The International Baccalaureate consists of four challenging education programmes, including the internationally-accepted further education qualification the IB Diploma, which were originally founded in 1968 by the International Baccalaureate organisation (a non-profit foundation headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland) with the aim of engaging young people and developing their skills and sense of purpose in contributing to a better, more peaceful world.
What is an IB School?
Schools must be authorised by the IB to offer their programmes, and once authorised are called IB World Schools. The IB has a very strong system for setting up IB schools and making sure they get off to a good start. Following this they make interim visits but don’t actually ‘inspect’ or certify schools on an annual basis per se. Instead, they feel the results speak for themselves. Therefore, parents should look at an IB school's exam results and number of students qualifying for the IB Diploma: if those numbers are poor or dropping, take a much closer look.
If a school is an IB candidate (ie is going through the authorisation process to become an IB World School), that's a good sign...but not if it's been a candidate for a decade. Good IB Diploma results do not in themselves tell you about the feel of the school or whether it's right for your child, and no one is looking into every nook and cranny in the same way an American accreditation or Ofsted inspection officer does (not only the academics but also the governance and financial stability of a school).
Be aware that the IB exists to set up curriculum and protocols and they are very good at what they do, but counselling or guiding parents trying to make this transition is not part of their brief.
IB World Schools can offer one or more of the following four IB programmes. (If a school chooses to offer consecutive IB programmes, the programmes must be continuous without any gap years.)
IB Primary Years Programme (PYP)
The PYP (for 3-12 year olds) offers an inquiry-based, transdisciplinary curriculum framework that builds conceptual understanding for the whole child, both in school and in the world beyond. Fostering an individual’s self-efficacy is deemed important, with the idea that students with a strong sense of self-efficacy are active in their own learning.
In the final year, students take part in the PYP Exhibition which is designed for them to explore, document, and share their understanding of an issue or opportunity of personal significance. It requires research, analysis, reflection, and team collaboration, and is followed by a presentation of the students' findings and conclusions in front of their school community, often accompanied by squeals of delight from proud parents.
IB Middle Years Programme (MYP)
A programme for 12-16-year-olds that encourages students to make practical connections between their studies and the real world, continuing the inquiry-based learning approach from the PYP. It is designed to set students up to run directly into the IB Diploma or IB Career Related programmes (see below).
In their final year, MYP students complete an MYP Personal Project. Students explore an area of personal interest over an extended period designed to assess students’ approaches to learning skills for self-management, research, communication, critical and creative thinking, and collaboration. Students complete three elements: product or outcome, process journal, and a final report. The report is assessed by a supervisor (a teacher at the school) and externally moderated by the IB to ensure a globally consistent standard of excellence. Each project is awarded a final achievement grade, though this in itself does not constitute a formal qualification outside of the IB programme in the way that (say) I/GCSEs do.
IB Diploma Programme (IBDP)
A two-year programme for 16-19 year olds providing an internationally accepted qualification for entry into higher education. It’s a challenging and demanding curriculum that allows students to explore a range of subjects and ideas, while learning about the importance of activity and service in the community.
Students follow six academic courses over two years, choosing one course from within a range on offer under each of the following subject groups: mathematics, sciences, individuals and societies (likened to humanities for those unfamiliar with it), studies in language and literature, language acquisition (a second language to that engaged in the language and literature course and studied at a beginner or acquisition level) and the arts (though this can be dropped in favour of studying an additional course from one of the other five options).
Schools may vary in the breadth of courses that they can offer within each subject grouping eg one school may offer (say) music within the arts group while another may only offer (say) dance or visual arts. It is advisable to check the actual range of courses available when considering an IB school. Within these six courses, three are taken at a higher level (HL) and three at standard level (SL) - as their names suggest, HL is more demanding as it will be taught with greater depth and more complexity than SL.
In addition to the six academic subjects all diploma students follow a course in Theory of Knowledge (TOK) (an epistimology course which questions the basis of knowledge), write a 4,000 word research Extended Essay (on a subject of the student's own choosing) of college level standard, and take part in over 150 hours of non-academic activity covering creativity, physical action (e.g. sports), and service to the community (creativity, activity, service - commonly known as CAS).
How do IB Diploma scores work?
Assessment is based on a combination of final examinations and coursework, which are evaluated by external examiners worldwide, and (in some cases for coursework) by internal assessment. IB Diploma examinations for each subject are held on the same days for all students worldwide - in May in the Northern Hemisphere and in October in the case of most Southern Hemisphere schools – though with three different exam time zones across the world you needn’t worry that you will be sitting an exam late at night like some international A level students sitting a UK exam board paper at (say) 7pm Asia time!
Each subject is scored from 1-7, and up to 3 additional points may be awarded for TOK (Theory of Knowledge) essays and for the Extended Essay. A minimum of 24 points is required to obtain the IB Diploma while 45 points is the maximum.
While it is an international qualification, universities globally recognise its value as comparable to home country curricula. For example, the British Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) has developed a tariff system that gives currency to the IB Diploma. An IB Diploma score of 36 points out of a maximum of 45 is equivalent to three A grades at A level. While in the US, in those cases where college credit is offered for IB courses, the credit is based on examination scores for each individual course.
What is a good IB Diploma score?
You can judge the rigour of this programme for yourself by knowing that the world average pass rate is approximately 85 per cent. If a school has been an IBDP school for several years, or decades even in some international schools, look at its most recent results but, more importantly, at its own cumulative pass rate and average score (out of a top score of 45) over the total past years. In some cases, their cohort may not be large and averages can be affected by the performance of a few students.
The IB Diploma is more holistic than most exams and systems and looks at the overall result. A pupil can get a decent diploma with high marks in their high level and relatively low marks in their standard level courses. There is much room for misinterpretation and so the global score is the best measure.
Also, look to see whether the school restricts access to the IB Diploma programme to only the most able students, as is the case in some IB schools. (Always try to ascertain whether the school has manipulated its apparent results this way, whether with the I/GCSE's, AP exams, National Latin Exams, you name it.) If a school is not highly selective but nonetheless produces good IBDP results, it is an indication of good 'added value' education.
Universities like the IB programme as the curriculum develops and sharpens investigative, research, and critical-thinking skills. Many universities seek to recruit IB students because they offer both breadth of knowledge and depth, particularly in their higher level subjects and have proven that they know how to write analytical essays, and have good critical thinking skills.
Receiving a Bilingual Diploma
All students are required to study at least two languages for the diploma. The most common scenario is that students study one language within the Group 1 Language A (‘studies in language and literature’) courses offered, and one from Group 2 Language B (as a ‘language acquisition’ course). Students who are passionate about languages can study a third language as a Group 6 alternative instead of studying an arts course.
But if a student is proficient to an almost native language standard in two languages, they have the option of studying for the prestigious ‘IB Bilingual Diploma’.
A bilingual diploma can be awarded in two different ways:
1. Students who complete and receive a grade 3 or higher in two Language A courses (by taking a second Language A in their native language rather than a Language B acquisition course)
2. Students who have taken a Language A that is not the school’s official medium of instruction (for example a student who takes French A in an English language-medium IB school) who gain a grade 3 or higher in studies in ‘language and literature’ in that language and a grade 3 or higher in an ‘individuals and societies’ or ‘science’ course. (In doing this the student is demonstrating true bilingual proficiency in two languages.)
Typically, a candidate for a bilingual diploma is bi- or even tri-lingual and opting to engage in one of their fully proficient languages by taking a Language A in that language, alongside the English medium language of the diploma. (As if this wasn’t confusing enough, a school can request to offer the IB Diploma in Spanish or French rather than English but for the purposes of this article we are assuming English language tuition).
Offering the bilingual diploma isn’t always straightforward for a school due to staffing and time constraints. Within the Group 1 Language A ‘studies in language and literature’ options, for students whose schools do not offer a taught Language A in their native language, the IB introduced SSST (School-Supported, Self-Taught) Literature A (SL) – essentially a course enabling a student to do independently with the support of an external tutor (but always under the supervision of the school). Given that we have yet to hear of a school offering the full range of 15 languages that the language and literature A course can be studied in (let alone the 50 of literature A!) this is a super course for many students and certainly the mark of a good school if encouraging this through its language department.
Certificate programme students (or what the IB calls ‘diploma courses’ students) take between one or more IB courses, but will not be candidates for the full IB Diploma (so they may not be expected to do the Extended Essay, CAS or Theory of Knowledge though some schools will encourage them to do so). Students may be entered for IB exams for any of their IB Courses and in those courses would do the same work as their IB Diploma candidate student counterparts. Students receive an IB Certificate for each IB exam subject they pass. So, for example, a student may take all six IB courses, but they won’t take 3 at higher level which makes them ineligible for the full IB Diploma, though they may get good passing marks for each course and have six good IB Certificates.
It is important that students who are not full IB Diploma candidates clarify what the entry requirements are for the university of their choice. IB Certificates on their own may be insufficient for university entry, but if they accompany, for example, a school-awarded US High School diploma, they may be seen as added value to that diploma.
Also, IB schools may allow very capable students to do seven IB subjects, but only six will apply to their IB Diploma so the seventh course would be awarded an IB Certificate if they earn a passing mark on the IB Examinations.
IB Career-related Programme (IBCP)
Launched in 2014, the IBCP aims to create well-rounded, career-ready learners. What makes the IBCP unique is that - unlike the IBDP - it offers 16-19-year-olds the opportunity to specialise in a specific field. CP students undertake a minimum of two IBDP courses (theory and academics), a core consisting of four components (skills and competencies) and a career-related study (practical, real-world learning) which the school must arrange in partnership with serious professional partners who engage in that part of the programme.
The course is designed to prepare students for a variety of options after high school for further education, apprenticeships, or straight into employment. Many graduates of the IBCP continue their studies in a mix of practical, artistic and academic courses, including film schools, fine art schools, business management courses etc.
It’s not accepted by all universities, so check carefully. Although more practical and less 'academic' the IBCP should be regarded more as IB Different and not IB Light. Good Schools Guide consultants have known of IBCP students who as part of their programme have worked with nano-technology researchers, award-winning chefs and major film studios.
Transitions from IB school to IB school
IB schools share the same fundamental approach to learning, and assessments are the same worldwide, allowing students to more or less pick up their studies where they left off. So, if an IB school has scores that look good, and you like its buzz, there's a good chance you'll find a rigorous programme that will allow a fairly seamless transition from one IB school to another.
That is, before the final two-year IB Diploma programme. It is very important to note that, in spite of similarities within the curriculum the IB gives schools a great deal of autonomy in choosing which courses it will offer from the six subject areas, and within those subjects, what sorts of coursework they will elect to do.
This is so schools can make the programme relevant to their location and student body. For example, an IB school on the fringes of a tropical rainforest may have different course content for biology fieldwork than a school on the coast of the Baltic Sea. In other words, programmes are not made up of identical sequential parts that students can pop in and out of, from school to school, at will. Whether you can transfer your child mid-diploma will depend largely on each school's policy and very likely requires the involvement of both the sending and receiving schools' IB coordinators to identify where there may be gaps that need to be addressed in the new school. As the saying goes, ‘the devil is in the detail’.
The many UK schools now doing the IB Diploma may choose to steer away from enrolling pupils halfway through (essentially 3/5 of the curriculum must have been covered after the first year because IB Diploma exams are in May, so the last term is mostly review and exam taking), because of the difficulty for school and student bringing the student up to speed in such a fast-paced programme, and because the school's results do appear in the league tables. Some schools may recommend that the student restart the IBDP in the new school. One option to explore are the holiday courses that help IBDP students do extra tuition where there are weaknesses or gaps.
It may be that an international school offering boarding would be more flexible and let the student join the second year provided the courses match up.
One of the newer IB schools in the UK (or internationally if they are new to offering the IB), keen to build up their IB Diploma numbers, might consider it, but it would mean contacting each one.
The IB is well aware moves do happen, and states that they and the schools involved will do their best to help students through the transition. BUT this does not always mean completing the full diploma will be possible, so best to start discussions with both the current and prospective school early. If you know before your child starts the first year of IB that you will be moving before they finish, it is best to identify the second school and, if possible, choose courses at the first school that you know your child will be able to complete at the second.
Transitions from IB to non-IB and vice versa
Transitioning to IB programmes from other curriculums, and vice versa, can certainly be done. Students coming into the IB programme from non-IB schools may be a bit bewildered at first at the inquiry-based nature of the curriculum if they are used to a more rote-learning style. Equally PYP and MYP students may be perceived to be ‘behind’ (because they have studied different content) in some content moving from an IB school to another curriculum eg English or American – extra support may well be needed at the start of the transition to help them catch-up on curriculum content gaps.
Many schools do offer the IB Diploma without the preceding PYP and MYP programmes. For new IB students, it is not just the influx of new content that can be overwhelming. It is also the assessment structure. If your child wants to excel in the IB Diploma, the coursework components like the internal assessments, TOK, and Extended Essay cannot be neglected. Look out for schools that offer a good transition in the year prior to starting the IB Diploma (grade 10, approx. 15-16 year olds) to adequately prepare your child for what is a demanding two-year programme.