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The International Baccalaureate

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This entry is a detailed account of the history and structure of the International Baccalaureate, a rigorous University preparatory programme available at schools all over the world.

The History of the International Baccalaureate

A rather truncated history of the IBO (International Baccalaureate Organization) can be found at the bottom of this link, whereas there is a longer version on this website. However, for the user who doesn't want to interrupt their h2g2 session, here is a short account of how the IB cut its first teeth:

In 1963, 10 schools joined together in agreement that there should be a qualification that would satisfy university admissions personnel across the globe. The point of this qualification would not be to compete with existing qualifications such as the English A-Level system or the Japanese Kotogakko but instead to aid applicants that, for some reason for another, wished to apply to a university in a foreign land.

For the next 6 years, people from all sides of education set to designing this international curriculum as well as example exam papers. At the same time, due to the nature of what they were trying to achieve, negotiations with governments and universities were set up so as to improve the communications between the bodies and to make sure that nothing was left unnoticed.

In 1969, the IB was put to trial and consequently was accepted by major universities and supported by governments across the world. The experimentation ended in 1976 where, following the 1975 meeting of UNESCO, the IBO achieved the support of 15 nations, willing to accept the International Baccalaureate as a qualification suitable for pre-university students.

This acceptance pinnacled in 1978 when the first public school ran the IB programme, Francis Lewis High School, New York. Since then, 1371 schools have taken up the IB programme in 113 countries1.

The Basics

Simply, there is the initial question of 'eh wot?' which is the commonplace reaction when an IB student proudly pronounces their course. The IB diploma is broadly equivalent to most two-year courses normally undertaken by 16 and 17 year olds in a bid to get a qualification worthy enough to be able to go to university.

One of the main differences between the IB and other qualifications is that, by doing the IB, you are asked to study six subjects with certain other requirements on the side. These six subjects, rather than being picked willy-nilly, are structured into six categories: your native language, mathematics, science, humanities, languages and either an art subject or an elective from any but the first language option. The choices available vary from college2 to college and from country to country, but the category names don't change.

For people worrying about the fact that they may not be good at some subjects, there is another option that makes the IB bearable and that is one of levels. Each subject can usually be studied at either higher or standard level, but one must choose at least three higher level subjects (availability is a matter for each individual college). This can make the IB just right for many more people. A more scientific affiliated person can choose for instance two higher sciences and higher psychology, and their native language, another language and mathematics at standard. This is vastly different from a more art/music oriented person who can choose their native language at higher and art or music from group 6 as well as a higher language such as Italian, Spanish (the list is huge) or world languages and take a standard science, maths and a standard humanity subject. Depending on what your college offers, the number of combinations of subjects can be quite vast.

Extra Requirements

Theory of Knowledge (ToK) is a lesson that allows the participant to investigate the 'ways of knowing' and to basically philosophize. At the end of the course an IB student is expected to have completed an essay (for which the titles are prescribed by the IB Organisation or IBO) and a presentation of their own design.

Another expected task is to perform 150 hours of CAS. This is an acronym for Creativity, Action and Service, of which 50 hours of each must be completed.

The most daunting-sounding part of these mandatory tasks is called the extended essay. This is a 4000-word (no more, the IBO are very strict on this) essay on a subject of your choosing, from any of the subjects covered by the IB, including ones that you don't do and ToK (although you are expected to have a good understanding of what you are talking about). The essay title must be to the point and not cover a vast range of material that has to be waded through. A science-based extended essay is, in this Researcher's opinion, great if you know how, because it is simply a long and full write-up of an experiment of your own design. Many people get frustrated and panicky about the extended essay but it can quite simply be the best thing you have ever done. Also, universities love it, because it is supposed to be equal to an undergraduate level of understanding, and it shows that you can take the bull by the horns instead of being spoon-fed things to do.

The last from this category of work is called the Group 4 project, which was not originally part of the IB, but was introduced later. Group 4 is the group from which you chose which science you are going to do. The project entails getting the entire IB group together and allowing the students choose a broad subject from which to pick smaller topics. This can be something like 'Light' or 'The Human' or something vague like that. The scientists then split into their respective factions and decide what they can do inside this broad subject. This is where careful choice is needed because a title needs to be picked that allows each experimental science a way in. After all, the experiments are completed, the scientists come back together and present their experiment to the IB group. This is then written-up and included in the science practical folder. Of course, if one of your electives is another science, you would have to do both subjects' experiments and both their write-ups too, and thus two times the ten hours work that the Group 4 project entails. But of course, if you are that keen on science, this should be a doddle.

Oh, a word of warning, if any of these extra requirements are lacking, then the diploma cannot be awarded.

The Types of Assessment

All subjects are subject to informal assessment from individual lecturers, simply to check how you are proceeding in your studies in the IB. There is, however, a more serious internal assessment that occurs in all subjects. For your first language, World Literature essays are internally assessed, whereas in the experimental science field of vision, practical write-ups are continually being assessed as part of the course. Each subject will have its own version of this internal assessment and can usually be prepared very well for with help from lecturers and peers. A small percentage of this assessment will be selected by people called moderators who try and take a cross-section of the IB student population and they remark it. If their marks agree with the marks the lecturers originally gave the student, the entire class's marks stay as they are. However, if they disagree there are three routes of action that they can take. The first is to get another moderator to mark it once more. The other two are to call more examples of work up from the school or, if they are satisfied that they have seen enough, they ask the lecturers to down or upgrade the class's work as a whole.

The second type of assessment is external assessment and this is where materials (tapes of language students or essays from all walks of subjects) are sent off to official examiners to be marked. For subjects such as drama, an external examiner may visit the college to witness a performance but this depends on the individual circumstances.

The final type of assessment is one that most people will already be very well acquainted with - examinations. Again, because of the broadness of subjects in the IB, these can range from multiple choice questions to full flowing essay questions and indeed, they often do in one exam paper, let alone between subjects.

The Grading System

So there are the assessment details but where does it all lead and what does it all mean? Well, another major difference between the IB and other qualifications is the grading scale. The IB uses a rather simple number scale going from 1 to 7 for a subject, 7 being the best. 7 points can be awarded for each subject taken, whether it be at standard or higher level and they are, at the end, added up to make a base number total of 42. On top of this there are three points that can be garnered from the extended essay and ToK. These two assessments play against each other to make up the three points whereby if both factors are graded excellent then you are guaranteed the extra three points. However, if one is graded excellent whereas one is graded poor then the overall outcome is likely to be one point.

And, just as if you don't complete the mandatory tasks, if your overall point value drops underneath a certain value or if you get a very low point score in one of your subjects then you could fail the diploma and have to retake exams to enable acquisition. The rules for individual subject failure are quite complex though and far too lengthy to go into here, but the value for overall point score baseline is 24. As a comparison Oxbridge3 normally ask a candidate to have good point scores in all of their higher subjects (5-7s) and an overall point score of 36.

Where Do I Go From Here?

On the point of universities, they are increasingly becoming aware of the diploma and appreciating its positives. They like such things as the extended essay for aforementioned reasons but also the CAS section because it shows a good sense of community spirit. They also like the entire broadness of the IB because it has been heralded that businesses looking at graduates from degree courses these days are not so much looking for specific subjects but for flexibility, the ability to change. The IB is seen as a perfect start to flexibility. It is also seen as something different which indicates the ability to choose rather than just going with what you know how to spell... Even though most people use the IB to go into a degree course of some sort, some people don't wish to experience university life and wish to go to an employer instead. Increasingly, employers have heard great things about IB graduates and recognise their ability to adapt and their broad base of knowledge. It really is a good qualification for going places!


Possibly in light of these qualities that the IB offers, there are a few misconceptions that can easily come up from people who haven't been affiliated with the IB before. Here are just a few of them but there are bound to be more:

  • To do the IB you have to be super-brainy. - This is simply not true. You do not have to be top of a class of three thousand to be 'worthy' of doing the IB. What a prospective IB candidate must have though is an ability to work. This is subtly different from intelligence in that the ability to work doesn't explicitly need brains; it needs will power and determination to see it through to the end. There is no use in lying, the IB is hard work but it is not impossible - there's a lot of work to do and sometimes the work can be a little stressful on the grey matter, for all of us, but you will be better at some things and these things simply won't seem hard to you whereas to other people, the complete opposite may be true - this is where careful subject and level choosing can help. If you choose the wrong options though, as long as you recognise the dangers, you can change and become much more comfortable, no worries.

  • IB students only make friends with other IB students. - Total rubbish. They are people too! The IB creates a family-like atmosphere because of the way things are run - they go out on CAS jaunts together and things like that, but in no way do they all go around with each other and not talk to anybody else!

  • When undertaking the IB, forget your social life. - This closely relates to the first point but again, isn't true. Social life can easily occur within and around IB life and to say that you will have to stay at home every night and all weekend laboriously doing work is an absurd thought. While this sort of dogma may be necessary to polish off that English essay or psychology experiment at times, this is not going to happen all the time!

So there you have it, a few untrue rumours that fly around from time to time. There will be more and most of them will depend on the area in which you are living and the ethos of that community.

And thus the rather lengthy description of the IB comes to a halt. Feel free to comment, IB students and others alike worldwide; your views on this and anything said are very welcome.

If anyone requires any more information, then the Official IBO Website can be consulted.

1Correct on 3 October 2002.2The term 'college' will, in this entry, be used to refer to an institution offering courses that offer pre-university qualifications. In the US these are called high-schools and in other places can be called secondary schools.3The collective name for Oxford and Cambridge, held to be the best universities in the UK, roughly equivalent to the US institutions Yale and Harvard.

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