader education and delivers a more rounded individual. Delighted to see someone fighting the IB corner in the 21st Century!


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