IB graduates from educational oddity to realistic alternative

Michael Gibb

The International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO) has turned full circle. Regarded as peripheral, experimental and slightly radical during its formative years in the 1960s, it has now emerged as a recognised alternative to mainstream education.

That is the view of Professor George Walker, director-general of the IBO, and he explained why.

'We're seeing a profound change in attitudes towards education,' Walker said. 'The Gulf War will only serve to hasten and strengthen that change.'

Speaking before members of the Hong Kong education community last month at the Chinese International School (CIS), Walker added: 'National education doesn't mean anything. It can be positively dangerous because you can't live or educate in isolation.'

Walker has been head of the IBO since 1999, when he finished an eight year stretch as director-general of the International School of Geneva, the world's oldest and largest international school. He has taken over during a period of unprecedented growth and public interest in the IBO.

According to the IBO, there are 112 schools running the IB in the Asia Pacific alone. That number is expected to grow by 45 per cent this year and 33 per cent next.

Hong Kong has five schools offering the diploma: CIS, Li Po Chun United World College (UWC), French International School, and Yew Chung Hong Kong International School, plus Sha Tin College, part of the English Schools Foundation (ESF), which decided last month to phase out British A-levels and focus only on the diploma from the 2004-05 academic year.

More secondary schools in Hong Kong could follow. The ESF will hold consultations with parents between September and December to gauge interest in switching from A-levels to the IB. It is possible that, with parental backing, the ESF could be running it across all its schools within three to four years, says Graham Ranger, the ESF secondary education officer.

Much-publicised problems with Britain's A-levels are spurring the interest in the IB, says David Cottam, principal of Sha Tin College.

The diploma has become a gold standard for upper secondary education, influencing other systems and respected by universities. It involves six compulsory subject areas, with students normally choosing to study three at higher and three at ordinary levels: a first language, a second, maths, a science, a social science and an arts subject. This makes for a broader curriculum than A-levels. Its hallmark innovations include the compulsory ethics-cum-philosophy course known as Theory of Knowledge (TOK) and a 4,000-word research paper on a subject of the student's choice. The holistic approach is completed by the 'creativity, action, service' (CAS) requirement, which involves the completion of 50 hours of music, art, sport, or community service.

The demanding programme has been described as elitist, mainly because of its association with international schools. But today out of the 170,000 students worldwide taking one of the three IBO programmes, 55 per cent are in government schools in their home countries, 41 per cent are in some form of private education and only 4 per cent in international schools.

Another concern is the perception that the diploma does not suit all and caters in particular for academic high-fliers. Walker doesn't deny this. 'It is hugely demanding. One night you're pouring over complex algebra and the next you're considering the origins of the First World War,' he said.

Students warn that the programme requires rigorous academic commitment. 'It's a bit overwhelming at first,' said Winifred Mok, 17, of Li Po Chun UWC. 'You need very good time-management skills.'

But others disagree that only top students benefit. 'It is not only for the academically-inclined, but it will stretch you more than A-levels,' Cottam said. 'A-levels are too narrow whereas the diploma offers breadth.'