Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
Image of Hilary Wilce

Exam gamble: state school replaces A level with International Baccalaureate

Published By: The Independent - 21 May 2009


Dr Stephen Manning doesn't look like a revolutionary but two years ago he did something no other secondary school head has ever done. He scrapped A levels at a stroke and turned his entire sixth form over to the International Baccalaureate.

At the time his school, Barton Court Grammar School, in Canterbury, had the ninth best results in the country. “But A levels are a poor and limited preparation for life,” he says. “They are unrelated, unbalanced and isolated and there's nothing non-academic in them at all.”

In contrast, he believes the IB allows students to continue a broad base of subjects, teaches them to think for themselves, and encourages them to develop as rounded individuals. It is also blessedly free of government interference.

But it was a leap in the dark. Seven other schools and colleges offered A levels within a mile of the school “and all the staff except one or two were saying it wouldn't work.”

“I really thought he was going over the top,” agrees Moira Driscoll, IB diploma coordinator. “I thought we should do it, but on a trial basis only. I really thought we could lose our sixth form.”

In fact the opposite happened. The school hoped that about 90 students would come on board. One hundred and twenty signed up. And since then not only have numbers gone up but the school has seen a unexpected influx of nearly two dozen highly motivated and independent-minded young people from all over Europe and beyond, who have come to get an international education in a UK setting, and in the process transformed this traditional Kent grammar school sixth form into something more like a high-flying global college.

These overseas students find the school on the IB website and come over to stay with host families or relatives, and include students like 17-year-old Moritz Kampmann, from Germany, in flight from the limitations of the German arbitur, who came for one year and is now staying for two, and Afua Frimpong, 17, from Ghana, who came because her mum sent her and who “doesn't like change” but who now loves doing the IB at Barton Court. “You learn so many things and we've had some great debates on things about ethics.” Then there's Sandra Langedal, 17, from Norway, who didn't like school at home but now looks forward to it every morning, Gwenaelle (two dots over the middle e) Cuisin, 17, from France, who says her English was “absolutely crap” when she came but who now talks nineteen to the dozen, and Karina Kurtoba, 17, who is half-Ukranian, runs a class teaching her fellow students Russian, and has her eye on studying politics at Oxbridge.

Add these to the mix of locl Kent students like 17-year-old George Davis, who likes the IB “because I didn't know what I wanted to do and this keeps things open” and Jess Lane, 16, who loves the freedom “to come at subjects from your own perspective” and it adds up to a cheerful, highly-motivated and engaging group of young people who clamour say how much they feel like they are part of “a community”, “a village”, and “like we are all together in something special and different.”

IB students do three main subjects and three minor ones, and these must include maths, English and a foreign language, although any of these can be done at a lower level -- at Barton Court, some students study languages that are new to them, like Chinese and Italian. They study theory of knowledge, which includes philosophy and ethics, and write an extended essay on anything they like. Game theory and the independence of America are among the subjects chosen by current students.

They also have to do a certain number of hours of so-called CAS work - creative, action and service activities. For Barton Court pupils these include sports that students do in their own time, running a project for a local festival, and teaching in dozens of local primary schools.

“And I think it is this, especially the service element, that gives them all that sense of being human beings in common, and makes them feel special, “says Moira Driscoll. “It's the doing something, the exposure to other areas, that matures them and gives them a wider optic.”

Staff at the school came on board after they went on IB training to Athens and everyone at the school now seems delighted with how it is going. “Word about it has spread very quickly. You go into a conference and people say 'Oh you do the IB now, don't you?'” says deputy head, Penny Winston. As a result, other schools are trekking to Canterbury to see how it is done.

But the school is adamant that all or nothing is the only way go. At present about 180 schools in the UK offer the IB diploma, but almost all run it alongside A levels, and even Sevenoaks School, the independent school which is well-known for running the IB, only phased out A levels once the IB was long-established. “But if you have large numbers you can lay all the options on,” says Stephen Manning, “and it suits all of the ability range that is destined for university, so any school could do it with their sixth form.”

It also allows a school to allocate resources so it can support students properly. Barton Court has an IB co-ordinator, two student mentors and Andy Jeffries, who liaises with the community to set up CAS activities. “Many of our students who have done well under the IB are not the high-fliers,” he says. “It brings out different things in people.”

A few students have objected to doing maths or a foreign language, “although interestingly not a single one has objected to having to do English,” says Moira Driscoll.

The only problem so far has been that some university admissions tutors have pitched offers to students at a much higher level than A level students would be asked for. When that has happened, the school has made a phone call to explain the IB to the university concerned.

In fact Barton Court is so delighted with the switch it is now planning to extend the IB framework throughout the school. Pupils will still take GCSEs, “but it will be taught in an IB way, with loads of cross-curricular work” says Stephen Manning. This follows in the wake of another whole-school innovation - the timetable now runs on three 100-minute lessons a day.

A few students have dropped out, but those who have stayed praise the way it has helped them think for themselves and organise their time. A number have radically changed their ambitions as a result of following a broad span of subjects and although they say it's a lot of work compared to their friends doing traditional A levels, “It's like, who's going to have the last laugh, really,” says George Davis. “This prepares us for university much better.”