When the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma was founded in 1968, it was intended as a global “passport” to university study for the children of diplomats and other expatriate families.
Devised by international school teachers on progressive educational principles, the qualification was studied by a handful of students for the first time in 1970.
But five decades on and the IB – headquartered in Geneva – has become a prestigious educational brand that reaches far beyond its traditional international school base.
From small beginnings, there are now 3,352 schools offering the IB Diploma in 156 different countries, and the number of diploma programmes increased by 32 per cent between 2012 and 2017.
Over the years, the IB organisation has branched out into offering education for all levels of schooling, and a total of 5,139 schools now run one or more programmes.
But what is the IB Diploma, and what sets it apart from competitors such as the narrower international and standard A levels and the US’s Advance Placement tests?
Dissecting the diploma
An intensive two-year programme for 16- to 19-year-olds, the IB Diploma requires candidates to take six subjects, including at least three at higher level.
These include a balance between science, arts, maths, languages and humanities subjects.
Students must also complete three core requirements including theory of knowledge (TOK), creativity, activity and service (CAS) – including voluntary work – and a 4,000-word extended essay.
The aim is to create fully-rounded citizens prepared for the research and critical thinking required for university study; an idea that education providers are buying into.
But Stuart Bond, deputy head of St Catherine’s British School in Athens, Greece, says it offers even more than that.
“As a school, with the theory of knowledge, the CAS activities, there’s this idea of making the world a better place and we are very tied into the IB philosophy and dream really.”
The diploma’s sister programmes, including the primary and middle years programmes for younger students, and the career-related programme for older candidates, embrace this philosophy and all are growing.
But in which countries and school types is the IB most popular and growing fastest?
The US is the leading IB country, and figures for all programmes are rising. A total of 947 largely state schools now offer the diploma there.
In Chicago, IB programmes are being used as a way to entice able students to attend their local, non-selective neighbourhood schools and also improve outcomes for low-income students.
Indeed, the US and Canada account for 43 per cent of all schools worldwide that offer at least one of the IB programmes.
Perhaps surprisingly, Ecuador is second in the world after the US in terms of the number of schools offering the diploma.
Governmental enthusiasm for the qualification as a mechanism to improve state education system as a whole means the IB is now available in 270 Ecuadorian schools.
There has also been IB growth in the surging number of international schools.
Figures from market analysts ISC Research show numbers of such schools have risen from 7,763 to 10,438 in the past five years, and all leading international curricula and exams are growing to mirror this.
But Dr Siva Kumari, director general of the IB, stresses there is even stronger growth elsewhere: the number of non-international private and state schools offering any of the IB programmes has grown on average 12 per cent annually over the past five years.
Private school growth, she says, is being driven by “middle- and high-income citizens of a country who are looking for a global certification, a global education.”
She adds: “It will be either very valuable to the workplace or they are looking to go and get educated elsewhere and come back.”
Of the 185,000 candidates sitting the IB Diploma exams this year, half were from state schools and half from private institutions.
Dr Kumari explains that the leading countries for growth in diploma programmes in the past five years are Japan (an average 20 per cent per year) China, Peru and Turkey (16 per cent a year) and Spain (14 per cent per year).
Big in Japan
In Japan, a government project to establish IB programmes in 200 schools has reached 71 schools, including 46 offering the diploma.
Dr Kumari says: “Eight years back, Japan was transforming from a country that was inward looking and said they wanted to really create global citizens, they want to open up the minds of the country to other ways of thinking…and that’s when they looked around and said, ‘This is the way we want to go.’”
Despite nations looking towards the IB to improve their own education systems, Dr Kumari stresses: “We don’t want to be a country’s [whole] examination system…we really make it very clear we want to be a thin slither of an alternative so that there is a conversation in the country about other forms of education…we want the IB to be adopted organically in the country…and be a really good example of education.”
This belief in the organic spread of the IB explains the patchy distribution of IB schools across the world, where North America dominates and there is low take-up across Africa, for example.
Several moves by the IB to make the Diploma less expensive for schools to run – such as its recent announcement it would axe the $172 /£138 "candidate registration" fee – aim to increase the appeal to a broader range of schools.
A lack of funds in the UK
Despite this growth across the world, the United Kingdom has seen a dramatic decline in number of schools offering the IB Diploma.
According to the academic Tristan Bunnell, from the University of Bath, the number of schools offering the IB Diploma programme in the UK peaked in 2010, when it was offered by around 230 schools, including about 140 state and 90 private schools. The IB’s website now shows that this figure stands at just 99 schools.
However, figures provided by the International Baccalaureate Schools and Colleges Association (IBSCA) in the UK suggest the number of students taking the full IB Diploma (or elements of it) is stable at 4,784 candidates this year.
Headteachers have put the fall in the number of schools down to funding cuts that mean it isn't viable to run A levels and IB side by side.
A number of schools dropping A levels and going IB-only has helped to maintain student take-up.
But there also seems to have been a lack of political will to ensure its growth.
Siva Kumari’s additional theory is that there has simply been too much change for English schools to handle in recent years: “We wish there would be more adoption in the public schools in the UK, but it seems to go through huge reform swings.
"I don’t know if that works with us because we are a very steady, change-over-time international curriculum, and when nations are attempting to change their educational agenda quite quickly it’s kind of hard to keep up.”
Despite this, the UK, alongside the UAE, is fuelling the growth for the IB’s career-related programme – launched in 2012 – and 47 UK schools now offer it.
This programme works under the same principles as the diploma but focuses on vocational learning as well as academic study and a “core”, including a reflective project looking at an ethical issue.
A broader approach
Robert Tibbott, chief executive of IBSCA, describes the career-related programme as “an exciting opportunity” that “fills a gap in the market” for students who needed something broader than standard vocational qualifications.
So, beyond the statistics, what do schools and students actually think of the IB Diploma?
Interestingly, a lot of the praise comes from the UK, where many schools see it as a perfect foil to the tight specialisation offered by A levels.
Stephen Elphick, headteacher of Bexley Grammar School in London, likes it so much his school went IB Diploma-only in 2017.
The school had been running it side-by-side with A levels for around 15 years, but had struggled to get its IB numbers beyond 30 or 40 per cent.
He says: “I realised this is because if you ask a 15- or 16-year-old if they want to do a comprehensive, intensive programme with service, or just do four A levels and maybe drop to three, most of them don’t want to go for the full monty.”
But he has found many benefits, and not just for the most high-flying students.
Contrary to the popular view, he says the IB Diploma also seemed to work well for sixth-form students who had struggled with A levels.
“We restarted them on IB; it’s counterintuitive but it was easier to put a programme together that suited them.
“They came out with low scores for the IB, but the university offers they could command were better than what they would have had with A levels – we got some tremendous offers.”
‘Lunacy’ to concentrate on just three subjects
Above all, Mr Elphick explains, the IB takes away the need to specialise at such a young age.
“That's what I love about it. At the age of 16 it’s lunacy to ask people to concentrate on three subjects and drop everything else.”
He admits that time management is tricky at IB, but some students really “thrive” on it.
“IB is incredibly inclusive if they can cope with the workload. The depth they go to in the higher subjects is similar to A level. It’s not easier or harder, it’s just different.”
At the Anglo European School, a state comprehensive in Essex, UK, co-headteacher Jody Gee believes that running the IB Diploma helps the school plug into a global network of teachers.
“An advantage of being an IB World School when we advertise for posts, we may well get applicants that other comprehensive schools may not get.
"They might come from international schools or from other schools where they have taught IB previously and they value that course and they want to continue teaching it.”
Meanwhile, at St Catherine’s British School in Athens, Stuart Bond says the IB now has “excellent recognition” from universities in the US and UK, even in the sciences and engineering where universities were “slower to get on board”.
The focus on foreign languages in the IB Diploma – all candidates must study at least one – appealed to his linguistically able students, he said.
Although he offered one word of warning: the final two terms of the IB could become “very intensive” for all students and teachers involved.
“It can have then a knock-on effect on the other year groups you have to teach because everybody’s so focused on this really major challenge. It does pose logistical challenges but I personally think the pay-offs are worth it.”
A recognised qualification
Despite concerns some top universities have been setting their IB Diploma requirements unfairly high, both Oxford and Cambridge make it clear that they accept the qualification.
In the 2018-19 academic year Cambridge admitted a total of 174 students with the IB Diploma.
A total of 53 were from the UK, 39 from the EU and a further 82 were international.
A spokeswoman for the University of Oxford says: “We do not view either of these qualifications [IB and A Level] as ‘better’ than the other, since both are eligible for entry, and all applications are considered very carefully on their individual merits.”
But what do employers think of this broad-ranging qualification?
In the UK at least, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) says it wants to see more of the skills the IB programmes promote in members’ young employees.
John Cope, head of education and skills, said that IB programmes were specifically designed to boost knowledge, character and skills – three key areas valued by employers.
He said the CBI was exploring how the “English Baccalaureate” (EBacc) suite of recommended GCSE subjects sat at aged 16 could be “expanded to include more creative subjects and more real-world experiences”.
He adds: “It’s not a case of copy and pasting the IB into our system but actually can we adapt the EBacc to absorb some of the best bits of the IB?”
Indeed, the idea of education worldwide being inspired by the principles behind the IB is part of what drives its director general.
Dr Kumari says: “We have been ahead of the curve of making the point in the world that education is not just about content, students are not data points for a mark...we’ve waved this flag to say that education is more than about getting into college, it’s for the long term.”
The aim, she says, is that by teaching students to think critically and ask the right questions, the IB produces “a young scholar who is ready for the world.”
Irena Barker is an education writer. She tweets at @irenabarker