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Education should prepare pupils for the world beyond exams

Headteacher, David Barrs, addresses the myths surrounding the International Baccalaureate and the problems of traditional education

Posted by Julian Owen | April 10, 2019 | Teaching

Before I became the headteacher of the Anglo European School (AES) in Essex in 2005, I was a geography teacher. I didn’t know it at the time, but my interest in the subject - and the wider world - would come to align perfectly with the globally-minded philosophy of the International Baccalaureate (IB).

It was on arriving at AES that my passion for the IB, its philosophy and its approach to education, began. At AES - a coeducational comprehensive with a focus on the quality of education, as well as examination outcomes - my educational philosophy evolved. The school helped pioneer the IB philosophy from its inception in 1973 and, four years later, was the first state school in the UK to offer the IB diploma.

Like the IB itself, we have thrived on its education design and philosophy for decades; we were proud to celebrate our 40th year as an IB World School in 2017, as the IB prepared to celebrate its 50th anniversary the following year.

Yet, despite the long-term and widely recognised successes of the IB, there remain myths about it: ‘IB is only for bright students’; ‘teachers struggle to teach IB’; ‘only private schools can afford IB’; ‘it sacrifices depth for breadth’; and so on.

The advantage of a curriculum run by an educational organisation with charitable status, rather than a government, is clear

Myths about learning with IB

Contrary to the common misconception that the IB is only for bright students, its learning style is actually designed to benefit all. In subjects with examinations based on knowledge, it is difficult to differentiate between a student who has gained true understanding and one who has simply memorised the necessary answers. The IB, by contrast, emphasises critical thinking and application of knowledge, instead of knowledge recall. Furthermore, this style of education and examination offers skills that will last a lifetime, preparing students to move beyond results day and on to university and career success, and life fulfilment.

The dual economy at AES allows students to decide their own route through sixth form. The choice is not as simple as taking an IB programme or A Levels - there are four pathways at AES that enable students to choose to continue a broad spectrum of study in a way that suits them. However, all routes are founded on baccalaureate principles (see below).

Even those who choose more traditional curricula feel the presence of the IB philosophy at AES; it runs through all our routes. They are broad, include the study of a language, and all students follow the creativity, activity, service programme which is part of the IB. 

Contrary to the common misconception that the IB is only for bright students, its learning style is actually designed to benefit all

While it is a common misconception that the IB sacrifices depth for breadth, the learning gained from that breadth goes much deeper than the specialised - but limited - style of traditional learning and teaching. As headteacher of a school that offers the dual economy of the IB Diploma Programme (DP) and Career-related Programme (CP), alongside A Levels, I can dispel such myths with some confidence. I can also demonstrate how the IB is worth more than simply the sum of its well-respected parts; for instance, its theory of knowledge course, extended essay, and creativity, activity and service elements. In terms of depth, this enhances subject study whilst also maintaining breadth. 

The IB is based on holistic, interdisciplinary principles which provide a well-rounded education. The world is not split into unrelated units; if we are to prepare a new generation for their futures, nor should education be.

Myths about teaching IB

A common worry for schools and teachers is that the IB and its professional development (PD) courses will bring extra workload. There is certainly a rigorous PD requirement, but it is a chance for a global community of teachers to interact and develop their own educational philosophy, whilst at the same time developing their own knowledge of their subject in an international context; this provides a unique skillset in terms of their career development. The IB itself works in partnership with the IB Schools and Colleges Association in the UK (IBSCA), making it possible to provide more cost-effective PD at a variety of levels. All PD is rigorously evaluated and judged against common standards.   

David Barrs

Myths about the cost of IB

One of the biggest concerns surrounding the IB is cost; that it is too challenging for maintained schools to afford. Becoming an authorised IB World School does involve additional cost in terms of annual fees and examination fees.   

We have tried and tested other pathways, such as BTECs and vocational courses (each of which incur additional cost), but none were as well received as the CP (we were the first comprehensive school to offer it). It complements the DP and provides more opportunities for young people to remain in our sixth form; suits those who want a more applied approach post-16; and, in some circumstances, can make it possible to continue to study A Levels as well.

The IB is based on holistic, interdisciplinary principles which provide a well-rounded education

There are other advantages to an IB education. Grade boundaries have not been manipulated, and the average point score has remained consistent since its inception in 1968; out of a maximum of 45 points, the global average has remained stable at 29/30 points.

The advantage of a curriculum run by an educational organisation with charitable status, rather than a government, is clear. Subject specifications are reviewed every seven years, and schools conduct a self-review every five years. This is in stark contrast to the current situation in the UK, where change is unpredictable and enacted to meet a particular political priority.   

The advantage of a values-driven, internationally-minded, holistic educational programme is also in stark contrast to the current situation in the UK.

An IB education is an attractive alternative for schools and students alike, providing an education fit for the 21st century.

David Barrs is headteacher of a state school in Essex, the Anglo European School


What is a baccalaureate education?
This definition is offered by the Anglo European School:
A baccalaureate programme is an educational experience that is broad (involving all major subject disciplines); balanced (in that specialisation is deferred or avoided); and coherent (with clear values, learner outcomes and themes which add relevance to subject study). The programme adds up to more than the sum of its parts, and provides for the rounded education of the student.
Learning is concurrent, enabling connections to be made, and the programme is founded on a very clear set of values. A baccalaureate will also contain a core of learning common to all learners, which could include individual research, an element of study skills, work experience/internship, and an opportunity to demonstrate service above self.  The core provides an opportunity for learning to be applied, as well as to deepen understanding and enrich learning itself.
Where appropriate, assessment is rigorous, and based on agreed criteria which are not subject to change other than as part of periodic systematic review.

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