To IB, or not to IB?
A look at the popular academic program in Toronto’s private schools
In June, the Toronto District School Board proposed charging an extra fee of $1,500 to students wishing to enroll in an International Baccalaureate (IB) program in public schools. The program allows students to engage in a rigorous pre-university curriculum developed in Geneva, Switzerland, and earn the increasingly renowned IB Diploma. Though it was eventually struck down, the lively debate surrounding the proposal brought IB supporters to the forefront and begged the question: just what is this programming worth?
International Baccalaureate programming was created in 1968, with the mandate of giving students the tools needed to succeed in an increasingly international environment. IB curriculum is notoriously challenging and aims to foster a breadth of knowledge and cultural awareness in over 140 countries worldwide. Tuition begins at age three for the IB Primary Years program, which focuses on developing inquisitive minds. At eleven, students enter the IB Middle Years program, which encourages them to make connections between subject matter and the outside world. And in the final two years of secondary school, students can complete the challenging IB Diploma program, which aims to prepare students for university success and eventual participation in a global marketplace. All three levels of study draw on international educational materials and focus on second language acquisition, interdisciplinary study and extracurricular and community involvement. And in terms of evaluation, the International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO) requires that all major assignments are marked or moderated externally and that final examinations are globally standardized. The organization asserts that universal curriculum and assessment ensure students have the option to continue study anywhere they like, armed with real transferrable skills and credentials recognized around the world.
These programs have been cropping up in public schools more and more in recent years as students seek accelerated learning programs to prepare for university and beyond. But this embrace of the IB is somewhat old news to Toronto’s private institutions where programs are plentiful.
Top north Toronto schools, including Branksome Hall, Upper Canada College, the Sunnybrook School and the Toronto French School, have adopted IB programming for many years. And there is an overwhelming consensus among them that the curriculum is of the highest quality, offering successful students the best opportunity to study at the post-secondary institution of their choice (Canadian or international).
Handsome tuition fees, then, promise to not only give a student access to a wealth of extracurricular activities, highly trained teachers and top-notch facilities, but to an academic program that has been lauded as the gold standard for universities worldwide. This is one more way private schools are choosing to distinguish themselves and, in turn, their best students.
Scott Cowie, head of the senior division at Upper Canada College, explains what IB programming has been offered to UCC students since 1995: “Students comment on the ‘richness’ of their IB experience. Not only do they learn content and academic skills like any other academic program, but the IB program goes further in helping students better understand the learning process: how to approach challenging material in various forms and how to solve complex problems through its emphasis on deep analytical thinking and critical literacy.”
Though Cowie acknowledges that the diploma program is in many ways more rigorous than other academic programs, he says, “It is also a program of wide breadth and depth.” Cowie explains IB requires a truly comprehensive study of a range of subjects: language and literature, language acquisition, individuals and society, experimental sciences, mathematics and computer science and the arts.
And indeed, top universities do tend to meet IB candidates with great enthusiasm. Ken Withers, the director of the office of student recruitment at the University of Toronto, says that the university is “very keen” on admitting successful IB students.
“We will provide an early conditional offer based on predicted IB scores that meet or exceed our entry requirements,” he explains.
He also notes that the University will award up to three transfer credits — equivalent to three full-year undergraduate courses — to high-scoring IB Diploma graduates. This is not an uncommon reception. The majority of Canadian universities acknowledge the IB Diploma and offer incentives to students applying for undergraduate study. In addition, and in keeping with the intent of the curriculum, a wealth of international universities recognize IB graduates. Branksome Hall tallies over 2,200 top institutions that value their students’ IB Diplomas, asserting that “the best higher education institutions seek out and reward IB graduates.”
And admission is just the beginning. IB graduates also frequently find themselves better prepared for university-level study. Cowie explains that IB programming requires students to complete regular analytical writing and oral assignments, which are more common in post-secondary schooling. A 4,000-word final research essay must be submitted in order to earn the IB Diploma, readying students for undergraduate papers and theses.
The TDSB debates dissolved when parents, students and teachers who recognized the benefits of the IB argued its value for all students. This is a concept that many Toronto private schools have embraced over the past decade. Because even though an IB education is not essential for Canadian university admission and success, it may be the best way to ensure a student has all the opportunity in the world.
Students enrolled in IB programs study at a rigorous level similar to university