International Baccalaureate – growing out of the shadows

What is the IB Diploma Programme?

The International Baccalaureate (IB as it is known) is emerging from the niche into the mainstream in the U.K. It is no longer education’s “best kept secret”.

I tutor IB Maths and so I have accumulated some research into this growing option.

The IBDP (Diploma Programme) is studied by the same age group as the A-Level cohort and is taken instead of (not as well as) UK A-Levels. Although still a minority option it is a growing choice. IBDP is over 50 years-old and by 2022 UK take-up had increased to over 5,000 students (from the 170,000 worldwide). This compared to 800,000 A-Level students – so clearly A-Level is and will remain the most popular and safest choice for post GCSE study – so what attracts parents and pupils to IB? Let’s try and find out why, by describing it.

The IBDP students take a module from within each of six compulsory subject groups, namely: studies in language and literature; language acquisition; individuals and societies; sciences; mathematics; and the arts. They choose three Higher Level (HL) and three Standard Level subjects. For Maths, for example, a student chooses Analysis and Approaches (AA), or Applications and Interpretations (AI) at the HL or SL levels. At Science IB subject group. the individual subjects are biology, computer science, chemistry, design technology, physics, and sports and health (the student can choose two).

Students also study three additional topics, to encourage a more “rounded”, socially responsible approach; namely theory of knowledge; creativity, action, service; and an extended essay.

For Maths, the IB topic list and techniques for answering questions are around 95% similar to A-Level, and there are equally rigorous end-of-course exams. What’s a little different is their frequent “Investigations”, “International mindedness”, “Developing inquiry skills”, and “TOK” (Theory of Knowledge) sections, all encouraging students to creatively “look beyond” the curriculum. For instance:

Investigations; for a Pool Party Invitation, as part of Permutations and Combinations: how many different ways could three images be arranged for the invitation card? (Answer: 3! = 6)

International Mindedness: Where did Numbers come from? (Answer: many answers such as India and Sumeria and Egypt). And where does the Word Asymptote come from? Answer: the Greek word “Asymptotos” meaning “not falling together”. (Note: your author, long before being aware of IB, was including similar etymological references in my Maths tuition materials such as “al-jabr,” meaning “restoration of broken parts” the Arabic origin of algebra).

Developing Inquiry Skills. With pieces of spaghetti, construct a circle with radius one spaghetti length. What is the circumference of your circle in spaghetti units?

Theory of Knowledge TOK): Is Mathematics a Language? Why do we call Pascal’s triangle Pascal’s triangle if it was in use before he was born? Is it possible to know things about infinity, of which we have no experience? (Author’s note: this TOK is not one half of TikTok)

A good example of how IB maths is, let’s say, more intellectual, even ethereal, than A-Level Maths is that in the middle of some fairly standard A-Level fare on quadratic equations’ discriminants, there is suddenly a section on “the fundamental theory of algebra” referring to “the existence of complex zeros of a polynomial” (no me neither, at first!)

How is IB viewed at university?

Because UK Universities increasingly attract international students, they usually include IB required grades in their offers. For instance, an IB HL grade 7 is equivalent to A* in A-Level. A typical Oxbridge offer would be A*A*A or IB 42 points with grades 7,7,6 in the Higher Level choices.

Where can I study IB in the U.K.?

There are over 5000 “IB world” schools internationally, and around 100 schools in the UK offer the IB. Most but by no means all are in the UK Independent sector. They range from those offering the complete IB programme, including Year12-13 IBDP, as above, and also Primary and Middle Year IB; through to schools offering mainly A-Level but IBDP as an alternative.

There is more information in this article, in which the featured IB school is the new Fulham School, which your author was intrigued to find has opened up in the same road which our family used to live in, before moving to Twickenham. Who’d have thought!

How does Tutoring fit in?

Zoom or MIcrosoft Teams mean that tutoring doesn’t have to be local, or even national, especially since the “on-line” course text-book material is so technically advanced. Using this, I do international IB tutoring, and my approach is to pick out a few of their sample exam questions for each sub-topic which the student is currently doing – such as Binomial Expansion – and ask the student to try on their own. I then let them access official model answers, which I also supplement and add value to with my own additional workings, comments, and if necessary alternative methods and good ways of explaining.

Although my approach is fundamentally to “teach to the test”, to help the student get through their end-of-topic tests, mocks and major IB exams, I might also throw in a few challenging questions on the same topic from other advanced Entrance Boards like Cambridge TMUA or Oxford MAT; or Maths Challenges with a similar focus on “out-of-the-box” problem solving like the UKMT Senior Maths Challenge.

In summary

Although IBDP in general offers more breadth than A-Level (six subjects instead of three), it actually offers less breadth when you look at individual subjects. For instance, the IBDP in Maths has no mechanics, and less statistics; but arguably it has more depth in the subjects it does cover, and the exam questions may be fractionally harder.

Like the new technical T-levels (more on that in a future blog), the IBDP in general offers a minority but viable alternative for those who want something different out of their Sixth Form Years; namely more focus on soft skills, less specialism since both Arts and STEM subjects are compulsory, and most important I believe, it is a universally recognised qualification and comparable across multinational countries. It is suitable for those candidates who are comfortable with continuous assessment tasks, are aiming high academically across a variety of subjects, are intrigued by the philosophy as well as content of their subject and anticipate an international University placement or future career abroad.

Update after initial posting: the Economist magazine, no less, has run an article on the IB, emphasising its’ role in encouraging community service projects and keeping a spectrum of arts and STEM/sciences going through a Sixth Former’s years. It also speculates on an English Baccalaureate (but would we spoil it?!)