Jeanne Ng has been studying the Hong Kong to Singapore air route and whether companies are competing or colluding for business. Yukiko Mihara has investigated the impact of tax cuts on spending habits, and Marilyn Tsang has been testing the 'elasticity theory' - how sales are affected if the prices of biscuits and soft drinks in a store are increased. But these students, immersed in their independent research, are not yet at university. They are in their final two years at the Chinese International School studying for their International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma. An essay of more than 4,000 words is just one element that sets the programme apart from A levels. Independent and creative thinking is at the core of the Education's Commissions' reform proposals expected to be debated by the Executive Council tomorrow and made public shortly afterwards. Together with the balance between arts, languages and science, the inclusion of extra-curricula activities and community service and the underpinning of philosophy and internationalism, they are factors making IB increasingly sought after. 'What is so interesting is how all-embracing it is,' said Martin Clarke, the teacher in charge of economics at the Chinese International School. As Hong Kong and countries worldwide grapple with the limitations of their education systems and seek a more global approach to learning, many schools, from Britain, the United States, the SAR, the mainland and elsewhere, are turning to the International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO). IB is becoming a popular option in Hong Kong international schools and is seen by some educators as an alternative to rote learning that dominates exam-driven local schooling. The English Schools Foundation (ESF) is preparing to introduce the IB diploma as an alternative to A levels. Yew Chung International School is planning to offer the diploma from September, joining Li Po Chun United World College, the Chinese International School and the French International School, which already offer it. The Hong Kong Management Association is to offer IB at its HKMA College which opens in September. 'Most parents will accept that it is more balanced and internationally recognised [than A levels],' said college manager David Wong. 'It is not just talk and chalk. It treats every student as an individual who can develop their minds themselves. With the IB, everyone must communicate with others.' He sees this as vital for the development of Hong Kong students, as they will not work in isolation once they leave school. The International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO) has come a long way since it was set up in Geneva in the 1960s to develop a common curriculum for exclusive international schools around the world. It has authorised more than 1,000 schools in 101 countries to offer its programmes for primary, secondary and post-16 education. In the past two years the number of schools adopting IB has grown from 61 to 120 in the Asia-Pacific region, and by 2002 that is expected to grow to 240, according to John Goodban, IBO regional director, based in Singapore. On the mainland, IB forms part of the country's education reforms and has been adopted by about a dozen state and private schools which are using the programmes to prepare children of the new rich for overseas universities or for experimental schools to learn about international trends in education. Zhu Zhenyi, IB co-ordinator of Shanghai High School, said: 'IB provides a route to the wholistic style of quality education China is seeking in its education reforms.' Wong Sukai, IB co-ordinator at the Tianjin Experiment School, which has adopted IB's 'middle years' programme for its local students, said: 'We have a lot of experiments in subjects and teaching methods. In China, we should face up to the outer world. We think IB is a good education system for our reforms.' Alex Horsley, headmaster of the Chinese International School in Hong Kong, said an increasing number of American districts were latching on to the IB diploma because it provided an external qualification not otherwise available. 'The same thing is happening in Australia, particularly among the large church-related, semi-independent schools,' he said. 'IB is no longer innovative or revolutionary. It is a proven vehicle for getting students into leading universities around the world.' The post-16 IB diploma is the IBO's best-known programme, taught in English, Spanish or French. The IBO also offers primary and secondary programmes in a looser framework that can be taught in local languages, something popular on the mainland. The IB diploma requires students to take six subjects, which include their own language, a second language, maths, a science, one of the humanities and an art or other subject of their own choice. Three of these subjects are studied in greater depth, broadly equivalent to the current British A level. Students also study a philosophy-related course known as Theory of Knowledge, carry out a piece of independent research culminating in a lengthy essay, and spend at least one afternoon a week on activities that come under the heading of Creativity, Action and Service, or CAS. The idea is to encourage the students to question various sources of information rather than regurgitate facts. 'Theory of Knowledge gets students to question where knowledge comes from. It is a totally different way of thinking from the way students are usually taught in Hong Kong,' said Stuart Bryan, Head of Sixth Form at Sha Tin College, who is preparing the school for the launch of the IB programme next year. 'IBO membership promotes a truly international character and atmosphere. It is not tied to the uncertainties of any one national system.' The internationalism is reflected in the economics studied at the Chinese International School, with the course placing greater emphasis on the economics of developing countries than the traditional British A level does. The baccalaureate is graded on a points system. Exams and course work are assessed internationally. 'The majority of people we talk with are actively courting IB candidates because of, among other things, the combination of the breadth and depth,' said Mr Horsley. 'The A levels have the depth but no breadth. The US system has the breadth but no depth. The IB diploma offers a combination of in-depth study, research and a broad-based body of knowledge.' The ESF hopes to make the IB programme available in at least one of its secondary schools in Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, in addition to Sha Tin College, to run alongside its A level courses. ESF chief executive Jennifer Wisker said the move was a response to the growing number of pupils from international, rather than British, backgrounds. 'Many are returning to North America, Australia and other countries, which made us ask if it was appropriate to make plans geared to one country's national system. We are also looking at the implications of a more international curriculum at primary and lower secondary levels, with Putonghua and more relevant humanities topics. 'My vision for the ESF is to have a broad ESF baccalaureate. There will be formal exams, IB or A level, and a portfolio of other areas of a child's achievements - in charity activities, sport, music, theatre and all that. That needs to be on their records, to show the whole person, not just the academic strand.' Yew Chung International School principal Paul Forte said: 'What we are after is best practice, and that is what the IB is all about. What it has done is pull together all it feels is best practice.' British A levels, currently studied by senior secondary students in Hong Kong's ESF schools, are also undergoing reform to broaden post-16 education, which Mr Horsley believes is partly in response to the success of the IB. The new A-level courses, to be studied by ESF students from September, incorporate the 'key skills' of literacy, numeracy and information technology proficiency, as well as independent study, designed to make students more independent learners. Students will also study more subjects, including three at greater depth. The main difference between the new A levels and the IB diploma is that the former does not insist that students study a mix of languages, maths, science and humanities. Meanwhile, the main challenge for the IBO is managing its growth. Regional director Mr Goodban said the IBO would continue to authorise more schools to teach its programmes, provide them with teacher support and training, and monitor them. The IBO is also playing a greater role in research and curriculum development, working closely with national systems and non-government and international government organisations. 'We are not in competition with any national systems, and we learn a lot from a variety of systems,' Mr Goodban said. 'We never engage with national schools without fully informing the national systems so we can have a collaborative relationship where both can benefit. 'We are an international organisation, with our regional representative offices headed by local people. We are not trying to carry out a neo-colonial education.'