IB results success can spur the evolution of A levels

This year's IB Diploma results show how the qualification was better placed to weather the Covid storm, says Amal Hirani

Amal Hirani

IB results 2021: How the International Baccalaureate could reshape A levels

Last week students across the globe celebrated high scores in the International Baccalaureate Diploma with the average score rising to 33.02 points, up from 31.34 in May 2020.

At Southbank International School in London, where I teach, students achieved outstanding results, with a pass rate of 100 per cent and an average of 37.6.

The International Baccalaureate should be applauded for its swift action to alter the way in which it assessed students, taking the bold decision to remove content, change paper lengths and amend course expectations.

And at a time when educational reform is high on the national agenda, this year’s results illustrate that the IB has much to offer as an alternative to A levels and a curriculum that has withstood the turbulence caused by Covid more effectively due to the holistic way it uses assessment.

IB results: The benefits of the International Baccalaureate 

For each subject the IB offers greater focus on coursework, be that through oral assignments for languages, projects for the sciences and maths or field studies for geography, equipping students with skills for university and the working world.

But it’s not just about ensuring graduates go on to study at Ivy League or Russell Group universities or get jobs with big salaries. The IB is unique in the way it encourages independent learning and nurtures enquiring minds.

From the age of 3, students are taught to be inquisitive and not just accept the status quo.

Each week they are encouraged to present ideas to their peers, helping to build confidence and the resilience to take on board feedback and alternative perspectives.

These are the kinds of attributes that prepare young people for the real world, be that in further education or the workplace.

A different assessment model

This is all especially pertinent now, given the huge impact of the pandemic on education and the major changes with the way that students are assessed.

But while both A levels and the IB set curriculum guides, the former has historically been far more focused on final exams in order to grade students.

The problem with a system that is judged on exams is when you try and move to a different model of assessment – as we have seen this year with A levels – it’s difficult to make it work.

A levels are historically centred around the acquisition of knowledge and being able to understand something.

Knowledge in action

What sets the IB apart, however, is the way in which it equips students with higher-order thinking skills – the ability to evaluate information, to synthesise and create new ideas.

An example of authentic assessment, IB coursework teaches students how to critically evaluate a question and how to solve a problem. There is less prescription and more freedom, requiring students to use the same competencies they would need to apply in professional life, further consolidating the view that the IB better prepares young people for the working world.

And let’s not forget, the working world is changing rapidly. Digital skills are paramount today, as is an appreciation for diversity and inclusivity, something that is reflected in the IB curriculum.

The result is a system that encourages openness to the outside world, a readiness to see other points of view and an acceptance of people who may be different from ourselves.

Offering a breadth of subjects, perspectives and opportunities, the IB provides the perfect stepping stone to the real world, where inclusivity and diversity must be celebrated.

This is where policymakers should be looking if they want to update A levels or, indeed, GCSEs for the years ahead – something that seems especially pressing amid the ongoing catch-up narrative and the need to rethink education delivery

Changing the rhetoric

After all, while no one can deny that the education of our young people has been affected by the pandemic, it’s important not to ignore the positives from the past year; students have had to be resilient, flexible and adaptable.

They have embraced technology and have had to think for themselves more than ever before. We must harness some of these skills, rather than focusing on what has been lost.

Yes, students may have fallen behind government benchmarks, but the truth is, these are arbitrary benchmarks. What’s needed is a recalibration of expectations and greater support for students in putting it back together. 

The problem of equity remains for all of us. Students who could not access remote learning need to be the focus and the rhetoric needs to swing further from "lost learning" to "how can we close the gap"?

This was a gap that was prevalent before Covid and it has only been exacerbated by recent events.

A curriculum that can offer more flexible and authentic assessment can definitely help – which is why the success of the IB results should make those in Whitehall, or indeed anywhere else in the world, sit up and take notice.

Amal Hirani is deputy principal, Diploma programme, at Southbank International School

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