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The International Baccalaureate: what is it?

The International Baccalaureate: what is it?

What is the International Baccalaureate? What do these qualifications involve? Freelance education writer Nick Morrison gives Winter's readers the lowdown...


The International Baccalaureate has a lot going for it. It offers a broad academic programme, equips students with the skills they will need at university, and is supplemented by extracurricular activities to help to produce a rounded individual. In other words, for its supporters at least, it is the complete qualification.

The IB diploma is the best-known and most popular of the four programmes offered by the International Baccalaureate Organisation. Designed for students aged 16-19 and with a pedigree stretching back almost 50 years, it is the best established alternative to A-levels in English-curriculum schools.

Developed by teachers in Switzerland, it was conceived as a qualification that would cross national boundaries and provide a course of study that could be both geographically mobile and tailored to the student’s home country.

The diploma breaks down into two broad areas: the subject groups and what is called the core, which is itself made up of three parts.

The Subject Groups

In the subject areas, students take six subjects, three at higher level and three at standard level. Students must take maths, a science, literature - usually, although not always, English - a language and a humanities subject, plus an optional arts subject or an additional course from one of the other categories.

The requirement to continue with subjects across the spectrum means that, unlike A-levels, students are not pushed into choosing a particular path at 16, while studying both sciences and humanities helps keep their options open.

The insistence on academic breadth also means that, unlike with A-levels, students are not able to drop useful subjects, such as maths or languages, because they find them hard. The downside is that when students’ aptitudes and interests are very much in one particular direction then it is harder to specialise than with A-levels.

Students study sciences and humanities for the IB Diploma

Students study sciences and humanities for the IB Diploma

The Core

The core has three elements:

1. Theory of knowledge looks at what it means to know something and how we know what we know. This exploration of the foundations of knowledge provides an introduction to the sort of problems students will have to consider at university.

2. The extended essay is a piece of self-directed research culminating in a 4,000 word dissertation on a subject of the student's own choosing. This also helps develop the skills they will need going on to higher education.

3. The final part of the mandatory core has its own acronym, CAS, standing for creativity, activity and service. Students must take part in artistic and sporting pursuits and voluntary work for this element.

In terms of content, a higher level subject covers similar ground to an A-level, while a standard level is considered roughly equivalent to an AS-level. There are exceptions. Higher level maths, for example, is seen as more akin to a further maths A-level, rather than maths.


Group work and discussions

Group work and discussions

Where subject teaching differs from A-levels is more in the delivery. The IB puts an emphasis on group work, discussions and presentations, developing skills that will become important in higher education, as well as in employment.

IB teachers say the diploma promotes more of an inquiry style of learning, where students are encouraged to ask questions and find out the answers themselves, rather than being spoon-fed a series of facts.

"...the IB diploma promotes an inquiry style of learning..."

The IB also promotes inter-disciplinary learning. Students are encouraged to look at the connections between different subjects and may well be asked to apply skills learned in their science subject to their humanities course, for example, a marked contrast to A-levels where each subject is treated as a standalone course.

This is underpinned by the theory of knowledge course, which involves a multi-disciplinary approach and helps knit the different subjects together.

The CAS element of the IB Diploma can include music and drama

The CAS element of the IB Diploma can include music and drama

For students, taking the IB is often an intense experience. Six subjects, plus the mandatory core, mean there are few if any free periods in the week, unlike their A-level peers who are typically taking three or four subjects.

On top of this, the CAS element is likely to spill over into out-of-school activities, while the extended essay is a project that must be completed in their own time.

As a result, students need to be highly organised to keep on top of all the different elements of the diploma. While some may rue the lack of free time, for others the necessity of time-management skills is an invaluable preparation for life at university and beyond.

More information on the IB diploma is available from the International Baccalaureate Organisation

You can find out more about the IB in our article Why choose the IB?

 Images: Winter's

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