Using The International Baccalaureate As A Social Mobility Tool

Paul Luxmoore is Executive Headteacher at Coastal Academies Trust, which includes Dane Court Grammar School, a selective school in Broadstairs, Kent; and King Ethelbert School, a non-selective school in Westgate-on-Sea, which serves some of the country’s most deprived areas in Margate. Both schools are on the Isle of Thanet. 

In a new report published in April 2016, the Institute of Directors has called for a huge shift in the way we think about education, in order to give today’s students the best chance to get ahead in the future – a world of technological revolution. The report states that schools are being turned into ‘exam factories’ that not only fail to raise students’ aspirations, but also fail to prepare them for the world that awaits them post education.

As an Executive Headteacher, of both a selective school in a relatively affluent area and a non-selective school that serves some of the country’s most disadvantaged communities in Kent, it is apparent to me that we need to apply mobility tools in our schools, to ensure that our students develop valuable workplace skills and, equally important, the confidence and aspirations to help them reach their potential.

So, five years ago the team at Dane Court Grammar School, made a brave decision. We decided to change the educational offering in our sixth form and now only teach the International Baccalaureate (IB). There are no longer any A Level options – we insist that all students take the IB and, importantly, we demand that all have high aspirations.

Classically, along with many others of my generation, I studied just three A Levels. Also typically of the time, my choices were clouded by misconceptions about being no good at mathematics and science – there was no encouragement or ‘growth mind-set’ in my time. The IB programme doesn’t allow for students to give up subjects at 16 though, so its students therefore have a huge advantage at the end of their school years, having studied a broader range of subjects through to 18.

The IB is so effective because of this breadth of study it provides. It seems extraordinary to me that in the UK we still think it is ok to limit the number of subjects students study post 16 to three – or, for the highest flyers, the practical limit is still a very limited four or five subjects. What is it that makes us think that at the age of 16, just a few weeks after having studied 10 or more subjects each week, students should be expected to restrict their learning to just three subjects when starting sixth form?

The structure of IB programmes is superior to any I have seen around the world. Each of the four programmes has coherence, depth, and specialism, all in one. The core of each is brilliantly structured so that students are active in the community, take responsibility, and engage with the philosophy of education. What’s more, the students are able to understand how different subjects impact each other, and see the links between subjects – just as in the real world, when decisions are made based on a number of different contributory factors at once.

The IB Career-related Programme (CP) is simply a work of genius. It combines the vocational with the academic, and develops soft skills which enable students to make links between the subjects they are studying and the world beyond education, in work and the wider community. It is very simple and clever; students who want to pursue both academic and vocational routes are able to do so. It makes perfect sense, and is transforming aspirations, and lives, of students in the Thanet area – to a much greater extent than A Levels ever have.

Most students currently study a path that restricts them to one style of learning, whether that’s through the A Level route or vocational study. But the CP requires students to adopt a variety of learning styles, and to work together in teams, collaborating on projects like the service learning element of the programme. It is a fairly unique educational experience, preparing students much more effectively for a larger range of challenges and paths after they leave school.

Dane Court Grammar and King Ethelbert schools offer both the IB Diploma and Career-related programmes free to all students. I believe it is not only our educational obligation, but also our moral obligation to do this and provide, what I believe to be, the best educational offer in the world, to some of the most deprived areas in the UK, free of charge. Just up the road in Sevenoaks, students have to pay to study the IB. While independent schools have been offering the IB for some time; it is important that we break down the barriers and widen accessibility to the programmes.

CP students are delivered an exceptional package, but the real beauty of the programme is found in the Core element, which underpins each of the individual components that the students learn. The Core gives students experience in a foreign language, different cultures, running a community project, and also creating a reflective project, which is rather similar to a dissertation or individual project at university.

The CP is such a revolutionary programme that it impacts not only students’ understanding of their subjects, but also their understanding of learning itself. Our governing body met last year to hear a presentation from a group of CP students. Usually, the governors would expect students to present their findings from particular subjects, for example a particular period of history, or books studied in English. However, the CP students spoke instead about styles of learning; they talked about how to learn, with content as the medium through which this is done. Needless to say, the governing body was somewhat taken aback and noticeably impressed.

A couple of years ago a group of local politicians visited King Ethelbert to meet our CP students. I remember them chatting to one Year 13 student from a typical working class family background. They asked him what he planned to do after leaving school, and he said that he was considering three options: two offers of employment from brokerage firms in London; a higher level apprenticeship; and a university offer. The striking thing was that he considered the university offer as his back-up option, rather than his first choice. The CP had freed him from the shackles of traditional thinking, about the need for a university education; raised his aspirations; and provided him with real life choices.

This illustrates so clearly how we are using the IB as a tool for social mobility in Kent. We are taking children from deprived parts of the UK and providing them with better futures. The programme has opened so many different paths for our students; most of our CP students have gone on to pursue a higher level apprenticeship or study at university when they would never have considered doing so previously, and they are all the first in their families to do so.

Dane Court Grammar’s socio-economic profile is very different to that of King Ethelbert. Traditionally, Dane Court Grammar has always seen university as the primary goal for all students, and has measured the school’s success on the basis of the university offers received by students each year. But the world is changing, and thankfully we, in Kent, have changed our thinking, recognising that there is a range of equally worthy routes and outcomes for our students. The CP gives students the qualifications they need to be able to make the right choices for them.

As a nation, we need to look very closely at our education system, particularly the unnecessary limiting of potential, and restricting of choices, precipitated by the current system. There are so many genuinely gifted young people who will sadly never reach their full potential by attending the majority of UK schools, and will leave education ill-equipped for the workplace. Industry is crying out for young people with the type of well-rounded and responsible attitudes that the IB promotes, and I am very proud that in our corner of the country at least, with the commitment and hard work of our stuff, we are now able to help children reach higher, break the socio-economic mould and compete with students from more affluent and seemingly ‘better educated’ areas of the UK. 

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