IB or DSE? Pros and cons of Hong Kong secondary school curriculums explained

The IB programme is rapidly gaining ground in Hong Kong, but there is no one study option that's right for everyone

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 April, 2015, 6:30am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 April, 2015, 6:16pm

Unless enrolled in a government school or the rare international school that offers the British A-level curriculum, Hong Kong students hoping to study abroad may soon have little choice but to take the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma programme.

Both curriculums prepare students for university entry. However, the IB programme has expanded from the international school sector, which it has long dominated, to the English Schools Foundation (ESF) network. After providing the British curriculum for more than 40 years, ESF began switching over in 2007. Now all its five secondary schools and two colleges offer the IB Diploma instead of A-levels.

Direct subsidy scheme schools (semi-private institutions that are given greater autonomy) have also begun to embrace the IB system. Five of the city's 62 direct subsidy schools now offer the IB Diploma and the Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE). More will probably follow suit if the Woo brothers' experience is any indication.

Justin Woo, who is training to become a pilot at an aeronautical university in Florida, has been through both systems. After two years at a direct subsidy school, he got fed up with the local exam curriculum and switched to study IB Diploma at South Island School in 2012.

Liberal Studies, a compulsory subject for DSE, was a particular bugbear.

"There was a lot of regurgitation and teachers delivered lessons in a big rush because there were simply too many topics to cover. I soon lost interest, as this approach does not help develop critical thinking," says Justin, 19.

"After switching to IB, I felt happier as it involved fewer tests and less repetitive homework. I took psychology, English literature, physics and history for IB. The coursework requirement was flexible enough for me to work to my interests and develop new perspectives on knowledge.

"Everybody has different learning styles. It just happens that IB is a better fit for me as it is not as knowledge- or practice-intensive. It emphasises research and ... encourages self-exploration. I learn because I want to learn, not because I need to learn."

Justin found more time to pursue his songwriting and guitar playing. "While other IB students have difficulty fulfilling the requirement to do 50 hours for creative pursuits, I can easily fulfil it with my guitar sessions."

On the other hand, his younger brother, Janseen, a 17-year-old student at St Stephen's College, has not felt the need to switch.

He is now sitting his DSE exams, with physics, chemistry and geography as electives, and has already received a conditional offer from the University of Waterloo in Canada to study urban planning.

But Janseen went through some of his brother's IB physics work during his studies and found that it dug deeper into the subject: "It will encourage you to research more on the subject rather than simply doing papers and answering exam questions, as the DSE does," he says.

These cases help explain why the ESF and some DSS schools have embraced the IB system.

"We felt it's better preparation for universities," says Chris Durbin, ESF secondary school development adviser.

IB Diploma candidates are required to tackle six subjects: two languages, one of which must be the mother tongue; one experimental science (biology or physics, for example); one in maths and computer science; one in the arts (music, theatre or visual); and the last involving the individual and society (history and geography, for example).

Students take three of the subjects at the standard level and the rest at a higher level.

In addition, students must complete three "core elements": creativity, action and service (which encourages involvement in sports, art performance and community service; theory of knowledge, which teaches where knowledge comes from and how to analyse evidence and make arguments; and a 4,000-word extended essay about a chosen topic.

The latter two elements "mirror what students do in their undergraduate years beautifully", Durbin says, and the community service element makes for a more well-rounded education.

The ESF network has seen better learning outcomes after it switched to the IB programme.

"One thing that has changed is that students get more university offers than they did with the A-levels," Durbin says.

Not surprisingly, high achievers get into elite universities from Hong Kong to the US, but students with middle and lower scores also find places in a range of other universities.

Even so, ESF has not lost its British links as 40 per cent of its students still go to universities in Britain, Durbin says.

At the Creative Secondary School, the first school under the direct subsidy scheme to secure IB status, principal Cheung Siu-ming says educators should not view the curriculum as one for only international schools.

I learn because I want to learn [in the IB system], not because I need to learn
Justin Woo

"Half of the IB schools globally are government schools," Cheung says.

The reason Hong Kong's government schools don't adopt this curriculum has to do with a reluctance to devote more public resources to local secondary schooling, he says

"In Adelaide, Australia, half of all government schools have adopted the IB middle years programme [MYP] leading to the diploma," Cheung says. "In Singapore, the government tries its best to support any government school that wants to adopt IB.

"But our education spending [expressed as a percentage of GDP] is lower than on the mainland. So if you want to study IB, you need to pay [to attend a DSS or international school."

On the mainland, more state schools are offering the IB Diploma (19, in addition to 110 private schools).

The International Baccalaureate Organisation is now working to extend its approach to junior schools, matching the Chinese national curriculum into the primary years programme (PYP) framework, says Ian Chambers, its Asia-Pacific director.

"What this means is that the content of the Chinese national curriculum is delivered in an IB way, through inquiry-based and exploratory learning in a more student-centred way," he says. "This allows students to attach meaning to international as well as national contexts."

So instead of simply relying on textbooks to learn about migration, students would examine different migration patterns across China, discuss how it affects culture, and apply maths within the module.

However, that's not easy to do as the organisation must spend more money to train teachers who are used to old-fashioned ways of delivering content, Chambers says.

At Creative Secondary School, students follow the MYP alongside local curriculum in Forms One to Four. They complete the MYP in Form Four while pursuing the first year of the Hong Kong diploma. After that, students' paths diverge, with some taking the IB Diploma and others the DSE depending on which best suits their aptitudes.

Cheung says overlap in the curriculums for subjects such as English, Chinese and maths made the special arrangement feasible, while Liberal Studies, a compulsory DSE subject, satisfied the Individual and Society requirement for the IB.

Still, it's not up to the students at Creative Secondary to decide whether to pursue an IB Diploma or the DSE.

"Teachers take into account the students' aptitude and other factors and decide for them," Cheung says.

For example, a youngster with no interest in the humanities should not enter the IB programme, which makes it a requirement, he says. Similarly, the DSE curriculum does not offer theatre. If they hope to go to the Academy for Performing Arts or a drama school abroad after graduation, IB would be the better option.

However, the fee for the IB Diploma programme at Creative Secondary is HK$80,000 a year, compared with HK$60,000 a year for the DSE.

"We need to pay an annual registration fee to IB, and teachers must attend workshops to keep abreast of global trends and new classroom techniques," Cheung says.

George Rupp, the new IB chairman, is keen to see its global, student-centred style of education extended to local government schools so not just the affluent benefit.

Although the historical strength of IB is in independent schools that already have international student bodies, "we want to expand the diversity of schools and increase access to people of modest means," says Rupp, a former president of Columbia University in the US.

"Expenses are a real challenge. [But] we need to find ways to expand IB schools in parts of the world where it's less fully represented."

Rupp hopes to discuss expanding IB access with local education officials, but an Education Bureau spokesman says curriculum development and examination authorities continually refer to the experiences of other educational systems to keep pace with 21st century development. Hong Kong's education system is also benchmarked against the curriculums and assessment of 24 senior secondary subjects by international organisations.

"The senior secondary curriculum aims to enable all students to unleash their potential, disregarding their family backgrounds, abilities, interests, as well as learning styles," he says.

Additional reporting by Vanessa Assarasakorn