The International Baccalaureate: developing enquiring minds

A flexible learning programme for students aged from three to 19, the International Baccalaureate, or IB, is studied by over one million students worldwide and is fast becoming the world’s leading international qualification. We take a close look at this challenging academic programme.

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When choosing a programme of study for their children in a new location, relocating families must consider which curriculum and final exam system will best suit their child.The International Baccalaureate (IB) caters for pupils from the ages of three to 19 and is taught in thousands of international schools in popular relocation destinations across the globe, including many independent and international schools and a small but growing number of state schools in the UK.The IB is probably best known for its two-year Diploma Programme (DP), which is studied internationally by students between the ages of 16 and 19. Since its inception in 1968, the IB Organisation (IBO) has increased its range to span the whole of a child’s education through the Primary Years Programme (PYP), the Middle Years Programme (MYP), and the recently developed Career-related Programme (CP).Focusing on each student as a whole person, IB programmes address not only children’s intellectual development but also their social, emotional and physical progress.

Why do schools choose the IB?

The IB mission statement demonstrates the IBO’s commitment to the development of an all-round, internationally educated ‘global citizen’. “The International Baccalaureate,” it says, “aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.”Alongside the DP, the PYP and the MYP have grown in popularity. Almost 4,800 schools across the world, in both state and independent sectors, now teach the IB.In order to teach one or more of the IB programmes, schools must complete an authorisation process administered by the IBO; only then is the school allowed to call itself an IB World School. This rigorous and challenging process can take anything from two to three years, and can be a helpful indicator of quality for families looking for a school for their child in their new location.The DP is available in a wide range of subjects. It is known for encouraging students to develop independent study and critical thought, but can be quite challenging for students who are not all-rounders and some consider it too broad for students who wish to specialise. However, the DP is highly regarded by university admissions officers and is one of the few international curricula that is truly globally transferable.

Primary Years Programme (PYP)

The PYP is for pupils aged from three to 12. The curriculum focuses on encouraging children to be interested and motivated in their own learning by helping them to investigate subjects that they are curious about. It inspires them to make connections between different pieces of information and, in so doing, increase their understanding of how the world works.This enquiry-based approach enables children to build on their knowledge through an emphasis on learning how to learn and how to find out.The PYP curriculum is designed to ensure that children also receive a grounding in the traditional basics of literacy and numeracy, whilst placing emphasis on broad communication skills, problem-solving skills, teamwork and the ability to apply learning to new situations.Most schools offering the PYP will be able to provide details of the programme, and should be able to supply a PYP curriculum guide on request. 

Middle Years Programme (MYP)

The MYP is for students aged 11–16. It lasts for approximately five years, and classes are divided into eight subject groups:
  • Language acquisition
  • Language and literature
  • Individuals and societies
  • Sciences
  • Mathematics
  • Arts
  • Physical and health education
  • Design
In their final year of study, students also engage in a personal project, which allows them to demonstrate the understanding and skills they have developed throughout the programme. They are expected to lead the process, with supervision from their teacher. Students can opt to take MYP ‘eAssessment’, which provides them with IB-validated grades based on their exams and coursework, and ultimately receive an MYP Certificate.

IB Diploma Programme

In 1968, the IBO sought to create a programme that would be recognised by universities around the world. Today, the DP provides learning over a very broad base of disciplines, preparing students for further learning and a future career.It has proved itself to be the success story in secondary education over the past 30 years, and is now recognised as an entrance qualification to universities in more than 150 countries.Sevenoaks School, a co-educational day and boarding school for students aged 11 to 18 in Kent, is celebrating 40 years of teaching the IB diploma this year.Explains head, Katy Ricks, “Sevenoaks has offered the IB since 1978 and it is now taken by our entire sixth form.“Students leave us at 18 with a global network of friends, a qualification which is recognised at universities around the world and an international worldview.”In addition to their chosen subjects, all DP students take Theory of Knowledge (a challenging critical-thinking course) and undertake an Extended Essay (a dissertation-style research project). Both of these prepare them for the rigour of university, teaching them to research independently, to analyse evidence, and to translate their thoughts into a well-written (or verbalised) point of view.“The design of the IB encourages students to become independent learners, curious about the global environment, skilled in analysis and time management and with an international mind-set,” says Alison Vernon, director of communications and development at Boxhill School, a co-educational day and boarding school in Surrey for students aged 11 to 18. “These rewarding extra components are part of what makes the DP so attractive to universities looking for students who have the edge in terms of maturity and research experience.”Arabella Stuart, Sevenoaks director of communications and development, agrees. “Students develop expert knowledge in the topics that most interest them, but are also encouraged to look beyond the traditional boundaries between academic disciplines, think critically across the curriculum and to appreciate and analyse multiple perspectives. This strength of breadth and depth is one of the reasons why IB students are very effectively prepared for university and for the future workplace,” she says.An annual survey of University admissions officers by ACS International Schools and the IB Schools and Colleges Association (IBSCA) shows that the IB is indeed highly regarded by universities. The 2017 survey asked respondents to rate three exam systems – A Levels, the DP and Scottish Highers – and rank them against factors such as ‘encouraging independent enquiry’ and ‘developing ability to cope with pressure’.Among the 81 UK universities surveyed, the DP was rated top in developing 12 out of 13 factors considered useful in preparing students to thrive at university.Karin Purcell, development director at Marymount International School London, supports the view that the IB gives students the edge when it comes to applying for a university place. “Our experience shows that our students who graduate with an IB Diploma are increasingly at an advantage when applying for university, especially here in the UK,” she says. “We have a lot of hard evidence that the trend is in favour of students with an IB.”Head of Sevenoaks, Ms Ricks, agrees. “The offer and acceptance rates for IB Diploma students are notably above other post-16 qualifications and, in the US it is a sought-after passport to top universities.” 

IB Diploma Scores

The IB Diploma is awarded to students who receive a minimum of 24 points, and who successfully complete the core components, including the Extended Essay and the Theory of Knowledge. Students receive their diploma results in July and January.The maximum score a student can achieve is 45 points. Scores are calculated on the awarded grades of 1 to 7 for each of the six subject areas, to combine for a total of 42 points, plus an extra three points for the Extended Essay and Theory of Knowledge componentsUnlike GCSEs and A Levels – which have seen grade inflation and been criticised for lowering standards – the IB has maintained consistently high standards across the globe for more than 40 years. According to the IBO, DP pass rates have remained consistent at around 80 per cent, with the average score sitting at around 30 points.

The IB Career-related Programme

The newest addition to the IB is the Career-related Programme (CP) for students aged 16–19. The CP gives students the option to pursue employment, apprenticeships or further education alongside academic study.Taught in more than 140 schools in 23 countries across the world, the CP helps students along the path to their chosen career, while arming them with transferable and lifelong skills, such as the ability to work as part of a team, time management skills and intercultural understanding.Students develop rigour through a combination of academic and career-related courses, resulting in a more rounded understanding of the working world through components that develop skills such as communication, problem-solving and responsibility.The fact that the IB is accessible to students from any country, and from different educational backgrounds, makes it a popular choice for the relocating family concerned about the transferability of their child’s education.“Around 23 per cent of our pupils live outside the UK and others have dual or triple nationality or have attended school overseas,” says Sevenoaks’ Katy Ricks. “Students benefit from a diverse student body. Linguistic and cultural divides are bridged in a safe environment and this is a huge advantage in preparing students for life in the global workplace.”As an internationally transferable curriculum, which has high status with universities globally and prepares students effectively for the global workplace, the IB programme only looks set to increase in popularity.
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