IB shakes off its elitist image

New certificate could bridge the gap between vocational and academic routes

The international baccalaureate's elitist cachet makes it the last qualification many people would expect to come to the rescue of vocational learning.

Overseen from a head office in Geneva, the IB diploma has been associated with private education or high-performing state schools attended by diplomats' children.

Indeed, its popularity with private schools has led to accusations that it is contributing to the splintering of Britain's education system.

Yet the strong IB brand might help it achieve what many governments have failed to do: introduce a unified system for academic and vocational learning.

The international baccalaureate career-related certificate (IBCC) now being trialled in 10 schools around the world is not actually a qualification in itself, but a wrapper to go with an existing vocational course such as a Btec.

To gain the certificate, pupils must also study a foreign language, an academic subject such as geography, and a critical thinking course. In addition, they must do community work and complete a "reflective project" on an ethical issue connected to their vocational studies.

Teenagers trialling the certificate at a school in Quebec are doing it on top of a police studies course.

But the first seven pupils to trial it in Britain may be having more fun. They are at Windermere St Anne's, a private school in the Lake District, which has its own water sports centre, where pupils spend many hours sailing and kayaking.

Every Monday they are outside, learning to be instructors in these and other sports, such as caving and hiking. Their study is built around Btec courses in sports and outdoor adventure education, worth up to four A-levels, which take up around 10 hours of their average fortnight.

To receive the IBCC, they must also spend 10 to 14 hours studying an academic subject - geography and business studies are most popular - and a foreign language. Some are studying Japanese, which may help them communicate with Lake District tourists, while others are learning German.

Jenny Davey, the school's director of curriculum, said: "The advantages it gives students who are more practically minded are phenomenal. They would not have had opportunities to learn languages at A-level, but this way they get to study Japanese and do a hands-on course that has rigour."

Although the number of private schools offering the academic IB diploma is estimated to have doubled in the past year, two-thirds of the 141 IB-accredited secondary schools are now in the state sector.

Some state schools are also keen to try the vocational IB, including the Havelock Academy in Grimsby, a school with a challenging intake and low GCSE results. It is also switching to the IB middle-years course for its 11 to 16-year-olds.

Nicholas O'Sullivan, its head, said the courses would help pupils become "globally aware", which is important in a port town with long-standing international links.

Ofqual, the qualifications watchdog, has accredited the pilot course, but Ucas has yet to decide on what extra points students will gain.

Judith Fabian, academic director of the International Baccalaureate Organisation, said: "We didn't realise until this year how enthusiastic schools were about this. The IB is seen as a very elitist qualification and we want to dispel that myth."

QUICK GUIDE TO THE BACCALAUREATES

- International baccalaureate career-related certificate

A "wrapper" qualification that sees pupils take a vocational course, such as Btec, and a foreign language, an academic subject, community work, an approaches-to-learning course and an ethics project. Available from 2011.

- International baccalaureate diploma

Pupils study six subjects, including a foreign language, a science and maths. They also write a 4,000-word essay, complete extra-curricular work and a course on the theory of knowledge.

- AQA baccalaureate

A wrapper qualification that sees pupils take three A-levels and a "broadening" AS such as citizenship. They also do an extended project and community work or work-related learning. Taken by 845 pupils in England last year.

- Welsh baccalaureate

At the advanced level, pupils need to do two A-levels. They must show competence in six skills, including communication, ICT and a language, and do work-related learning and community work. They also have to write a 1,600-word investigation report. The qualification is being introduced across Wales.

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