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FE Education
Baccalaureate faces its own test
Jon Boone

          When it comes to legal and education systems the rest of the world seems remarkably keen to adopt ideas developed by British experts that never quite catch on in the UK itself.
The European Convention on Human Rights was drawn up by clever British jurists at the end of the second world war but was not incorporated into British law until 1998. Winston Churchill called for the integration of Europe but never envisaged that Britain would join the European Community.
It was a British headmaster of Eton who largely created Germany's post-war education system and the International Baccalaureate was, despite its name and Geneva headquarters, originally devised by, yes, British educationalists in the 1960s.
Although it has enjoyed some strong growth in the UK in recent years, only about 2,000 Britons each year take the diploma exam -- the programme designed for 16 to 18-year-olds. Elsewhere, however, it has been enjoying what the IB Organisation (IBO) says is "double-digit growth". It has 200,000 students enrolled in its three programmes, which run from kindergarten through to the diploma, which 70,000 people sit each year.
It has done particularly well in the US -- now its largest market with 665 schools -- especially in states that allow schools to opt out of the national qualification system. Its success has even alarmed some on the paranoid outreaches of the American right who think the baccalaureate is a bit too European for comfort.
According to Andrew Bollington, strategic planning director at the IBO, demand for the exam over the past 20 years has been driven by the changing world.
"We are no longer in a cold war scenario where the IB was just for the sons and daughters of diplomats. Now we have business people moving round the world with their families the whole time. And parents from all countries have concerns about the quality of their national systems and want something with an international outlook."
Considering the frantic pace of globalisation, it is perhaps surprising that the only other provider of international examinations is the US College Board, which offers the Advanced Placement Programme that is taken by some non-US citizens keen to study in US universities.
But now another bunch of Brits is trying to challenge the IB's near monopoly on the provision of international education.
The so-called "Pre-U" exam is being drawn up by Cambridge International Examinations, a part of the Cambridge Assessment Group, which is itself a department of the famous university.
While a handful of top schools in the UK have expressed interest, it is the international market where demand is expected to be greatest.
Ann Puntis, chief executive of Cambridge International Examinations, echoes Bollington's view that the modern world requires children to have a much more cosmopolitan outlook.
"Parents feel that their children need a programme that's international and when they travel and work round the world it will be a passport for them."
She hopes the Pre-U will appeal to schools across the world by offering all the advantages of internationalism but also by being quite distinct from the baccalaureate.
The IB diploma is divided into higher- and lower-level subjects, with students spending more time studying the former. They also have to do an extended essay, a paper on the "theory of knowledge" that helps to give the exam its distinct intellectual edge, and to participate in artistic pursuits, sports and community service.
The famously broad exam forces students to pick from six different areas, which means they cannot get away with dropping maths, a science or a second language.
It is that breadth that this month (July) led the university admissions body in the UK to create a new tariff comparing A-levels with the 113 for the first time. In the experts' view, the academic rigour of the exam means an A-level student would have to get six and a half straight As to be the equivalent of the best IB candidate.
By contrast, Puntis says, the Pre-U will appeal to those who want "breadth and depth".
"Schools are telling us that they like the flexibility it will give students to design their own curriculum in a way that allows them to follow their own interest rather than putting them in a situation where they have to make specific choices."
Also, unlike the IB students, they will not be expected to collect marks by doing sports, voluntary work and other extra-curricular activities.
"All schools run personal enrichment programmes but many don't think they should be assessed," says Puntis.
So how will the competition between the two international exams shape up? One factor may well be cost, as Cambridge is determined to offer a cheaper alternative to the IB, which has been criticised by some for being "elitist".
The IB tends to be a pricier option because the heavy academic load requires a large teaching staff who will have received specialist training. The IBO also charges schools an annual fee of $8,500 whereas Cambridge only plans to charge examination fees.
Bollington argues that schools get something "quite unique" for their money as the IB supplies the curriculum, assessment, teacher training and evaluation for the schools.
Another strength for Cambridge is that its IGCSE exam for 16-year-olds is already used by 350,000 pupils around the world, including one in seven schools in New Zealand.
So, who will come out on top? The IBO shrugs off the question, insisting that as a charitable organisation it is interested in becoming an enormous global provider of education. The organisation is also acutely aware of the strains rapid expansion could put on its examiners and assessment capability.
What does seem clear, however, is that neither system is likely to become dominant in the UK. Indeed, Britain's education bureaucrats, alarmed by the threats from the independent sector to a national system they think has been devalued, are taking steps to rebuild confidence in A-levels by making them more challenging to the brightest students.
And the country's biggest teaching union has criticised the Pre-U, an exam that will not see the light of day for another two years, claiming it will be used as a means by which the best schools will maintain their grip over places at top universities, including Oxford and Cambridge.
It seems some of the best British ideas are doomed to be appreciated more by the rest of the world.
FT Syndication Service


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