The IB: nailing some media myths

Many articles about the IB published in the mainstream press annoy me. They are often full of factual errors, focus almost exclusively on the IB Diploma (and usually refer to this programme as ‘the IB’ as if the other two ‘academic’ programmes do not exist) and make glib comparisons between the IB and ‘equivalent’ qualifications, usually – in the UK at least – A Levels. Here I would like to at least start to put the record straight, as well as – you will not be surprised to hear – extol the benefits of an IB education.

Whilst the Diploma was the founding IB programme, and is the chief means by which Diploma students gain access to universities all over the world, it is – in educational terms – no more important than the Primary Years Programme (studied between the ages of 3 and 11) and the Middle Years Programme (11 – 16), both of which provide the foundations for the Diploma programme. Indeed, research suggests that those who have studied the MYP tend – all other things being equal – to do better in the Diploma than those who have not.

Of course, there are many who successfully make the transition from a more conventional (and usually national) qualification, such as GCSEs, to the Diploma. But the evidence from Southbank is that the habits and skills, such as independent learning and the questioning of orthodoxy, are best cultivated at a young age so that they become second nature and are fully practised at an older one. What I find so distinctive and attractive about Southbank students who have experienced the MYP and even the PYP are their intellectual curiosity and inquisitiveness, qualities largely absent in students to whom I have taught the Diploma in other schools not offering the PYP or MYP.

And that’s the other thing that the press gets wrong. It equates the IB programmes with national qualifications, as if they were comparing different types of the same fruit. In fact they are comparing apples with bananas. The clue is in the name: the IB offers programmes of learning, not just ‘qualifications’ by which to gain, for example, entry to university. These programmes are underpinned by an educational philosophy the crux of which can be found in the IB Learner Profile and mission statement. When you study the IB you buy into, for example, the notion that “other people, with their differences, can also be right”. You will struggle to find that lofty ideal included in an A Level syllabus.

The IB programmes offer a coherence and balance missing from the ‘pick and mix’ approach of many national qualifications, resulting in the IB ‘whole’ being greater than the sum of its parts. Measuring the ability of a student to learn independently, to think ‘outside the box’, to recognise the benefits of the process as much as the outcome of learning, is not easy, but it is these qualities that are cherished by IB enthusiasts and – crucial, this – recognised and applauded by universities as well as schools across the globe.

For the IB is easily transferable, mid-stage, between schools, at least at PYP and MYP levels. With an increasing globally mobile student population, the IB recognised, when constructing its programmes, the need to make transition as smooth as possible. Perhaps with so much else to get used to as they move to yet another country, ‘third culture’ kids are quite used to adapting anyway. But it is very rare that students transferring to Southbank mid-way through study of the PYP or MYP have serious difficulties in adjusting.

Immersion in the IB is more, then, than studying a curriculum and gaining a qualification. At its heart is an educational philosophy. You may not agree with this philosophy; in which case there are many other programmes of study or, more accurately, qualifications, from which to choose. But it is (for what it’s worth) my belief, as it is that of thousands of educationalists, school and university teachers around the world, that the IB offers the prospect of an outstanding international education which prepares students for life in general, as well as university and the world of work.

Perhaps I should pass all this information on to some education journalists.