Disciple of global learning

10th March 2000 at 00:00
The man in charge of the international baccalaureate tells Sarah Cassidy why its future lies with poor children as well as the most privileged.

GEORGE Walker, the new director of the International Baccalaureate Organisation, credits his conversion from Hertfordshire headteacher to multi-national educator partly to The TES.

It was as a TES reporter that he returned to South Africa in 1990, 25 years after he first lived there as a graduate student.

By then head of a Hertfordshire comprehensive, he spent his half-term holiday in the schools of Cape Town's shanty towns, as well as those of the white middle classes, and returned to Britain a convert to the cause of international education.

He witnessed the rioting and student revolt but also saw the role schools were playing in breaking down apartheid.

He said: "This was my introduction to international education. It was very much as a result of that experience that I decided to apply for a job in this field. I saw a lot of multi-racial schools doing a fantastic job and felt I wanted to do something like that."

Shortly after his return to Britain, he relinquished his headship of the Cavendish school, Hemel Hempstead, to become director general of the International School in Geneva - where he stayed for eight years.

Today, at 58, the six-foot-one professor is now head of a 187-strong team which provides International Baccalaureate programmes for more than 1,000 schools in 100 countries.

The international baccalaureate was created in the 1960s out of concern for the globe-trotting children of high-flying diplomats and business people. The global economy was in its infancy but a growing number of families faced the dilemma of either leaving their children to be educated at home or risking disruption to their education by putting them through different national systems as the family moved around the world.

Its founders were also motivated by an idealistic vision: they hoped to foster tolerance and inter-cultural understanding among young people by giving them a shared academic experience.

The organisation now offers programmes for 5 to 18-year-olds, not just the renowned diploma for university entrance. And the future of the qualification, Professor Walker believes, lies not just with the educational elite but with emerging nations.

"It is emerging nations which need the IB but they are the ones who cannot afford it. It is expensive because we are international - with 3,000 examiners around the world, getting them together is expensive.

"We need to spread our message but it is difficult to avoid being seen as an exclusive, rather rich group of schools."

Professor Walker's parents were both teachers: his mother taught French and his father was the head of a Harrow primary.

After leaving Watford grammar, Walker went on to Exeter College, Oxford, where he studied chemistry.

He said: "The whole time I was at Oxford I was determined that whatever I did I was not going to become a teacher. I just wanted to do something different."

He had hopes of becoming a professional musician and spent a year studying the piano at the University of Cape Town. But to fund the trip he spent six months teaching English - "a subject I knew absolutely nothing about" - at a Watford secondary modern and he was bitten by the teaching bug.

When he returned from South Africa he became a science teacher at his old school, Watford grammar. After three years in the classroom he followed Harry Ree to York University as a lecturer in science education. He said: "I found that I loved science and was worried that I was losing touch." He stayed there until 1973 when he became deputy head of Carisbrooke high on the Isle of Wight.

As a co-founder of the Centre for the Study of Comprehensive Schools in 1980, he was in the thick of encouraging curriculum innovation and debate about comprehensive education.

He said: "I think we should be very proud of what we achieved. I look back with no sense of regret. I do not believe that a single second of that was wasted. We have a much broader curriculum with more emphasis on pastoral care than countries like France.

"I always felt that you should have a broad common curriculum and guarantee pupils a minimum entitlement - which is what attracts me to the IB now."

Colleagues, both past and present, say that it is Professor Walker's energy and capacity to inspire loyalty and enthusiasm from his staff, as well as his wide range of experience, which make him an ideal person to take the IB into a new era.

"If the job had been just about the IB diploma it would not have appealed to me," he says. What is really exciting about the IB is that we now have a primary and middle-years programme as well as the diploma.

"The IBO is really a flag-bearer for international education in a way that no other organisation is."

Professor Walker hopes the IBO can work with the government of a developing country, to influence its curriculum and help with teacher training.

"My dream is that we could find a school in Soweto to work with, with the proviso that they would then work with other schools so that they too benefit from the experience. For me that would be absolutely magical."

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