When I joined Scarborough College as Head, one of the things that attracted me about the post was the fact that the College teaches the International Baccalaureate in the sixth form. Nor does it fudge by running A Levels alongside, a bold move one might say.
My interest in the diploma had arisen due to a growing disillusionment with the A Level exam system. With 25% of students gaining A grades and top universities complaining about the difficulty of discerning between students who are genuinely able and those who are merely well drilled, one had to question the notion of the “gold standard” that A Level purported to represent. Looking across the education sector, it was clear that many sticking plasters were being applied.
However, all these measures were failing to recognise that the A Level examinations with their narrow focus, modular structure and almost endless opportunities for re-sits simply were no longer fit for purpose.
The distinguishing features of the International Baccalaureate are firstly, its unequivocal global perspective (absolutely vital in today’s world) and its broad ranging curriculum (equally vital for young people facing the certainty of an uncertain world). Furthermore, the IB represents a philosophy which permeates through any school, embracing ideas and having a compulsory philosophy course at its heart; it is no mere examination system, it is an education in itself.
I spent 30 years teaching A Level and I look back with regret to the more open and rigorous syllabuses of the past, but going backwards is never an answer and I would argue that the whole concept of students studying three subjects at advanced level is no longer fit for the modern world. Look around, and we will find that this is a uniquely English concept anyway; our friends in Scotland have long since enjoyed the scope of the Scottish Highers as being a better preparation for higher study.
Last but not least, the biggest misconception about the IB is that it is only for high fliers. Here at Scarborough College, we know this is not the case. Anyone capable of following an academic A Level course, can do the IB which encompasses the inestimable advantage of including maths, a science and a language within it. The students follow a stimulating curriculum and ensure that vital skills are not abandoned too soon. Universities all over the world are available to them and statistics indicate that UK universities have not been slow to see the quality of their IB students.
The education sector as a whole is suffering from a collective lack of courage in hanging on to something that is broken. I would urge head teachers everywhere to stop trying to fix A Levels, just move on to something that is already working smoothly and effectively for young people; it will not fail them and your schools will be the better for it.
Isobel E Nixon (Mrs)
Head of Scarborough College