The IB and League Tables

17 June 2016

This article was first published in the Queenwood weekly newsletter on 17 June 2016

Queenwood first offered the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program in 2001 and since that time our girls have both enjoyed it and achieved excellent results. Some parents are strongly attracted by it, and others are either more sceptical or feel that they need to know more.

Some of the features which make the IB distinctive elsewhere are not as significant in our context. The compulsory CAS program (creativity, activity, service) recognises the importance of involvement in a wide range of activities. Successful completion can involve significant juggling, but Queenwood girls are generally very active so that many only have to adapt their activities slightly and ensure that it is logged. In this respect, then, the experience of our HSC and IB girls is often very similar. The Extended Essay is a genuine point of difference, as it requires students to define a question and write a 4000-word answer. The length and, particularly, the process of defining the question are demands typically made in the first or second year of university, and when the time comes IB graduates often feel very at home with the process. Extension English or History students will do something similar in the HSC, but this is only a minority of students. Similarly, the Theory of Knowledge course (beginners epistemology) is unique to the IB (although our weekly Philosophy Club is open to all!). The IB’s insistence on a generalist education (everyone must do some level of Maths, English, Science, Language and Humanities) is perfect for some but limiting for those who have intense interest in a particular area. Those who wish, say, to study three languages or three sciences cannot do so within the IB.

There is a hidden benefit to offering dual pathways at Queenwood, in that the process of teaching a different curriculum can make for better teaching in all areas. For myself, I know I became a better teacher and a better mathematician when I had to teach GCSEs, IGCSEs, Pre-U and A-Level in the UK. Even where the content was totally familiar, I had to approach the material through a different lens, so that my own understanding deepened and my teaching branched out in unexpected ways. Offering both IB and HSC embeds different perspectives and approaches into our teaching in a way that enriches all girls, regardless of their level or pathway.

Let me be clear: I am no zealot for the IB. It has its strengths and weaknesses, and while open to all it is not necessarily the best choice for all. We are, however, pleased to have seen significant growth in the uptake of the IB (next year it will take in around one-third of Years 11 and 12) and with that there is an increasing need for parents to understand both the Diploma itself and the interpretation of results.

In the IB Diploma, a student is awarded a mark out of 7 for each of six subjects, and three additional points can be earned through satisfactory completion of Theory of Knowledge, CAS and the Extended Essay – for a total of 45. Subjects are offered at Standard Level or Higher Level (SL or HL), and at least three subjects must be taken at Higher Level. So students must undertake a program of some difficulty, but it should be noted that a 7 in Maths Studies SL is treated the same as a 7 in Further Maths HL, despite a great difference in mathematical complexity. The Diploma is, of course, a rigorous preparation for tertiary studies and is recognised as such, but like any examination its grades and marking processes have to be intelligently understood.

The HSC has similar quirks. A mark above 90 in the HSC is recorded as a Band 6 (ie top band) result, regardless of the difficulty of the subject. When newspapers publish their so-called league tables they base their rankings on Band 6 results regardless of subject, and hence a mark of 91 is counted in the same way whether it is gained in HSC Brain Surgery or HSC Pooh-Sticks. A school which encouraged students to move from challenging courses into easier ones would thereby increase its ranking in the newspaper league tables. Fortunately, Queenwood’s academic record is strong enough that there is little temptation for us to sacrifice the girls’ long-term interests by such manoeuvres but the increasing pressure on schools to justify their existence on the basis of examination results can only make this more probable in schools of all kinds.

Coming back to the newspaper league tables, I regularly remind our parents of their flaws, their misuse and the pernicious misunderstandings surrounding them. They don’t tell us what most people think they tell us, and hence I don’t know quite what to say when we are congratulated on our ‘success’ in achieving a certain rank. It seems ungracious to launch into a self-righteous explanation along the lines of ‘you are right but for the wrong reasons’!

The difficulty will become even more acute in December 2017 when the first of our large IB cohorts will graduate. We are delighted that a large proportion of the girls are choosing to do such a rigorous course, and we are confident that this will be good for their intellectual development and for university entrance, since the high standards of the IB are reflected in strong ATARs. Unfortunately, these girls’ excellent performances and demonstrably high examination outcomes will be entirely excluded from the league tables which are calculated only from the HSC results, so Queenwood’s ‘ranking’ next year will almost certainly weaken despite maintaining or increasing our academic standards. The easy route would be to prioritise PR and spin, and to discourage the IB – but the girls come first. I will confess, however, that I dream of a small miracle, when the newspapers would admit that the tables are misleading – even damaging – and would instead provide intelligent and nuanced reporting about educational standards.

Ms Elizabeth Stone