The Independent Schools Magazine Sept 2012
The introduction of IB
S'io credesse che mia riposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse
Any Head who tells you that he looks forward to Speech Day at the end of the summer term is either unusual or a liar. I hate it, not least because I mess it up every year, every single year. Speech Day on Saturday 6 July 2012 at King Edward's brought with it a certain additional piquancy because the school's first set of IB results - for all 115 boys in the Sixth Form - arrived at 14.15 GMT on Friday 5 July, the day before. And, as I sat paralysed by fear in my study on that Friday afternoon, contemplating parental uproar on the next day from disappointed pupils and parents after disappointing results, the words from Talking Heads came often into my mind, ‘How did I get here?'.
The answer to that question goes like this. I may not be an entirely reliable witness, but we are of the opinion round here that King Edward's has been and is one of the great day schools of this country. That belief was fuelled in the glory days of the Direct Grant system when this was a wondrous meritocracy that served for free all the brightest boys of the West Midlands and our academic record was second to none: even in 1990 we were the best academic school in the country with 61% A grades at A Level. When I arrived here as Chief Master in 2006, there was a sense, particularly amongst senior staff who had known those glory days, that much of the greatness of the school was being undermined by the nature of A Levels in general and Curriculum 2000 in particular. Everyone knew that there was a combination of grade inflation and content deflation and AS Levels in Year 12 and modules and retakes have taken away precious time and focus from the kind of teaching and the kind of study on which our able boys had thrived for decades.
So, the question to be asked and answered was whether there was out there a viable alternative that might restore some of the intellectual challenge and excitement of the past. One person I met who believed there was such a thing was Tony Evans, and about now I tend to blame him for everything that happens hereafter. As the Head of KCS Wimbledon he told me that IB had done exactly that for his school and he said that his experience of King Edward's made him believe that KCS and KES were schools hewn from the same tree. It was his intelligence, passion and success at KCS in introducing the IB and converting entirely to IB lured me down this road.
At this stage we needed to do some exploration and we needed some explorers. So, a group of staff from within the Common Room, representing a range of subjects, some Heads of Department but some not, some experienced but some not, none members of the SMT, set forth to visit other places and investigate alternatives, not only IB but also pre-U. The kindness of strangers at several schools, particularly Dartford GS, KCS Wimbledon and Sevenoaks, enabled us to get an insight into the reality of IB and that group. Although there was some interest amongst the explorers in pre-U, I suppose we discarded it as lacking critical mass and therefore a serious future. Also, we did meet in every IB school we visited a real enthusiasm for what IB did offer. If anything, the only danger was being overwhelmed by the zeal of those who taught in IB schools. On the other hand, when did you ever meet anyone full of genuine zeal for A Levels?
When the explorers returned from their exploration they came back with the belief that IB was a true intellectual challenge and could allow clever boys to heal the great divide between science and humanities. Their unanimous recommendation was that we should introduce the IB. The only thing upon which they could not agree was whether we should do it by what we came to call Dual Economy, IB and A Levels running in parallel, or whether we should just go for it, the Big Bang of moving at one moment and in one fell swoop from A Levels to IB. The former was what almost everyone else had done but the notion of the Dual Economy brought with it uncertainties. Could we convince boys and parents to cross over from a world then knew to a New World, no matter how Brave? If you genuinely believed in IB as a course for all the boys here, why would you continue to offer what you did not believe in? If you did offer both, how would you manage to be even-handed in presenting IB and A Levels? Would you even want to be even-handed? The latter course of action, the Big Bang, seemed more philosophically consistent, but could we really persuade boys and parents to accept such a change, not least when it would affect boys who were already in the school? And we had to remember that this was, after all, a traditional Midlands school with a traditional Midlands clientele, not a place populated by fancy, cosmopolitan southerners, let alone international boarders. So, after the verdict of the Explorers, I spent most of my time convinced that, for all its philosophical coherence, Big Bang was too big a bang.
However, after the Explorers' recommendation there was a need for more people to find out more. So, Heads of Department now went off to other schools to address the reality as well as the zeal. Neil Tetley, then of KCS Wimbledon, came and talked of his experiences to all the Common Room to great effect. At an even later stage, Robert Tibbott from Dartford Grammar School brought some Sixth Form pupils up to talk to boys and staff about the reality as perceived by those who studied IB.
Of course, there was not universal support from all Heads of Department with IB: for example, the place and design of Maths in the IB programme is very different from that in the A Level system; scientists were concerned that no boy would hereafter be able to study three sciences; the Geography department thought that the IB curriculum was old-fashioned; creative subjects were understandably concerned that they might be the Group 6 casualties of the change. And then there were material financial considerations; everyone agreed that IB would cost more money, both in its introduction and in its on-going existence. Nor was such a radical change easy to contemplate for the governing body, not least because that governing body presides over King Edward's School and King Edward's High School for Girls. Since the girls' school saw no need for such a change, this required from governors a certain creative schizophrenia.
Even so, for all these anxieties and concerns, we declared to the world in 2008 that we would be introducing the IB Diploma from September 2010. However, one thing we did not do was decide whether this was to be as well as or instead of A Levels. Instead, we decided that we could use a term of our time getting people used to the idea of IB and testing whether the parental body really could cope with the destruction of A Levels before their very eyes. And in that testing two meetings held with existing parents were critical. Each one of those meetings had 150 parents present and their sons would be the future guinea pigs. We rehearsed in all honesty what we believed to be advantages of IB. At the end of the first meeting a parent suggested there should be a vote, no good thing in an autocracy, but, under pressure, this autocrat agreed to such a thing. On each occasion, the vote for IB was overwhelming, but the real surprise was that the vote for the Big Bang was in a strong majority. Who'd have thought it?
Those meetings allayed concerns amongst the Common Room and finally allowed us to go down the road that we thought would be closed, the road to Big Bang. Of course, we were lucky to be able to do that. We did have a governing body that was brave enough - or compliant enough - to countenance such a massive step. And, we were lucky that, at that time, the IB star was in the ascendant and being rude about A Levels was a national pastime. We are lucky to have a strong and homogeneous group of boys who are deeply committed to the school who weren't going to head off somewhere else in large numbers. We are also lucky to have a parental body which, for good or ill, had enough confidence in the school and its reputation to trust our judgement at such a moment. And, in the end, I believe that we have been lucky to have gone for the Big Bang route to IB because the experience of others offering both A Levels and IB has shown in recent times how hard it is to disturb pupil inertia and natural conservatism and get them to cross over.
However, if we were lucky in all these ways, that is not to say that the two year journey across terra incognita to that fatal day before Speech Day was easy. No one could ever say that. I think we did a lot of things right: we did invest in training and staffing and appointed an Academic Deputy and IB Co-ordinator, John Fern, who had great experience of IB and introducing IB. Even so, after all our consultation and all our thinking, it was harder, much harder than any of us had ever conceived. I realise now that should not be surprising. The IB world is all of a sudden full of new challenges, oral presentations in English, Theory of Knowledge essays and presentations, the Extended Essay, Group Four projects. Every teacher is doing something new and knows that it's not possible to get it right first time. So we were all worried that it might only take one subject or one teacher to blow away lots of university offers. And, after all, what does it take to get a 7 anyway? Every teacher is trying to adapt to a new world where there are six subjects and not four, where there are boys studying their subject who would not, in the past, even have been there. Every pupil has their own worries and catches the anxiety of his teachers. And none of this was helped by the turning of the tide in terms of the public perception of IB: some schools weren't getting great results at the first attempt, others were saying and writing that you couldn't get into a decent university with IB and Cambridge's 42 point offers looked decidedly scary. So, it wasn't only on Friday July 5 or only this Head who might have had the Talking Heads' words pass through his thoughts in recent months. On the other hand, the one thing that most members of staff continued to believe, even in the moments of anxiety, was that IB was a proper education.
As you might imagine, this story has a happy ending. Otherwise I would not be telling it. Although my paralysis did not allow me to decide what a successful outcome might be, the results that came down the wire at 14.15 GMT on Friday 5th July did allow me to walk into Speech Day without a blanket over my head or a security guard. Of the 115 candidates, 3 got 45 points, and that places them in an élite of 109 candidates in the world. And these are truly exceptional boys. 39 candidates got over 40 points and that meant that the vast majority of our best got their offers for the toughest courses and the best places. Our medics did as well as, if not better than, usual. Amongst the boys with lower aspirations, I'd say that the outcome is marginally better than in the past and the tales of IB candidates being sympathetically treated by universities do seem to be true.
So, to quote Eliot rather than David Byrne, ‘And would it have been worth it after all?' Of course, as I sit here in late August, I have to say yes but I hope that the majority of the boys and the parents and the teaching staff would agree. For a school like ours, a Sixth Form education must do two things. It must do the educational thing, offer the best education you can to the kind of boys we have and it must do the practical thing, get those boys into the best universities and courses. The last two weeks have proved that it can do the practical thing because our boys have got their university places. The last two years have proved, even in hard and stressful times, that IB can do the educational thing. Even in its first cycle, IB has restored the intellectual life of our school, given bright scientists the chance to write and read in English and Philosophy, given bright linguists and historians the chance not to be detached from the world of science and Maths, given all our boys the chance to write at length and question what they know. I have no doubt that all of our boys have had a more demanding two years than they would have done under the old dispensation. But I also have no doubt that they are better equipped for university study, that they will have more to offer in the world of work, and that they have a greater sense of the life of the mind and the world in which they will live. I think that's what education is for.
* "If I thought that my reply were given to anyone who might return to the world, this flame would stand forever still"