There is a popular misconception regarding the International Baccalaureate, namely that it has been devised for the academically brilliant; that no average students need apply.

This image may well come from the fact that certain schools carrying the IB in Spain and beyond have expected students to do it alongside the standard curriculum as opposed to instead of.

“This is extraordinary,” says David Murphy, King’s College Madrid’s Director of Secondary Academic who is working with IB Diploma Coordinator Gemma Fanning to introduce the IB programme at Soto de Viñuelas. “It is again the misconception that more is better. The IB diploma was not designed as an additional qualification on top of the existing one.”

At King’s College Madrid, the aim is to have students presented with the choice between two paths – the International Baccalaureate Diploma programme or the A level system and David wishes to stress that while neither trumps the other per se, one could prove a better fit than the other.

“It’s very much a matter of the kind of learner we’re dealing with,” he says. “Children are very different; they learn in different ways and have different attitudes to and experiences of learning and we want to offer two paths that lead to the same destination, with each path taking into account their strengths, passions and temperament.”

While A levels depart to a large degree from rote learning and committing reams of facts to memory, the International Baccalaureate takes this one step further, according to Gemma. “It really prepares students for university because they learn how to reference and there is heavy emphasis placed on academic honesty,” she says.

David is a firm believer in the value of fostering thinking skills as opposed to learning content by heart and points out that often studies can and will differ from the profession a student will ultimately pursue.

He himself graduated with a Master of Arts from Oxford University before postgraduate study at the Royal Academy of Music and moving into education. “It has to be recognised that the job market is evolving rapidly,” he says.

On the back of this, he is keen to point out that the IB nurtures all the skills that employers are desperately seeking nowadays. “When you look at the big surveys on the skills that employers want for the future, creativity, flexibility and the ability to adapt to circumstances are all up there,” he says. 

The IB’s strength in this respect is backed by a survey carried out by the 2017 University Admissions Officers Report published in The Times Higher Educational Supplement in which university admissions officers awarded 94 points out of 100 to the IB for encouraging independent enquiry, 93 for nurturing open-mindedness, 97 for encouraging a global outlook and 91 to developing self-management skills. Meanwhile, when it came to fostering creativity, 37 points were awarded which was more than double the number awarded to A levels, though many A level students work on this aspect of their education outside of the curriculum.

With “international” being the operative word, one of the IB’s main strengths is its global compass and its focus on developing an open mind. “IB students not only learn how to learn but also how to be empathetic and great global citizens,” says David.

Besides taking six academic subjects across the board – three to higher level and three to a standard level – the IB syllabus has what it calls its “core” which involves three different elements, the first being the study of the Theory of Knowledge, which encourages students to reflect on the nature of knowledge; the second, Community, Activity and Service (CAT), which covers charity work and acting locally on a global issue; and the third, writing a 4,000-word paper on a topic of the student’s choice.

“They learn to write essays, to a greater extent than they do at A level,” says Gemma.

Clearly, for students who are clear about the subjects they want to shed and those they want to pursue, A levels is the more obvious route. According to a report by the Independent Education Consultants, “With many youngsters having either a Maths or Science bias or a flair for the Arts, A levels allow them to focus their area of interest. For example, a student who gets most enjoyment from languages or literature may find the compulsory study of Maths within the IB a chore.”

For those students with Science, Medicine or Engineering as their endgame, the depth provided by the A level may suit better while for those who are less clear about their professional journey, the IB covers all bases, though both A levels and the IB are equally valid when it comes to applying to universities both in the UK, Spain and elsewhere.

The introduction of the IB programme to King’s aims to be gradual with a cohort of around 25 students blazing the trail. “The individual subject classes will be quite luxurious,” says David who adds that though the number of IB students will initially be small, he believes they will be as integrated into the main body of the sixth form as their A level counterparts. “They will spend as much time with each other as they would with someone doing a different set of A levels so social exclusion is not an issue,” he says.

The programme has been popular with a number of secondary teachers who have put themselves forward to teach it and, as part of the Inspired education group, King’s will also have a support network of 19 schools with whom to share information on good IB practice.

“The teachers have to be trained to deliver the IB curriculum,” says David. “But the laws of physics don’t change, nor how we interpret literature, so it’s not a big leap. The training is just about knowing how to foster the skills that underpin the philosophy of the IB DP alongside teaching a subject. The teachers who have become involved in the project just love learning and that’s a great model for the students.”

IB is, by all accounts, a programme for the future, not just for King’s but perhaps for secondary students everywhere. “People wrongly believe that it is more difficult or elitist, but it’s about creating a community of learners, kids who want to come to school, who share the same values and enthusiasm and energy in the way they approach their studies,” says David. “It’s as accessible as A levels, suiting not necessarily the most able, but all students who just love to learn; and there are lots of pupils like that!”


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