A detailed look at how the IB has been launched in one school, by Rob Ford, Head of International Education and International Baccalaureate, The Ridings High School, Bristol

The Ridings High School is an oversubscribed specialist technology college in South Gloucestershire, about 8km north of Bristol city centre, in the village of Winterbourne. The school is a mixed 11–19 school, with 1,900 students on roll. Catchment areas include the middle-class suburbs of Bradley Stoke and Frampton, with pockets of social housing estates. The school has a low number of students from ethnic minorities, as well as low numbers of students with special educational needs (SEN) and students receiving free school meals. The November 2006 Ofsted report described The Ridings High School as ‘good with outstanding features’. This is borne out with the school consistently appearing among the top state schools in national league tables at GCSE and A-level; in 2006, 80% of students achieved five or more A*–C grade GCSEs. The school achieved the British Council’s full International School Award in 2005.

The Ridings High School is a technology school and Cisco Regional Academy (the school is authorised to offer Microsoft online learning as part of this status with software provider Cisco). Implementing the International Baccalaureate (IB) at The Ridings High School has been a complex journey that the school is still making as the first cohort completes Year 1 and recruitment of the second cohort continues.

Issues have arisen that the school could not have envisaged when it began investigating the IB at the beginning of 2004, in spite of the time and energy devoted to investigating the suitability of the IB as a qualification for the school. Authorisation by the International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO) is only one part of the implementation process.

The headteacher, Dr Robert Gibson, was aware of the IB in St Clare’s College in Oxford and, in early 2004, asked colleagues to investigate suitability of the IB for our school. The school’s senior management was also aware of the impending Tomlinson report on 14-19 reform — the school already had a very successful sixth form, with a large intake being offered a broad selection of vocational qualifications and A-levels. The school was also developing a strong international education dimension and the IB seemed an obvious route to investigate.

The school used its links with agencies in relation to international education to begin the collation of information on the IB and to talk to the IBO in Cardiff and Geneva. At this stage of the initial investigation, a small leadership team met frequently to assimilate and assess the wealth of information and to create a coherent policy for use by the wider senior management team and to inform the governors. This team consisted of the director of sixth form, the deputy head with responsibility for curriculum, the teacher responsible for international education and the headteacher’s personal assistant. A governor was given the specific task of staff liaison in relation to the IB and international education. It quickly became obvious that the IB Diploma Years Programme (DYP) offered a unique and educationally desirable programme of study and an alternative post-16 route to university.

The investigation widened when the head of sixth form and the teacher responsible for international education visited Whitchurch High School, Cardiff, an IB school, in the early summer of 2004 and attended the IBO training that summer in Geneva. The IBO is very philosophical about international education and being bold with regard to the curriculum, so we needed to be proactive and embed this approach into our school. The leadership team kept up momentum. The culture of the IBO immediately helped to inform the decision to go for the IB DYP with confidence. The esoteric world of the IBO quickly became accessible to the investigating team as colleagues became familiar with the philosophy and the hexagon learning frame of the IBO and the DYP (see the diagram on page 6).

To involve colleagues across the school and curriculum, a series of lunchtime meetings were set up to disseminate the results of our investigation into the IB Diploma Years Programme. This meant that teachers took ownership and the effective and informed direction by the initial investigating group was key to its acceptance by the teaching staff and to it becoming embedded in the school’s curriculum. The expertise of the deputy head with responsibility for curriculum and the director of sixth form ensured that questions about the curriculum could be addressed immediately. Staff concerns were met in the regular IB team meetings, departmental discussions and informally by the leadership team. Concerns ranged from how the IB was to be marketed, the impact it may have on A-levels and the necessary changes to the school day, but never about whether the school should pursue the IB.

In the summer of 2004, the headteacher informed the local authority of the school’s intention with regard to the IB. By the end of the summer of 2004, after the return from the Geneva training workshop and a subsequent visit to a second established IB school, momentum began to gather pace. An embryonic IB team was formed, with every department having at least one informal representative in the working group; members of staff who did not have a leadership role were encouraged to be involved. An IB coordinator from Whitchurch High School, Cardiff, who comprehensively extolled the benefits that the IB DYP had brought to her school, addressed the fledgling IB team. Importantly, this coordinator explained the pitfalls. She talked about issues such as the target group for the marketing campaign, that the uncertain nature of the IB coordinator’s role had seen high turnover of postholders and how the fragmentation of IB subjects into department areas can detract from the programme being seen as a cohesive whole.

In the autumn of 2004, the headteacher announced to the entire staff his decision to seek authorisation for the school as a provider of the IB DYP. The biggest question remaining was when to introduce it. The experience and advice we received seemed to suggest that later was preferable, to allow more time to plan effective implementation. It would have been easy to rush to obtain authorisation and implementation of the IB DYP in the autumn of 2005. The school’s own feasibility study urged the head to seek authorisation in September 2005, with the IB DYP commencing September 2006. This extra year’s planning has probably made the difference between success and failure. It also meant that the school was focusing on the benefits that the IB DYP would bring to the whole school.

The next stage of the school’s implementation process, following the successful conclusion of the feasibility study, was to state the school’s intention to apply for authorisation to the IBO. During the autumn and winter of 2004/05, the administrative aspect of this process took over as the school worked towards the deadline of spring 2005. The headteacher’s PA played a central role in coordinating the application process. The director of sixth form and the deputy head responsible for curriculum addressed the complex practical issue of a school on a one-week timetable of six 50-minute periods per day and five A-level option pools. The result has been a school day where the IB timetable extends beyond the standard school hours. The average IB student has to work 27–28 periods a week out of 30 and the average four AS/A-level student works 25, with this falling in the second year of sixth form. The current IB team consists of 30 members of staff teaching IB directly and we will expand this next year. Staff who teach extra periods can claim this time back by leaving school early when they have a free period that falls at the end of the day; this has been reliant on the goodwill of staff. The additional IB lessons have increased pressure on classrooms across all departments but particularly on science laboratories and have required the recruitment of several new teachers.

As the process moved into 2005, unforeseen core implementation issues began to develop — see below:

  • Cost and identification of training staff. Decisions about which members of staff would attend IBO training were made through an internal application procedure and interview. Some IBO schools demand a two-year commitment from staff.
  • Marketing and raising awareness of the course to students and parents. The school invested heavily in professionally produced brochures and mailed these home to the Year 11 cohort. The website for the school also had new pages on the IB and a series of open evenings were held. Local media have been a great source of free publicity but it has been difficult to become known for following the IB.
  • Curriculum and timetable issues. The school has had to introduce a change to the school day, with lessons before the start and after the end of the official day. This has worked in the first year but larger student numbers anticipated next year will place an extra burden on space and staff. A review of this is underway.
  • Financial burden on the school of introducing the IB DYP. The school has used its own money to finance the IB and we are still unsure if we can claim this back retrospectively as the IB school for South Gloucestershire, following Tony Blair’s speech at the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust Conference last year. The school is still seeking sponsorship and grants to help with this burden.

The experience of The Ridings High School is that the IBO is only too willing to help a school seeking authorisation and establishment of the IB. What the school did well during this second phase towards authorisation was to continue seeking advice from other, established IB schools and IB students.

The teacher responsible for international education held a series of off-site training opportunities for the IB teachers to write the detailed schemes of work for the IBO application and to investigate any differences in teaching and learning styles. Some established IB teachers the school spoke to regarded the IB teaching and learning as reflecting ‘traditional’ approaches, such as greater focus on grammar and structures in languages. The reality in 2007, as staff teach the first cohort, is that, although the curriculum outcomes may differ slightly, there is no great difference in teaching and learning styles compared to those demanded by A-levels.

In the winter and spring of 2005, the steering leadership group continued to compile the IBO application. The teacher responsible for international education also addressed the full governing body, which had unreservedly given its support for the IB. The school’s commitment to the IB was demonstrated in the summer of 2005 when large numbers of staff were sent to Bratislava for subject training.

During the summer of 2005, the headteacher announced to students and parents his intention to seek IB authorisation, and the wider community became aware through newspaper articles. The teacher responsible for international education held a series of informal meetings at the Year 10 parents’ evening. In the autumn of 2005 the school not only received the full British Council International School Award but also had a very successful authorisation visit by the IBO and the school became an accredited IBO World School. The IBO commended The Ridings High School on its careful planning and preparation and also on its ability to demonstrate clearly its commitment to the philosophy and vision of the IBO.

In the autumn of 2005, a special IB open evening was held, in addition to the routine sixth-form open evening. In 2006, the school only held one sixth-form open evening as the school felt that the IB should embed into whole school life, rather than being seen as separate. One of the implementation issues that repeatedly emerged was communication of the benefits of the IB to parents and students. Initial applications for IB were around 30, compared to an average of 200 Year 12 sixth-form applications. Significantly, half of these applications came from outside the school, revealing a trend that has continued in 2007 — a small but significant number of applications from overseas students. The Ridings High School had anticipated this because of its feasibility study in 2004. The school’s first cohort in September 2006 was 12 students — 12 brave pioneers.

IB students do have to be prepared for better time management, to be independent learners and to become used to the whole coherent programme with its theory of knowledge (TOK) creativity, action, service (CAS) and extended essay elements at the core. We have found that the critical thinking at the heart of TOK has had a very beneficial effect on the way students see the course. The core of the IB is something desirable for the whole sixth form and IB and AS students are already involved in clubs and visits that bring them together much more.

From the beginning, IB students have been required to take responsibility for their own learning. This has occurred in both covert and overt ways. The IB diploma promotes independent learning through its course structure. The core elements (TOK, CAS and the extended essay) enable students to choose their own learning paths alongside more directed learning of subject specialisms. However, within these specialisms, there is a great deal of scope for students to make choices about how, what and when they study.

When The Ridings High School spoke to admissions tutors at universities, such as Bristol University and Imperial College, London, their endorsement of the IB in opposition to A-levels rested largely on the fact that the IB engenders effective independent learning. The school has sought to promote the IB DYP on the grounds of its ability to create motivated independent learners who are aware of the coherent programme of study they follow, compared to the disparate programmes of study followed at A-level. One of the attractions for students is that the IB allows them to keep their options open for longer because of the number of subjects studied in conjunction with TOK, CAS and the extended essay.

The school decided from the beginning that it wanted its students to fulfill the entire diploma programme and not seek individual certification for different subjects, a wish echoed by the IBO. The slightly different exam structure of May finals and July results at the end of the second year was welcomed but the school had to become used to working with an organisation that, until recently, did not allow exam papers to be remarked on or looked at. However, the IBO’s own IBNET is an excellent online centre, which the exam office in the school uses to communicate with Geneva. The Online Curriculum Centre (OCC) also allows colleagues to obtain resources, leave messages on discussion boards and to be a part of an international learning community of nearly 2,000 schools worldwide.

The challenge for assessment and accreditation was about becoming familiar with procedure, practice and standard. Being an IBO school is being part of a network that assists and helps schools, and ICT facilitates this global learning community. For example, as a history teacher, if I am not sure about the standard of the Level 7 higher-level essay I have set, I post a message on the OCC and receive replies from several schools offering advice and examples.

Reaction to the IB from parents of students has been overwhelmingly positive. Often it is the parents who are able to see the long-term benefits of the IB before the student themselves. The media debate about A-levels and alternatives, such as the IB, pinpointed in the Prime Minister’s speech on education in November 2006 (see: www.pm.gov.uk/output/Page10514.asp or http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/6157435.stm) has resulted in many parents praising the school for the vision shown in introducing the IB at a time of educational uncertainty for the post-16 level. A one-time sceptical parent of an IB student became so enthused by their child’s experiences of the IB that they assisted on the sixth-form open evening, reassuring similarly cautious parents.

Our first cohort is mostly female. Questions have been raised as to whether this is an effect of the compulsory second language under the IB DYP. The cohort entered the IB DYP with outstanding GCSE results. The recruitment of the second cohort has seen more than 50 applicants, half from outside the school.

After months of work dedicated to raising the profile of IB at the school and within the local community, we are now known as the IB school of Bristol and one of the few IB schools in the South West. This has given us a distinct identity.

The new curriculum has brought incredible opportunities to the school community. In our November 2006 Ofsted report, availability of the IB was a key factor in the inspectors’ decision to describe the school’s sixth-form provision as ‘outstanding’. Staff and students are aware of their involvement in a unique and distinct educational experience.

The challenge for The Ridings High School in developing the IB further is to plan for its expansion. The school had projected a doubling of the intake for the second cohort. However, it looks likely that the second intake will be quadrupled. This will put pressure on rooms, staffing and resources. Experience from similar IB World Schools is that the same careful preparation and planning that went into implementing the IB DYP has to be maintained at all subsequent stages, to ensure continued success.

The Ridings High School now offers another post-16 route to university to widen student choice but also reflects its commitment to the principles of international education. Staff feel proud to be involved in an initiative that is meaningful and distinct.

In implementing the IB, the school did not rush the process but recognised the IB’s philosophy. Successful anticipation and reflection has ensured the school has not had regrets and is only looking forward. This is due to careful long-term planning and preparation; vision and leadership; successful management of change, and the commitment of staff, students and parents. It is refreshing when colleagues have an opportunity to talk about the purpose, nature and direction of education; the IB allowed this to happen.

Committing to the IB is a risk-laden enterprise for any curriculum manager. So long as it is done for the right reasons, the potential rewards in boosting creativity in the curriculum are immense. The websites in the box above give useful pointers to finding out more.

Rob Ford, Head of International Education and IB, The Ridings High School, Bristol.