In recent decades the International Baccalaureate (IB) program has become increasingly popular as an alternative to more established assessments, namely the English A-level. With individuals qualified in the IB now frequently entering university and the workplace, the benefits of this curriculum are becoming increasingly visible. A 2016 report shows that IB students are 57% more likely to attend one of the top 20 UK universities than their A-level peers.
Since its beginnings in 1968, the IB syllabus has focussed on students developing a range of academic skills through their sixth form education. Mathematics and English are compulsory which ensures that every student has a firm grounding in these two pillar subjects. Students must also study a science, a language and a humanity, leaving the sixth subject to be chosen at the student’s discretion.
The nuance of a curriculum that makes such breadth possible is the distinction between higher level (HL) and standard level (SL) subjects. Typically, those in favour of A-level claim that it allows for a distilled focus; say a student has decided to pursue medicine at university, they may take A-level maths, biology and chemistry. The same student could fulfil the university entrance requirements by taking HL maths, biology and chemistry, whilst also picking up SL english, history and spanish for example.
The benefit of this is twofold: firstly, it guarantees that a decision about prospective careers made at the age of 16 is not totally binding. Quite probably, the student in question will flourish at medical school. But why restrict your options if it isn’t necessary? Secondly, the essential skills taught in english, humanity and language classes can be invaluable for students pursuing science degrees. Oral presentations, written essays and the english section of UK medicine entrance exams will undoubtedly come more naturally to students who have practiced these skills through their sixth form studies.
Personally, I have always been a lover of the humanities and my IB subjects (english, history and global politics) played to my natural strengths. However, they were coupled with maths, chemistry and latin, three subjects that forced me to approach material in a different way. I had enjoyed chemistry at GCSE yet was aware that the step up to A-level would be challenging making this choice inadvisable. The smaller jump to IB SL allowed me to keep up this subject and still achieve a commendable grade.
Asides from subject specifics, the IB curriculum fosters the essential skills required for academic success. Namely, the ability to research thoroughly, write sophisticated essays, adopt a critical lens and perhaps most importantly, the confidence to challenge, argue and question. For me, the quasi-seamless transition to university education was assisted by my IB experience. For example, every IB student is required to produce a fully researched and referenced 4000 word ‘extended essay’. Long pieces of university coursework have seemed less daunting given the guidance I received at school regarding how to approach an assignment of this size.
An advantage of the Scottish university system (a different debate in and of itself, perhaps with a Macbeth inspired title) is that you can take multiple subjects in your first two years. I stumbled across an economics module and was able to utilise the statistical elements of my maths IB to assist my learning. Recently, I was having a conversation with a friend who is in her 3rd year studying geography. One of her compulsory modules for this year requires her to practice coding as well as use mathematical functions. Fortunately, her knowledge from SL maths has come back to assist her and, fingers crossed, these modules are a little less daunting to her than to some others.
A final example of transferable skills fostered in the IB is through presentation practice. For both english and politics, a part of my coursework involved presenting an academic project to my peers. As a result, not only did my confidence grow but I learnt how to tailor material for presentations, practice concision and maintain audience retention.
Taking six subjects, engaging in extra-curriculars and meeting the additional IB requirements (think CAS – Creativity, Action, Service – which carries no points but gives students a structured opportunity to reflect upon the flourishing of mind, body and spirit) makes for a relentlessly busy two years. The organisational skills you develop are invaluable. Learning to juggle several commitments at once enhances work productivity and forces students to be consciously aware of their aims each time they embark on a particular task. This alone is perhaps the greatest transferable life skill.
Overall, the IB nurtures the curious minds of young people and allows them to develop a broad set of transferable skills. Trying to make sense of and flourish in our times requires versatility, confidence and curiosity and the IB is well positioned to set students up academically and professionally for the years ahead.
A list of schools offering the IB in the UK can be found here.
About the author: Louisa Campbell is a student of modern history and international relations at the University of St Andrews. Educated in the village of Benderloch on the West coast of Scotland, she transitioned to Fettes College in Edinburgh to study the IB in sixth form.