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Eight years on: Reflecting on bringing the IB into our school

John Claughton interviews Henry Coverdale at King Edward’s School (KES) in Birmingham, England

Henry Coverdale

John Claughton

John: Since implementing the IB Diploma Programme in 2010, how has school performance changed?

Henry: It took us a couple of years to ‘get it right’, but the move to IB Diploma Programme (DP) has undoubtedly been a key factor in rejuvenating the academic life of King Edward’s school. And while we often bemoan league tables as a terrible evil, it’s impossible not to note the dramatic rise we have seen and the remarkable consistency of our position.

John: What have been the advantages for KES pupils in studying the DP?

Henry: Pupils are undoubtedly attracted by the benefits offered in gaining access to the very best universities both in the UK and overseas—we’ve found that the DP opens up scholarships and credit towards courses. University offers have been very achievable and fair, and this has only improved over the last eight years as universities have worked more closely with schools and groups such as the IB Schools and Colleges Association (IBSCA) to attract DP candidates.

Entry to these universities has risen dramatically too. Over the last five years we have averaged nearly twenty Oxbridge places per year and the same number of medics and dentists, most of our pupils are going to Russell Group universities to study a wide variety of courses, with a relatively stable balance between science, economics and business, humanities and languages.

For our teachers, the benefit of seeing more pupils studying a wider variety of subjects and developing a broad skillset is certainly a draw. I have been lucky enough to move between classes where discussions on Brexit take place in economics class and then discover an examination of the problems that chaos theory might bring to a mathematician trying to model the movement of the planets accurately taking place in a theory of knowledge (TOK) class. That sort of variety and engagement with pupils is a rare thing and, when coupled with the clear philosophy from the IB on pupils developing critical thinking, global awareness and independence, is a compelling proposition for any teacher.

Equally, the different ways of thinking that are nurtured by this diverse curriculum means that pupils experience new approaches to their chosen specialist fields. That my economics students are reading Down and Out in Paris and London in their English class whilst looking at poverty alleviation with me, brings fresh perspective to lessons.

The alumni I speak to recognise the value of components like the extended essay. To go to university having been actively taught how to reference in an academic style, conduct a literature review and develop research means they are well ahead of their contemporaries and able to focus on the content at university rather than learning an academic style.

John: How do your staff feel about the shift they’ve made to teaching the DP?

Henry: It’s fair to say that staff opinion was split in the early days, especially as we were ‘learning the ropes’ of how to develop the diploma. There are still some aspects they would like to see addressed, such as those pupils doing two sciences not being able to take an arts subject, which creates a perennial concern that, in a science-heavy school, the arts get pushed to the extracurricular. However, eight years in, staff have seen the benefits that the DP has brought to all pupils and recognise the value that building a post-16 curriculum from an educational philosophy brings. The linguists are, of course, delighted to see every pupil take a language through to 18, since they have seen their subjects more than decimated nationally.

John: What are the challenges of offering the DP—be honest?

Henry: For all its flexibility there do remain some rigidities, I mentioned earlier the arts playing second fiddle and therefore requiring extra-curricular commitment. This is addressed partially by the creativity, activity, service (CAS) requirement, and that has meant that the school choir and orchestras have never been better, but their teachers would value more taking the examined curriculum. There are ways to offset this slightly, with cross group courses and canny choices, but it’s not perfect.

Similarly, for all the benefits that come with a rigorous higher level (HL) mathematics course, we would like to see more mechanics. Our students often take the DP physics course where kinematics and suchlike are covered. With all the upheavals in A levels, we will see how their new mathematics course compare with the DP mathematics (HL) course. Students taking DP mathematics (HL) can be proud that they have achieved a genuinely international standard of mathematics.

And the many changes to A levels are making more parents willing to listen to the arguments for DP. The University Admissions Officers (ASC) report 2017 showed university admissions tutors believed the IB diploma was almost twice as likely to develop a pupil’s ability to undertake independent inquiry compared to A level and almost four times as likely to nurture an open mind. Similarly, the Presidents of both the Institute of Engineering and Technology, Naomi Climer and the Royal Society, Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, have both referred to the narrowness of A levels. As such opinions and ideas gather momentum amongst universities and employers it is inconceivable that A levels can continue without significant further reform, which can only benefit the IB side of the debate.

John Claughton is Development Officer at the IB Schools and Colleges Association (IBSCA) in the UK. Henry Coverdale is Assistant Head (Post 16 & Digital Strategy) at King Edward’s School in Birmingham, UK.

Credit for the Henry Coverdale photograph: David Ash