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King Edward's prepares for move to IB

01 October 2009

Chief Master and Old Edwardian, John Claughton, wrote the following article about the International Baccalaureate for the Birmingham Post last month.  King Edward's will be the first major independent school in the UK to fully move over to IB when it makes the move next September.

Matthew Arnold ends his poem ‘On Dover Beach' with the lines: ‘And we are here as on a darkling plain Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night.'

Well, it's not quite as bad as that in secondary education, but some days it can seem pretty ‘darkling' and ‘confused'.

Ever since Tony Blair produced the rhetoric of ‘education, education, education', there has been nothing but change, change, change in education: academies, diplomas, curriculum change, initiative upon initiative. The most significant event for older pupils was the birth, premature and under-planned, of Curriculum 2000 and AS.

This change had two purposes. It was designed as a stepping-stone from GCSE to A Levels so that more young people stayed in academic education for longer. It was also intended to broaden the students' academic experience, involving four subjects, not three. Perhaps some of those aims have been fulfilled, but so has much else that is less desirable.

AS brought more and more exams: students now face public exams in each of their last three years at school. AS brought modules: each subject is examined in smaller pieces, devaluing joined up thinking.

AS brought the world of retakes, the chance to retake weak modules once or even twice (or even thrice). So, an energetic - or desperate - candidate can sit exams three, even four times in a two-year programme.

Finally, AS, brought, or at least contributed to, grade inflation: if a candidate can take exams in bite-size portions and then have two bites at those portions, the chances are that he/she will do better in the end.

There has been massive ‘progress' in these years in exam performance and, of course, the Government insists that this is the result of better standards. It just is not so. There has simply been grade inflation and the results of the very best schools tell that story.

In 2000, only five schools gained more than 90 per cent A and B grades at A Level and to come top, you needed a mere 91.48 per cent A and B grades. In 2009, 62 schools - 12 times as many - gained more than 90 per cent of A and B grades and to come top, you needed 98.99 per cent. And the 2009 list doesn't even include several of the best schools: they don't even want their success to be published. Independent schools may have improved, but not that much.

These changes may mean education is more accessible to more young people, or it may be ‘dumbing down'. Either way, it is a change, massive and undeniable.

It's pretty similar with GCSEs. First, it was coursework, to reduce the strain of examinations. Of course, coursework makes sense in some subjects: in art or design & technology you need time to produce something of substance, but what's the point of maths coursework? Now it's modules, clogging the academic years 10 and 11 with exams, retakes and revision, just like Years 12 and 13. Not everyone is all that keen on learning, but it certainly beats revising.

Each one of these changes, imposed from above, has had a huge impact on children from 15 upwards: more exams, but less substance, more learning but less thinking, more revision but less teaching, more hoops but less challenge, more A grades but less chance for the best to shine, more data but less information for universities to choose the right applicants. That's the way it is.

So, how should schools respond on this ‘darkling plain'? There is no single, obvious solution: we are seeing a remarkable, perhaps frightening, fragmentation of what schools can provide, particularly in independent schools, because they have the independence to act. However, it isn't just independent schools that are on the move.

At GCSE, there is an alternative for schools, IGCSE, International GCSEs. These exams, designed for the world market, offer a substantial challenge to the brightest children. Unspoilt by progress and unaffected by government interference, they have retained their substance and design, more demanding material, no coursework, no modules, better preparation for further study.

King Edward's School has been doing IGCSE in mathematics and science for four years now and we're convinced that our boys have benefited hugely in knowledge and understanding.

This term, we have started on IGCSE English, English literature, French, German, Spanish and music. By 2011, most boys at King Edward's will end up with at least 7 IGCSEs.

There is one drawback in this pursuit of wisdom: in the space/time continuum inhabited by the authorities, IGCSE results don't exist, so we don't register in any GCSE league table. So be it.

At 16+, it isn't so easy. Some have decided to stay with A Levels and to enhance them with the AQA Baccalaureate. Others, quite a small group so far, have been more radical, introducing the Cambridge pre-U, an entirely new qualification designed to restore some of the ancient values of substance and rigour. And then there is the International Baccalaureate Diploma or IB.

In September 2010 King Edward's will be - IB permitting - the first major independent school in this country to abolish A Levels entirely and take up the IB Diploma. IB isn't new: it has been going across the world for 40 years. Nor is it small: it is studied in 2,721 schools in 138 countries and there are 200 schools in this country offering it. By September 2010, that number will have risen to 400. Nor is it just for independent schools: half of the schools teaching IB are state schools.

However, it is different. The exams are at the end of two years: no more modules or retakes, but more time for teachers to teach the subject as they would want.

It is free from Government interference and, strange to say, there has been no grade inflation in the last 40 years. However, there are bigger reasons.

The most significant difference is that every pupil must study six subjects, including English, another language, maths, a science, a humanities subject. It is the end of the ancient world of narrow specialisation at 16.

It also encourages independent learning through an extended essay, activity beyond lessons through the programme of Creativity, Action and Service, while at the core of the entire diploma is the study of the theory of knowledge.

So why should a school like King Edward's do it? In every IB school we have visited, there has been a sense of excitement, energy and a return to intellectual challenge.

We are fortunate in the ability of our pupils and they need that excitement and challenge. We also believe that, in a complex world where no question can be answered through one discipline, this is the best way to prepare our pupils for the world that lies ahead of them, a world that has its own ‘confused alarms'.

* John Claughton is Chief Master atKing Edward's School, Edgbaston