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Move over A-levels, there's International competition

Head teacher Jodh Dhesi at Parkside Community College. Picture: Keith Heppell
Head teacher Jodh Dhesi at Parkside Community College. Picture: Keith Heppell

The International Baccalaureate creates scientists who can write and artists who can count, says Parkside School's headteacher Jodh Dhesi.

A key decision for many parents and students in Cambridge heading into sixth-form is which route they take. While A-levels are still by far the most popular option, the most widespread alternative is the International Baccalaureate (IB).

A-level students typically take three or four subjects which can be exclusively in the field of science or the humanities. IB students take six subjects, which must include a mix of science and humanities, plus three other elements:

■ Theory of knowledge, which looks at how we know what we know ■ Creativity, activity, service, which involves artistic, sporting and voluntary work ■ An extended essay

Parkside sixth-form offers the IB and BTEC course but not A-levels. It welcomes students from across Cambridgeshire and internationally. They currently have around 150 students across the sixth-form.

Speaking to the Cambridge Independent about the programme, head of sixth-form Jessica Pearce said: “It’s beneficial for students going forward and to university because they have that breadth of knowledge and the skill set of engaging the world, which is what employers are looking for, not just qualifications.”

This year, the school’s IB results placed then in line with the international average, while its average BTEC result was ‘distinction’.

“It’s that broad range that’s important,” said headteacher Jodh Dhesi, “The IB gives universities scientists who can write and it gives them artists who can count.

“I think there so many students doing traditional A-levels who have stopped doing English and maths, and thus are less numerate than perhaps they would be if they were doing the IB.”

He added: “We give the students impartial advice and we tell them exactly what’s on offer at the different colleges.

“But some students find it hard to narrow it down because they’re all-rounders and they enjoy learning and carrying on with the range of subjects. The IB is like what’s offered in almost every other country in the world.

“England and Wales are very peculiar in that people only do A-levels – three or four subjects. In Scotland, Europe, America and Canada, they all do a broad range of post-16 subjects, so we’re very unusual in many ways.”

Recent research into higher education outcomes has tended to put the IB in a good light. A study by Leeds University found that students who took higher level maths as part of the IB were more likely to get a first-class degree than those who took A-level maths.

Analysis by the Higher Education Statistics Agency found that IB students were more likely to go to a top 20 ranked university than their A-level peers, more likely to get a first-class degree and more likely to go on to postgraduate study.

“People say A-levels are the thing but only 48 per cent of students in UK universities have done A-levels because there are so many international students, Scottish and Irish students,” said Mr Dhesi.

Ms Pearce added: “The IB, because it’s an international qualification, is taught around the world. It is not reformed by Government in the UK which I think is amazing because it allows consistency. And that’s something students and parents have said, having come from a place where A-levels were taught – all the reforms make a big difference.

“Knowing the difference between old A-levels and new A-levels and AS-levels is tricky and they could potentially be changed again in a few years. But with something like the IB, it’s international and everybody studies the same courses and gains the same qualifications.

“The world is looking out for potential employees and the IB will help with that.”

She continued: “In the sixth-form we have students from all over Cambridgeshire – and out of county as well – because they want to do the IB. It has that draw.

“And they all come from different schools, so in terms of their learning backgrounds and the ways of learning, they’re all different so we make sure those students are catered for.

“We have a lot of international students as well joining us in the sixth-form so we have to make sure they can access the curriculum as well and make progress.”

In addition, Parkside School – part of the Parkside Federation – is in the top five per cent nationally for progress and has been top for attainment in Cambridgeshire for the past two years.

“Attainment and progress are both very important because if you want to do certain things in life you need to have a certain level of attainment,” said Mr Dhesi.

“If you want to go on to sixth-form college you need to have a C in English and maths. But it’s also about the journey that children make – for them it’s so important.”

Around 150 schools in the UK currently offer the two-year IB course. Although it can benefit students, it is not essential to take the IB if you are intending to apply to unversities outside of Britain.

■ For more about Parkside School and Parkside Sixth.

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