The great IB debate

The International Baccalaureate (IB) is studied in an increasing number of international schools, but is it right for every student? Sally Robinson explores.


Schule Schloss Salem


This article is taken from the Summer 2024 issue of

Think Global People magazine

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Ask parents and educators what makes it such a valuable qualification and the answer is always the same: it turns out critical thinkers used to independent study and delivers a broad, well-rounded education.Founded in 1968 by a group of educators at the International School of Geneva, the IB Diploma Programme (IBDP) was originally aimed at internationally-mobile students preparing for university. The first IB schools were largely private international schools, but now over half are state-funded.So, what is the IB? In a nutshell, it’s an education programme catering for students aged 3 to 19, made up of four separate programmes:
  1. Primary Years Programme (PYP) introduced in 1997
  2. Middle Years Programme (MYP), which started in 1994
  3. IB Diploma (IBDP), studied in the final two years of high school.
  4. Career Related Programme (IBCP), added in 2014 for students wanting a more vocational qualification.
The programmes can be studied consecutively or mixed and matched with other curricula. Some schools for example offer GCSE exams at 16 followed by the IB Diploma. Others, including the International School of  Dusseldorf, take a through-train approach embracing the PYP, MYP and the Diploma.“The IB is the best option for an international education,” says Sibylle Harth, the school’s director of curriculum. “It offers a comprehensive framework that engenders curiosity and lifelong learning. All three programmes emphasise crucial life skills such as creative thinking, research, and communication and encourage students to inquire, reflect on their development and collaborate.”Over 8,000 IB programmes are offered worldwide across 5,700 schools in 160 countries. These numbers are growing. Between 2018 and 2022, the number of IB programmes worldwide increased by 34.2%.“Our commitment to teaching students within their reality is why schools are increasingly looking to the IB,” believes Peter Fidczuk, the IB’s recognition manager for the UK and Ireland. “We take contemporary issues seriously, working with research organisations to build informed strategies for pressing issues like AI.”The IB aims to differ from other curriculums by teaching students to take responsibility for their own learning and apply it to a global context. Interdisciplinary learning, collaboration and critical thinking are major components of the programme.The IB ‘learner profile’ is at the heart of the programme. This is a set of values which represents its principles. “We love the IB learner profile,” says Marta Essinki, head of the Ermitage International School in Paris, which delivers the MYP and IBDP programmes: “It promotes holistic development by focusing on the intellectual, emotional and social growth of students, including learner traits such open-minded, thinker, reflective, caring and risk taker. We use these to frame our school-wide assemblies and provide a shared language for our community. By nurturing these traits we aim to develop well-rounded individuals equipped to thrive in all aspects of life.”Each of the four programmes includes an element of self-study. “The IB has lots of valuable elements, but the independent projects really stand out,” says the International Schools of Dusseldorf’s Sibylle Harth. “They allow students to explore their interests and take meaningful action. The PYP Exhibition allows young students to research and present on global issues, while the MYP Personal Project offers students the opportunity to create a significant self-directed project. In the IBDP, the extended essay challenges students to conduct original research. All these initiatives enhance critical thinking and cultivate an action-oriented mindset.”It is the application of ideas that many parents and educators rate. “The IB emphasises conceptual thinking, meaning students cannot just rote learn,” says  Joshua Parker of Schule Schloss Salem in Germany. “They need to develop a deeper appreciation of complex concepts and their application in new environments. This hands-on approach helps students explore not only what they know, but also what they can do with that knowledge.”

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Here's a look at the programmes in more detail:

The Primary Years Programme (PYP)

The PYP was introduced in 1997 to create a curriculum framework for students aged between 3 and 12 and followed the introduction of the MYP in 1994. By September 2023, there were 2,275 schools – a mix of state, international and private – studying the PYP in over 127 countries.The inquiry-based programme covers six subject areas, including maths, languages and the arts. It is organised by six trans-disciplinary themes: who we are, where we are in place and time, how we express ourselves, how the world works, how we organise ourselves and sharing the planet. The idea is to create young students who are open-minded, consider other perspectives and who question and experiment rather than learning a set of facts.Like all areas of the IB, it is a trans-disciplinary approach where students are taught to take responsibility for their own learning. The PYP concludes with the Exhibition where students carry out an in-depth collaborative project to show what they have learned during their primary years. This is usually shared with parents and other students as an exhibition or presentation.“The PYP is the beginning of a lifelong love of learning,” says the IB’s Fidczuk. ”It’s a clear way to adopt the IB learner profile early on and, by starting early, students develop critical thinking skills and a curiosity about the world.”

The Middle Years Programme (MYP)

While the PYP prepares students for the MYP, either can be studied independently. The MYP is a five-year programme for students aged 11 to 16 designed to create a link between the PYP and the IB Diploma. It is the least taught of the three IB programmes.Introduced in 1994, around 1,300 schools teach the MYP in over 100 countries. Students study eight subject groups: their first language, an additional language, maths, humanities, sciences, technology, the arts and physical education.Like the other IB programmes, the MYP is characterised by a holistic approach that encourages interdisciplinary learning and making connections between academic studies and real-world situations.The main criticism of the MYP is that there are no externally-moderated exams to compare with GCSEs, which critics say does not prepare students for the rigorous IB Diploma. Instead, in the final year, students get IB-validated grades based on coursework and internal exams. In an attempt to address this, mandatory external moderation of student projects was introduced. MYP schools can also now offer non-compulsory, externally marked on-screen eAssessments.

The IB Diploma Programme (IBDP)

Studied in the final two years of school, the IBDP is the original and best-known of the four IB programmes and is globally recognised by universities. It is the main alternative to the English National Curriculum’s  A level qualification. Last year, just under 180,000 students received IBDP results in 159 countries compared with over 860,000 taking A levels.Although the IB is studied by fewer students, it is increasing in popularity, particularly in international schools. The main difference is around depth versus breadth. Where A levels offer a detailed study of three or four subjects, the IBDP has a broader curriculum based on project-based learning.The Diploma programme is well-recognised for its breadth. Students study a range of subjects including maths, sciences, language and the arts. Three subjects are studied at higher level and three at standard, alongside an extended essay and a compulsory philosophy-based course in the Theory of Knowledge (TOK), which aims to develop intellectual curiosity through critical thinking and reflection.“When students return to us after being at university they inevitably say it is the Theory of Knowledge (TOK) component which has resonated the most as they continue their studies,” says Joshua Parker of Schule Schloss Salem. “The deeper critical thinking in this course really does mark an intellectual leap for them.”Students also complete a 150-hour programme of Creativity, Action and Service (CAS) designed to encourage personal development outside the classroom. “For us, this is the stand-out feature of the IB curriculum,” says ICS Paris university counsellor, Steve Uomini. “It allows students to actively contribute to society, enabling them to grasp the practical implications of their education.”The IB workload is heavy and students need to be fully switched on for the entire two years of study. The end results are awarded as a mark out of 45. To receive the full diploma students must get a minimum of 24 points, but most universities require a significantly higher score for admission – often in the early 40s.“The breadth of the curriculum is a real strength,” says Schule Schloss Salem’s Joshua Parker. “The range of subjects gives students the chance to develop skills to an advanced level across languages, humanities, the sciences, maths and the arts.”Some believe the methods of learning better prepare students for higher education, particularly in university-style independent research and essay writing.“Most of my ex-students say their undergraduate study is less demanding than their IB years and that the discipline they learnt there set them up for success in academia,” says Alethea Bleyberg, director of the Learning Curve education consultancy and an IBDP core consultant.  “Diploma students develop the research, critical thinking, academic writing  and self-management tools needed to thrive in higher education and are sought after by top universities around the world.”

The critics

Not every teacher and parent is a fan of the qualification though. Its critics say it is elitist, too full of jargon and favours more academic students.“It is not the best fit for everyone,” admits Netherlands-based education consultant, Anne Van Dam. “The rigorous curriculum requires commitment, time management skills and intellectual curiosity and some find the workload overwhelming. The IBCP can be a better pathway for these students to university or on a more vocational route.”“I wish more people would celebrate the lower IB scores too,” says Suman Lall, an ex-higher education counsellor for ESF schools in Hong Kong and mother to two IB graduates. “It is only the scores of 40 or over that are really rated.”Other criticism revolves around the quality of teaching. “The IB is a fantastic programme, but its success depends on the school and its teaching staff,” says one parent whose daughter swapped IB schools and got a far superior delivery of the programme. “The teachers really need to know what they are doing.”


The IB is often credited with turning out students equipped to take on the challenges of a fast-changing global workforce. “Learning in a transdisciplinary environment that goes beyond books prepares students for any global challenge,” says ICS Paris’s Steve Uomini.In addition, the emphasis on creating internationally-minded students is sound preparation for a global workforce, says the International School of Dusseldorf’s Sibylle Harth. “It prepares them well for the interconnected world and future workplace challenges.”Sometimes, says Joshua Parker from Schule Schloss Salem, it is the simple fact of being educated in an international environment that has the greatest effect: “The IB fosters intercultural understanding via the curriculum, but it is the reality of the student sitting in a classroom with peers from many cultures, with different values and perspectives, that helps to engender this cultural awareness most powerfully.”

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