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Is the IB the best curriculum for expat kids?

by Marion Wotton
in Teenagers, schools, Global Mobility, Education, Children
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Is the IB the best curriculum for expat kids? This is a question that has been on my mind recently, especially given my location (Hong Kong) and the ages of my children (my eldest is approaching the final years of primary). 

It is also on my mind for a second reason – I am an IB alumni, as well as having completed the local leaving certificate available to me (the NSW HSC … yes, I’m a sucker for punishment!). My husband and I have long been of the opinion that we want our children to have the option of undertaking the IB, but at this stage we are uncertain whether it would be the right path for either, or both of them.

I know that we are not the only family grappling with this issue, and that there are many with less knowledge than I have as a starting point. Therefore here is a run down of information, and points for consideration.

IB logo

What is the IB?

The International Baccalaureate (IB) is an international education foundation that was established in 1968 and is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. There are four programmes that comprise the IB curriculum: 

  • the Primary Years Programme (PYP) for ages 3 – 12;
  • the Middle Years Programme (MYP) for ages 11 – 16
  • the IB Diploma Programme (IBDP) for ages 16 – 19
  • the IB Career-Related Programme for ages 16 – 19 (vocational pathway)

The IB was initially devised to provide an internationally recognised and standardised education for globally mobile school-age people, whose parents’ careers required international relocations. At the time of the curriculum’s development, there was much less coordination between countries’ educational boards and institutions, making it difficult for children who had received their secondary education in one country from applying directly to a tertiary institution in another.

As of July, 2019 there are 5,139 schools distributed across 156 countries that are accredited and offering IB programmes. The majority (57.9%) are in the Americas, followed by the region of Africa, Europe and the Middle East (23.6%) and the Asia-Pacific (18.5%) (source). 

The increased international recognition of various secondary education qualifications offered by national and state-based education boards has not halted the growth in the IB, as the curriculum and teaching styles that it requires are two of the main attractions for many parents. 

Benefits of the IB

young primary students listening and interacting at school

The IB as a learning philosophy encourages children to develop the ability to think independently and to learn through self-inquiry. In the PYP this is not dissimilar to the Montessori method, or to the UK’s Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) curriculum (however the latter of these concludes with the Reception year, at age 5) 

The acquisition of a second / new language is a requirement of the IB curriculum. As a result, students tend to gain higher levels of cultural awareness, inter-personal and cross-cultural communication skills. 

Building on this, the IB curriculum encourages students to develop their critical thinking, together with the confidence to challenge assumptions and the skills to conduct their own independent research. 

Through this approach, students learn how to learn – which can be an invaluable head start when it comes to their university education or further studies.

The IB Diploma Programme

teenage students studying independently on laptops

The IB Diploma Programme (IBDP) comprises of the final two years of secondary school. It is not absolutely necessary that a student who undertakes the IBDP to have previously completed the PYP and MYP curriculums, however having a complementary learning style and curriculum content can certainly help.  

The IBDP provides both a very rigorous and very broad education. Students must take six subjects in total, with at least three (but no more than four) studied at higher level and three (or no less than two) at standard level. 

Within the subject mix a student must study one subject from each of five of the six subject groups with the sixth being a free, additional choice from any of the six groups:

  • Studies in language and literature (mother-tongue)
  • Language acquisition (second language)
  • Individuals and societies (humanities)
  • Sciences
  • Mathematics
  • The Arts

In addition, students must undertake the core of the IBDP:

  • Theory of Knowledge (philosophy and the nature of knowledge)
  • The Extended Essay (an independent and self-directed research piece, resulting in a 4,000 word essay; sometimes referred to as a mini-thesis)
  • Creativity, Action, Service (CAS) – students complete a project relating to these concepts

Drawbacks of the IB generally and of the IBDP

The first point to acknowledge is that the IB is expensive. Each school pays annual fees to the IB Organisation for their school registration, plus per-student fees for all those undertaking the programme(s). This is one of the reasons why there are a greater number of schools offering the IBDP as a parallel alternative to the local secondary qualification, rather than the full gamut of PYP, MYP and IBDP. The cost to the schools is reflected in the fees charged to the parents.

Secondly, it must be said that even though the IB has standardised curricula across all their subjects, not all subjects will be available in every IB school. Therefore even for expats relocating older school-age children, it may not be a case of a straight, uncomplicated inter-school transfer.

Thirdly, when considering the IBDP it is important to acknowledge that it is far more akin to a marathon than a sprint. It is a two year curriculum in all subjects, and while there is a coursework element in all areas, the final exams test a student’s knowledge of the entire two year syllabus. (It is worth noting that some schools offer a three year IBDP to accommodate those students with particularly heavy workloads or extra-curricular demands on their time).

Finally, although there is a significant amount of subject choice, there is a rigidity within the IB, given that only two (never three) subjects can be chosen from any one subject group. This means that students set on studying (for example) medicine or engineering at university are limited in the number of sciences they can study.

Should I push my child to do the IBDP?

Ultimately, the answer to this will vary between families and even between children. What you need to consider is 

The style of learning that suits your child

The IB is best suited to academically inclined all-rounders who excel in a few different disciplines. The structure of the IB means that there is nowhere to hide if in subjects that the student is disinterested in, or simply no good at

How self-motivated your child is

students writing exams papers

The IB requires students to be highly self-motivated, self-disciplined and self-organised for the whole of the two years programme. 

Your child’s goals for university education

The IB tends to be better suited to students likely to seek a liberal arts style of tertiary education, such as offered in the USA, Australia and Europe. UK universities tend to prefer in-depth knowledge of fewer subject areas – so if the UK is the destination of choice then perhaps A-levels should be the preferred path. 

So what is my choice?

So far, I am still firmly of the opinion that I want my children to have the IBDP as an option. But I will not be pushing them to doing it if, as a programme, the IBDP would not suit them, or would not provide them with the best path towards their life ambitions.

If you are relocating and need help with information, re-establishing normal life, or a school or childcare search, contact Parental Choice (EMEA) or Parental Choice Asia and our expert consultants will be glad to help.

To find an IB school in your city, state, country or region please refer to the listings on the International Baccalaureate website.

This article was written by Marion Wotton, Senior Global Mobility Consultant (APAC) for Parental Choice Asia.

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