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Who's backing the International Bac?

Fiona Holmer Fiona Holmer | 12:29 UK time, Friday, 3 June 2011

You often hear the term Baccalaureate or Bac – there are the relative newcomers in the form of the English Bac and the Welsh Bac and of course - the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma  on the other hand, has been around for a while and was first offered in the UK back in 1971. I took it myself in the early 1980s and it seems there have only been a few small changes since then.

But what does the IB have to offer? It provides a broad approach to education, with all students taking six subjects, three at higher level and three at standard level, including the following compulsory subjects: maths, English, a science, social science and foreign language. These can be taken at higher or standard level depending on a student’s abilities and the direction they take for further education.

Student working on homework in classroom @ Moritz Wussow Fotolia.com

There are now 149 state schools offering the diploma in the UK with a steady growth in the number of sixth form colleges running it, including those in less privileged areas. 63% of institutions offering the IB in the UK are state schools. With the A-level pass rate continually on the rise and the recent introduction of the A*, the International Baccalaureate is increasingly viewed as a safer alternative.

Four years ago Barton Court Grammar School in Kent, took the big step of replacing A-levels with the International Baccalaureate. It has been a huge success attracting a number of international students and despite a few casualties along the way, it has been well received overall.

My daughter has followed in my footsteps and opted for the IB. Being able to take two languages for IB was a big plus. She had been considering doing A-levels but felt restricted by having to choose four subjects and did not want to stop Spanish. She also commented that it would be frustrating having to drop one of the four at the end of year 12. So the IB was the answer and she is taking French at higher level and Spanish at standard level.

There are three other elements to the IB. Firstly, creativity, action and service (CAS) programme is another element of the IB is 150 hours of voluntary work within the community (an enlightened addition since my time). The CAS programme picks up on one aspect of the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme, namely active citizenship. It requires young people to help in the community, for example serving in a soup kitchen, becoming a leader in a local Brownie pack or doing some form of voluntary work for a specified number of hours.

The second element is the theory of knowledge (TOK) course which is similar to the A-level in critical thinking but is not studied in such depth. The student needs to do a presentation for this. Thirdly, there is an extended essay of 4,000 words on a topic of the student’s choice.

The IB is ideal for a student who is a good all-rounder and who might not be sure of which area they want to focus on so prefers to keep their options open. Even though it is more work than A-levels juggling six subjects, it is very rewarding for someone who is reasonably academic. This podcast from Woman’s Hour testifies to the fact that the IB engenders independent study, giving young people a good grounding for university.

The diploma is recognised worldwide and most good universities require between 32 and 42 points, to secure a place (each subject being marked out of 7 and up to 3 points for TOK and the essay so a maximum of 45 points is awarded). The exams are all taken at the end of the second year so you do not have the pressure of regular exams for two years. Also the average point score has remained stable in recent years unlike the A-level, so when it comes to applying to university you know what to aim for.

With A-levels still being in a state of flux given the recent introduction of the A* grade, it looks like the IB will continue to gain in popularity in the UK when it comes to end of school exams. Although my daughter may prefer to leave an open verdict, with her 4,000 word essay still to be written by the start of the next term!

Fiona Holmer works on the BBC Parents Blog.

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