The International Baccalaureate has gone backwards in Britain partly because of Michael Gove’s hostility to the programme when he was education secretary, a former Conservative minister has claimed.
Lord Willetts, who was minister for universities and science between 2010 and 2014, suggested that Mr Gove disliked the IB because he thought it represented “rootless cosmopolitan education not grounded in the history of this country”.
Lord Willetts also said England’s system of narrowing the curriculum at age 16 was “ludicrous”, and that A levels should be broadened out to allow most students to sit exams in five or six subjects.
The number of British schools providing the IB has plummeted over the last decade, although there has been an increase in pupil entries.
In 2018 just 110 UK schools had pupil entries for IB programmes aimed at 16-to 19-year olds, compared to 230 in 2008.
Speaking at an event hosted by the IB Schools and Colleges Association, Lord Willetts – a supporter of the qualification – said the cause of the IB was “retreating”.
He continued: “Why is that? There are some specific reasons.
“I know – I wasn’t present in the discussion but I have it on good authority – that Michael Gove as education secretary disapproved of the IB.
“‘International’, ‘baccalaureate’ – rootless cosmopolitan education not grounded in the history of this country and its canonical body of knowledge.
"There is a kind of High Tory critique…do we want skills to be separated from people’s cultural and historical identity?”
Lord Willetts said that the IB had also been hurt by opposition from the Treasury.
“If you want to save money you narrow – the whole English model is you save money by getting people through their education quickly, and specialising helps to get them in and out the door quickly.”
Lastly, he said the IB had failed to prosper because of the “unusual power” wielded by universities in the English educational system.
“The A level is an emanation of universities choosing who to admit,” he said. “[Academics] look for people who already know a lot about that subject and have already displayed an aptitude for it.”
Lord Willetts said that forcing students to narrow to just a handful of subjects at A level was “ludicrous” and “absurd”.
Asked by Tes whether he wanted to see a shake-up of the post-16 exam system to widen it out along the lines of the IB, he said: “I would like to see a broader range of subjects studied by students.
“Though I love the IB,” Lord Willetts said, “it is unlikely to be the way a nationwide system goes” because “there’s no appetite for some big change at the moment”.
He said: “What I would do is I would keep A levels, keep the name A levels, and say…‘We love A levels so much and are so committed to A levels, we think it’s a scandal that people can only do three of them'. The future is a five A level option, you might even get to six A levels.”
Lord Willetts said that the increasing trend for universities to offer liberal arts courses could help drive a broader A-level curriculum.
“I hope that just as universities have driven the approach of the old system, as we now have students voting and choosing courses that are broader, this will drive change in university behaviour.
“Government should respond to it by expecting [students] to do more A levels.”
Mr Gove was contacted for comment.