Many paths lead to an International Baccalaureate

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 May, 2012, 12:00am

The maxim 'All roads lead to Rome' certainly applies to the process of securing the International Baccalaureate Diploma (IB DP) - there are different paths one can take to achieve that goal.

Students can do one of several pre-IB programmes. Besides the middle years programme (MYP) discussed in the previous column, they can undertake the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) or the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE), both of which are offered by international and direct subsidy schools in Hong Kong.

The middle years programme gives a framework where teachers work across departments to deliver a more skill-based programme. The GCSE or the IGCSE programmes, however, lead to a standardised qualification and require learning subjects to a certain depth. They comprise a series of curriculum objectives that a school must cover both in content and skills.

Education to GCSE level is necessary for students studying for the IB or to the GCSE Advanced level (A-Level) and has historically been offered by English Schools Foundation schools. The GCSE and A-levels are both conducted by the Oxford, Cambridge and RSA examinations, one of five main bodies that set examinations and award qualifications in Britain.

The IGCSE, which gives a more international flavour to the GCSE, is conducted by two British assessment authorities: Edexcel and Cambridge International Examinations (CIE). Most schools in Hong Kong now offer the CIE programme, whereas organisations such as International Tuition Services (ITS) offer the Edexcel programme.

Edexcel is a private company wholly owned by Pearson, the British-based media and publishing conglomerate. The CIE was developed in 1988.

Students in Hong Kong have access to all three secondary school certificates: the GCSE, the Edexcel IGCSE and the CIE IGCSE.

The IGCSE includes additional options relating to course work and the language used, among others. Its academic merit compares very well with other secondary school curricula such as the American High School Diploma, the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examinations and the Singapore-Cambridge General Certificate of Education Ordinary Level Examinations, or O-levels. Each year students from several Hong Kong schools - including the French International School, the German Swiss International School and Yew Chung International School - are awarded highest marks in the world for several IGCSE subjects.

But the IGCSE is not a certificate of education; rather, it is a qualification based on specific subjects a student undertakes. This is the single most important reason schools have different expectations regarding the number of IGCSE subjects that one of its students is required to take.

And because it tests subject knowledge in the same way that an Advance Placement and Scholastic Aptitude Test does, the IGCSE is also a viable option for home schooling when students seek a qualification but are unable to attend classes.

The IGCSE is a broad and flexible programme that covers disciplines including languages, humanities, social sciences and maths.

It offers a choice of tiered examination, and students can choose between a core curriculum and an extended curriculum in most subjects. This gives candidates of all ability levels the freedom to select subjects that are right for them and, thereby, to score good grades.

The core curriculum, which gives an overview of the subject, is suitable for students who are expected to achieve grades C to G. The more challenging extended curriculum is designed for students who are expected to achieve higher grades. Assessment is not limited to conventional written papers; it also involves oral and listening tests.

In the sciences, students can take practical tests on paper, or schools can opt for students to be assessed internally on their practical work, which will make up 20 per cent of their final IGCSE grade. These assessment marks are then moderated by examiners.

There are arguments for and against students taking the MYP route or the IGCSE path to the IB Diploma.

While both have an international outlook, the IGCSE is tailored for a more multicultural and multilingual audience. In some subjects, the IGCSE can be undertaken with or without coursework. Furthermore, the Cambridge programme allows teaching in a localised context; it is intended for students whose first language may not be English.

Another point parents should consider is that students taking the MYP route will face their first external examinations when they sit for the IB Diploma, which they will present to colleges for admission.

In my experience, sitting an external exam gives students a valuable barometer to gauge the effort they will need to obtain a specific grade. They will have a better understanding of how to study, handle stress, manage their time and will have learned self-discipline in preparation for the IGCSE or GCSE examination. This valuable experience can then help them improve their performance in subsequent external examinations.

Anjali Hazari teaches IB and IGCSE biology at an international school