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Amid confusion over the worth of new qualifications, could the International Baccalaureate offer young people the best preparation for life? Malcolm Kay is convinced that it can.

One of the most challenging questions facing any educator today is ‘Are we doing enough to prepare young people for a future that has never been less certain?’ We live in a world where the amount of new technical information is doubling every two years. Half of what students learn in their first year of a technical degree will be out of date by the time they reach their third year. The ability to work in a global economy will be crucial to their earning potential, as will working faster and more collaboratively. With increased and instant access to information, it will be how that information is processed, interpreted and used that matters. In the meantime, employers continue to bemoan a lack of ‘work-readiness’ in young people.

Against this rapidly changing and highly challenging backdrop, what we teach, how we assess the learning and how relevant it is to life beyond school and a global marketplace are fundamental issues for our qualifications and exam system. There is no doubt that it needs to move with the times, nor that the growing diversity of qualifications is to be welcomed. The fip side of this diversity is the confusion and lack of communication surrounding them.

A-levels have traditionally been the route into higher education, but as the qualification continues to attract criticism, schools and colleges are increasingly considering new and existing alternatives such as the International Baccalaureate (IB).

Pathways to Higher Education, the annual survey conducted by ACS International Schools, explores and compares the qualities, pros and cons of all the alternatives through the eyes of those who know more than most about assessing the outputs: university and college admissions officers. Specifically, the survey aims to assess the IB against other sixth form exam systems.

ACS has offered the IB education programme for 30 years. In my view the IB stands out as having a philosophy that is particularly in tune with 21st-century issues and challenges. Global in outlook, it offers students from a range of nationalities and educational backgrounds a broad, inquiry-based, academically rigorous education, ideally suited to preparing them for university-style learning and with the personal or ‘soft’ skills so critical for today’s workplace.

The grading of the IB gives top students the opportunity to distinguish themselves. With many students now achieving three As at A-level, it is hard for universities to know which of those are the very best. This is expected to remain the case even after the introduction of the A* grade from September 2010. By contrast, an IB score in the 40s, for example, indicates a genuinely exceptional level of ability of the type sought by institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge.

But you don’t have to take my word for it - the findings of the survey, now in its fourth year, show that UK admissions officers consistently rank the IB as offering the broadest education and the best preparation for university in relation to: encouraging independent inquiry (92 per cent); nurturing an open mind (88 per cent); coping under pressure (88 per cent); in-depth subject expertise (82 per cent); and encouraging creativity (80 per cent).

Best preparation

More than a third of respondents (35 per cent) specifically name the IB as providing the best preparation for students to thrive at university, compared to 18 per cent who cite A-levels. Just 8 per cent feel the Pre-U is the best preparation for university, and 6 per cent the new diplomas. A third were unable to express a view at this time, perhaps due to the newness of some of the qualifications.

Two thirds (67 per cent) feel the Government’s announcement that it would not provide funding for one IB school in each local authority was a disappointing move. A similar number, 68 per cent, also believe that having more state schools and colleges offering the IB would be effective in encouraging a wider group of people to engage and thrive in higher education. Responses also suggest that the IB has continued to grow in popularity, with 55 per cent reporting a noticeable increase in applications from students with the IB. This is the third year in a row when a sizeable number of admissions officers have seen such an increase.

Admissions officers were generally positive about the increase in diversity of qualifications, with 57 per cent saying that increased exam choice will be better for society in the long run and only 16 per cent saying it would not.

While the new diplomas were broadly welcomed, with 59 per cent saying that many more schools should now consider teaching them, respondents expressed concerns over how their introduction was being handled. Over half, 53 per cent, feel that they mark a positive step forward in teaching and learning style. But many are concerned by suggestions that the diploma could completely replace the A-level, with 63 per cent saying that A-levels should not be phased out at all.

A sizeable minority, 45 per cent, expressed concern that the dramatic changes in exam choices mean this generation is being treated as ‘guinea pigs’.

Opinion was mixed as to whether the new diplomas would provide a sufficient academic challenge; 35 per cent believe they probably would provide enough challenge for academically gifted students, but over a quarter, 28 per cent, say they will not. These concerns appear to be growing, with academic diplomas coming in for heavy criticism and uptake by students well below anticipated levels. While recent UCAS data showed that around 80 per cent of undergraduate courses at all UK universities will consider applicants with diplomas, the news that diploma students will be considered for only around 40 per cent of courses offered by elite Russell
Group universities will do little to quell concerns over the diploma’s academic value.

Strong support remains for maintaining the A-level, but there are continuing concerns over how well it prepares students for university and its ability to distinguish between the best students. Over half of respondents, 53 per cent, do not think that A-levels will be perfectly fit for purpose even with the new A star grade, which is to be introduced in 2010. There was also a view that A-levels had lost their elements of creative and independent thinking – both vital for university study – and that expanding the IB in tandem with A-levels might help to recover these elements.

Lack of information about the new Cambridge Pre-U prevented comment from around 40 per cent of officers, but the general feeling was that its values are not dissimilar from A-levels, the new diplomas and the IB.

The survey also highlighted a growing recognition amongst admissions officers of the need to compete internationally for students, with 94 per cent saying that this was the case. Over half, 53 per cent, stated that they feel the IB is the best preparation for international study or an international career, compared to just 16 per cent who felt the same about the A-level. Just 2 per cent felt that this could be said about the diplomas and the same for the Cambridge Pre-U.

As entrance into top universities becomes more competitive, students must prepare for higher education and their careers by honing both academic and soft skills, such as leadership, organisation and self-management, community-mindedness and communications, all of which are core elements of the IB Diploma qualification.

In an increasingly internationally mobile world, the IB Diploma is a passport to a truly global education. In addition to an international curriculum, the IB gives students a genuinely international outlook, an understanding and appreciation of different cultures and a sense of being a good global citizen, preparing them for study and work all around the world.

Choice is good. In a rapidly changing world, students need a variety of routes and qualifications into higher education and work. Making sense of those choices is more difficult, however, and there is an urgent need for good advice and guidance to inform decisions that are so critical to students’ future career and life chances.

Malcolm Kay is superintendent of ACS International Schools, with responsibility for education programmes across the company’s three schools.

Taken from School Leadership Today.

School Leadership Today