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‘The world needs the International Baccalaureate’

By Sir Anthony Seldon

Fifty years since its inception, British schools need the IB now more than ever, writes one leading educationalist

The IB was created 50 years ago “to develop young people … to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect”. The IB has done its job well in the years since, even if the world hasn’t always done so.

The IB, in its different programmes for different age groups, very quickly became, by a considerable margin, the best school curriculum and assessment system in the world. British education would be immeasurably richer if all schools were to adopt it.

The belief persists that it is an independent school phenomenon. Yet, nearly as many state schools offer IB as independent/international schools.

We need the IB more than ever in Britain, and we need our entire school curriculum, extracurricula life and assessment system to become much more like the IB. Let me explain why.

Schools have narrowed their focus to the passing of exams that are not attuned to the world of employment that young people will be facing. We know from study after study, most recently the Oxford Martin/Nesta 2018 report, that jobs in the future will be very different, even if we don’t know exactly how. But we already can be certain there will be less emphasis on purely cognitive, “left brain” skills, which are precisely the qualities that the current British exam system highlights and celebrates.

The IB offers its students a much greater educational emphasis upon individual initiative, personal responsibility, imagination and problem-solving, all skills future employment will require.

League tables’ emphasis misplaced

The thinking about the purpose of education across the world has moved in the direction of the IB. Andreas Schleicher, head of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), has in the past five years recognised that the literacy, numeracy and science tests on which Pisa has been basing its assessment have been far too restrictive. He has been adapting its testing regimes to put greater emphasis on collaborative working, personal skills and creativity. Again, the IB got there 50 years ago.

The past 10 years have seen an upsurge across the world of interest in the development in schools of character, resilience and grit, associated with the work of Martin Seligman and Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania. They have shown that the skills of character, personal judgement and wellbeing can be taught to students at schools, and in so doing, they make school communities more civilised places; they develop skills that students will need to manage their lives at university and beyond; and skills that will help them at work. Again, with the IB learner profile, the IB got there 50 years ago.

The IB is needed to combat the deeply worrying trend in the past five years towards nationalism, xenophobia and populism, where strong male leaders manipulate truth in their own interests in a way that we have not seen since the collapse of communism at the end of the 1980s. The IB, with its focus on global understanding and cultural diversity, is needed more than ever. The IB’s theory of knowledge helps students to understand the difference between truth and falsehood far better than any other education system.

The fifth and final reason why we need the IB is because of the fast-approaching fourth education revolution, where artificial intelligence (AI) will transform the way that we learn in schools and universities, and the ways in which we negotiate the world. The present school curriculum is based upon learning the right information to be reproduced at the right time in exactly the right way in tests and exams. In my 30 years in schools, I saw how young people had their individuality and personal insights knocked out of them by a system that was only interested in them delivering the “right” answer. GCSEs and A levels are grounded upon this passive way of thinking. Yet AI, as we already see in Satnav, takes over our need to think for ourselves. AI does our thinking for us.

If we persist with passive learning, as at present, AI will eat us alive within just a few years. We will rely on the machines to tell us how to think, what to feel, what to do and how to behave. In contrast, the IB, in all its forms, helps young people learn how to think for themselves. Yet again, the IB is ahead.

The IB has proved again and again that it was ahead of its time. It is still ahead of its time. Britain and the world need the IB.

Anthony Seldon is vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham and author of  The Fourth Education Revolution. He spoke at Educating for a Better Future at the RSA in London, an event to mark the 50th anniversary of the IB.

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