International schools


PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 October, 2011, 12:00am


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I write in response to the column, Class Action, in the Family Post on October 9, where an international school teacher replies to an inquiry about the challenges of IB [International Baccalaureate]. He observes that 'universities and employers place high value on the concepts at the core of IB'.

One would like to think so, but as a parent who closely monitored first a son who did A-levels and then his younger brother who did IB, I have come to the conclusion that there is a lot of wishful thinking behind these statements.

I became drawn to the question of how far IB is valued by universities after encountering widespread ignorance about IB at the British universities my son and I contacted before he embarked on his IB course. I cannot speak for American and Australian universities, but those in Britain, for reasons that are not easy to understand, seem unwilling to credit IB properly.

Having witnessed both systems at work, I would emphasise that in breadth, depth, intellectual rigour and workload, IB is far more demanding. How much more demanding depends on IB subject choice, and one of the flaws of IB is that some subjects are more demanding than others. In general, however, IB is so far beyond A-levels that comparisons seem inappropriate and even absurd.

Take maths, for example. My elder son, a gifted linguist, is not especially good at maths, nor did he work very hard. Homework was a rarity. He got a grade A in maths A-level. My younger son is very good at maths. It's his favourite subject. He got 99 per cent in his GCSE, which he took a year early. Compared with his brother, he worked very hard, often into the early hours. He got a grade five in higher IB.

Based on my experience of the above, which was quite intense at times, I would suggest that scraping an A in maths A-level probably compares to a five in standard maths IB. British universities, however, routinely indicate that an A grade in A-level maths is 'equivalent to' a six in higher IB maths. Am I alone in finding this absurd? Other absurdities on British university websites include the notion that three As at A-level is 'equivalent to' 37 or 38 IB points and that A-level physics is 'equivalent to' higher IB physics. It hardly implies that IB is valued.

There are tiny signs of progress from some British universities. An admissions tutor from a leading London university college confided last year that his maths department colleagues were 'taken aback' to discover how much harder higher IB maths was than further maths A-level, and that some adjustments might therefore be made. This is a start, but one may wonder why the discovery was not made earlier.

Another tiny step forward can be found at Bath, where the A-level requirement for mechanical engineering, AAA*, is cited as comparable to 36 IB points.This would seem to be because a certain admissions tutor bothered to look more closely at IB and was impressed by its challenges. Not only other departments in the same university, but other degree subjects within the same faculty, continue to subscribe to less enlightened comparisons.

In combining rigour with range IB offers an outstanding, all-round education. The sad fact is, however, that British universities, by and large, do not adequately understand or value IB, even if they pay lip service to the contrary. IB students wishing to apply to British universities need to be aware of what they are up against. This is the reality that needs to be addressed, and not glossed over. In particular, leaders in IB education need to be far more assertive and effective in communicating to British universities what IB is all about.

Jonathan Douglas