Advice for parents about the career options for their children

The International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme

You may have heard of the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (often known as the IB), now available in 208 schools and colleges in the UK, both state and independent, and wondered what it includes. This introduction from a careers and higher education adviser in an IBDP college explains how universities and employers view the programme, and includes her perspective as a mother since both her sons studied for the IB.

What does an International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP) student do?

IB Diploma Programme (IBDP) students study six courses, usually with 3 each at higher level and standard level. Students must choose one subject from each of groups 1 to 5 and a sixth subject may be chosen from group 6, or the student may choose another subject from groups 1 to 5.  The groups are organised to develop skills and knowledge reflecting both depth, particularly through higher level study, and breadth across the groups:

  • Group 1: literature, or language and literature of mother tongue (or a language in which the student is fully fluent);
  • Group 2: a foreign language;
  • Group 3: individuals and societies, such as history, economics, business and management, psychology, environmental systems;
  • Group 4: science, such as chemistry, physics, biology, environmental systems
  • Group 5: maths, at Studies, Standard or Higher levels ; or computers;
  • Group 6: arts, music, theatre or another subject from groups 1-5.

There are three 'core' requirements that develop critical thinking and independent learning:

  • The extended essay is an independently chosen and researched 4000 word essay;
  • Theory of Knowledge encourages the student to critically examine different ways of knowing (perception, emotion, language and reason) and different kinds of knowledge (scientific, artistic, mathematical and historical).
  • Creativity, Action and Service (CAS) is an extra-curricular requirement in which students actively learn from the experience of doing real tasks beyond the classroom.  This is a really good way of developing new skills and interests, ensuring that students find out about themselves and exploring their community. includes a short film and explains in detail about the 2-year programme.

The newer IB Career Certificate has a vocational focus and is explained here 

How well does the IBDP prepare students for their future?

As a careers and higher education adviser with over 26 years' experience, I view the IB as an outstanding preparation for university study and future working life.  I now work in an international college that only teaches the IBDP, is non-selective and includes those who achieve the top grade of 45 (which approximately 100 students achieve around the world each year) as well as students who do not take the full IB Diploma Programme.  I am in regular contact with students who have gone on to university and work, and when these alumni talk to me about their experiences in university, they say that they feel far better able to cope with the university style of learning than their A level peers.  In a recent newspaper article Dr Alice Roberts (Birmingham Universityand BBC) said that the IBDP "often acted as a better preparation for science and medicine degrees than A-levels... Of the students I saw applying to medical school, the ones that had done the IB seemed to be more rounded individuals."

IBDP students do well: a Glasgow University study between 1995 and 1998 showed that IBDP students achieve significantly more upper second and first class degrees than those with other high school qualifications. When the Higher Education Statistics Agency evaluated the degree performance of IB students against A levels (May 2011), it was found, on the whole, that IB entrants were more likely to be enrolled at a top 20 university. IB students were, in most subject areas, also more likely to achieve first and upper second class honours degrees when compared with similarly able A level students.  After university, IB students were more likely to go on to further study, and more likely to be employed in graduate level jobs and in higher paid occupations.

University admissions tutors appreciate the fact that the IB has not experienced the annual A level grade increases (for whatever reason) - indeed the world average IB score has dipped slightly.  IB students applying outside the UK are in a strong position, and in some countries will find that their Diploma gives them credits.  In my work I have consistently positive feedback on the IBDP from admissions tutors.

In work, IB students will already have demonstrated many 'transferable skills' that employers value such as communication, numeracy, time management, independent working and problem-solving.  However, the IBDP offers far more than most UK qualifications through the inherent international understanding and language skills gained by continuing a foreign language alongside science, maths, humanities and arts and in the Theory of Knowledge course. Business leaders see broadening young people's horizons and teaching them about our globalised world as vital if the UK is to compete in the global economy, according to a report by the British Council and Think Global.

How well did the IBDP prepare my own children for university and life beyond?

Every parent wants to do what is best for their child.  It is so important to look at 'sixth form' options in as much depth as possible, and to weigh up the pros and cons before making a decision.  I went through this process with my sons who decided to leave a school that offered A levels as they felt that the IBDP would enable them to continue with all their interests whilst ensuring depth of study in their strongest subjects.  They also knew that it would require hard work. 

This is a very personal view of the IB which is separate from my professional overview:

Through the IBDP my sons - now post and mid IBDP - have continued learning subjects that they would have dropped had they studied A levels. They have developed skills and understanding that are far beyond those related to choosing the typical 3 or 4 A level courses they considered.  The elder boy gained enough confidence in speaking foreign languages (because he continued his French) that he started to teach himself two more;  he said of Theory of Knowledge that it 'made me more intelligent'.  Now studying animation at university (which he developed skills in from the age of 12), his schedule is very demanding but he is ahead of his peers because he learned to manage heavy workloads in the IB.  He is achieving first class results in his assignments because he uses the full range of skills developed in his 6 IBDP subjects - not just the technical and artistic, but also the literary and linguistic.  This is an extract from his university application personal statement:

'I had computer animation in mind as I chose my subjects for the IB (higher level Visual Arts, Psychology and Physics), and my Visual Arts extended essay, in which I analysed the Anime film Ghost in the Shell and compared it to Japanese culture. The EE was the first time I have had to use proper academic presentation, with a bibliography, references, etc., and required more self-motivation than anything I have done before; I am proud I managed the time well. I have learnt a lot in Maths (standard level), Art and Physics to contribute to animation, e.g. matrices in Maths are something I had to be taught before understanding the Cartesian coordinates inherent for particle system coding, which was useful for creating a glass shattering effect. I find Theory of Knowledge and Psychology genuinely fascinating as well; I read around the subjects when I can. They have taught me methods and perceptions I will always use in academic life and other pursuits. I can analyse and criticise media well thanks to Visual Arts and English Literature, which teach me what works from the side of the audience or consumer. I also find French useful when reading and writing on certain French animation internet forums.'

Both boys have tried out new activities or community service:  IB students completes Creativity, Action and Service activities, which ensures that they are more rounded than if they had chosen just their hobbies outside the classroom. They also have to evaluate what has been learned.  The boys' IB college is unusually international which has enabled them to learn about other cultures and languages in ways that I could not have anticipated, but which means that they are well prepared for life ahead wherever and with whomever their career path develops.

The aims of the IB are to 'develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect' which is an admirable ideal and one that I see borne out daily as I work with IB students of all abilities.  I also see it in my sons.

What should I do now if I want to find out more about the IBDP?

Look at the IBO website and you can find your local IB school or college. Find out about the courses available at both standard and higher level and talk to the staff teaching and students attending to find out more.  Consider the pros and cons against other options and in relation to future plans and interests.

Liz Reece,  Careers and Higher Education Adviser, St. Clare's, Oxford