‘Dropping A levels was our Big Bang moment’

29th April 2016 at 00:00
One head says adopting the International Baccalaureate has transformed his school

IN THE past three years, three of the “old and bold” of King Edward’s School’s common room have retired: the head of English, the head of economics and our most senior maths teacher. They had 100 years’ service to the school between them.

It is an ancient custom that such departing heroes give leaving addresses to the common room. Each one of them used the moment to celebrate the new lease of life that teaching the International Baccalaureate Diploma had given them at the end of their careers, after decades of teaching A levels in decline.

This was no idle sycophancy – it was too late for that.

It’s fair to say that the IB Diploma had not been quite that popular in the beginning. In 2010, King Edward’s School had taken the radical, brave – and perhaps reckless – step to transition from A levels to 100 per cent IB in one “Big Bang” moment.

By 2012, the first year of results, we had a large building programme going on so there was plenty of hoarding space for that first cohort of IB candidates to paint the midnight slogan “IB: THOSE AGAINST – 799, THOSE IN FAVOUR – ONE”.

There were days when I wasn’t even sure about the “one”. There were some questions that needed to be answered about the IB Diploma, and now, four years down the line, I can offer up some explanations.

Why do it? Why would we take such a risk with a school of such stature and stability? After all, we are not a school with boarders or a cosmopolitan, risk-taking clientele…

Well, when I arrived as head in 2006, there was a sense, especially among the very same “old and bold”, that we had seen the best of our times in this school of great academic standing. The “life intellectual” had been lost with the passing of the years, with AS levels and modules, with retakes and grade inflation and dumbing down. So, we went in search of a better answer – and that answer appeared to be the IB Diploma.

It was an education, not a set of qualifications. It was an intellectual challenge – an exploration of ideas and not a set of hoops. It offered breadth when we were weary of specialisation. It was not the tormented creature of a government that constantly intervened. And the “international” bit seemed to make sense for a school that is as ethnically mixed as the city of Birmingham itself.

Why go for the “Big Bang” – changing everything at once? Why not have a period of duality, with A levels and IB together?

The simple answer is because we could. We were fortunate in the alignment of a number of key factors. The first was that we had a very able and homogeneous pupil population who could all, we believed and still believe, do well in the IB Diploma.

The second was that we had a very loyal and trusting parent and pupil body: when we explained to them why we wanted to give up on A levels and do IB, they believed in our arguments and in the school.

The third was that we had a common room that wanted change: the “old and bold” were not weary conservatives.

The fourth was that we had governors who had some belief in being better, too.

The final factor was we knew that, too often, the dual economy – IB and A levels – was a path that didn’t lead to the desired destination of 100 per cent IB. We were also mad.

To quote TS Eliot, “would it have been worth it, after all”?

Well, those same slogan-painters of 2012 are now finishing their degrees and one of them, Jimi, one of the great dissenters, returned last week to tell me how much the study of English had helped him in his engineering degree at Cambridge. How we laughed – and then I hit him.

Of course, I have to say “yes” to this question – and not just because of Jimi’s recantation. The IB Diploma is not all perfection, but nothing is. Higher-level maths is too hard and it is too easy to get cross with the marking of extended essays. Our boys work harder than ever before and the demands need constant managing. Some of our boys – a declining number – leave for the greener grass and easier life of A levels. But the majority of our teachers can see the value of it all, not least because they know that almost every subject is intellectually more challenging than its A-level counterpart.

We know that the boys are better prepared for university, and getting more – and better – offers from universities; the best institutions offering the toughest courses. It’s a matter of pride for us that every boy in the school studies maths, English, a language and a science for seven years. I even think that the boys are bigger, better human beings. And we don’t have to wait for the government to tell us what next year’s syllabus is going to be, or waste time worrying about Ofqual.

If the Royal Society and Sir Roy Anderson, of Imperial College London, produce weighty reports that support a baccalaureate-style, post-16 education, why would they be wrong? Specialisation must be yesterday’s idea.

If there does exist an education that aims to make a more peaceful world with students who “understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right”, why wouldn’t you give it a try? The IB isn’t a panacea for all pupils or all schools, but at least we are doing something we can believe in. That helps.

John Claughton is head of King Edward’s School, Birmingham

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