Three students, Adriana Magli, Francesco Lasagna and Andrea Barletta, discuss how the IB Diploma Programme (DP), which provides entry to the best universities in the world, works. As Dr Siva Kumari, Director General of the IB, explains: “Its strengths are student-centredness, international-mindedness, and rigorous assessment”. This article was published in Italian in the Corriere della Sera newspaper, following Dr Kumari's visit to the British School of Milan (BSM) in June.
A rigorous programme
It is a qualification which Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, Marina Catena, head of the UN’s World Food Programme, and Dustin Moskovitz, Facebook co-founder, have in common. Together with them, a million students all around the world have attended one of the 4,700 school, both public and private, which offer the DP, an international high school certificate equivalent to the Italian final school exam. The dates are the same: while our home students were getting ready for their high school diploma exams, others were sitting their DP exams. Available in 150 countries, it is an internationally recognised examination which makes students eligible for enrolment at the best universities. The programme is different and covers the last two years of high school. Students take six subjects from a choice of around 40, at higher or standard level, and these are selected from six different subject areas which must include a mixture of sciences and humanities. The curriculum is supplemented by three core subjects; theory of knowledge, a 4,000-word extended essay (a dissertation) on a subject of the candidate’s choice, and a creative activity such as volunteer work or community service. The programme is rigorous, acknowledges global themes, aims to develop critical thought, keeps students’ curiosity alive and constantly brings them into the learning process. It combines traditional subjects with skills judged positively by both universities and employers. Assessed by external examiners, the final assessments take place at the end of the last year, generally in May. Work is assessed by expert teaching staff around the world on the basis of common mark schemes and is subject to moderation. If candidates are not satisfied with the way their work has been marked or assessed they can ask for it to be re-evaluated. Diplomas are awarded to students who achieve a minimum mark of 24 out of 45.
Adriana Magli, 17, a student at BSM, answers the phone from Milan airport as she is leaving for a holiday in Spain with her friends. The post-diploma holiday is a time-honoured tradition for those who choose alternative educational pathways. For Adriana it is also a way of taking her mind off the wait for the results of the exams she took in May. “I’ll be back home on Friday, July 6, when the results come out”, she says. “I want to open that envelope with my family”. Hers was a completely English-language education. She enrolled at BSM when she was middle school age. She has already been accepted at Leeds University in England where she will be studying Fine Arts, from September onwards. “I applied to five different universities via the centralised British system UCAS”, she tells us. “Those choosing an art course are usually required to complete a foundation year but my curriculum and interview convinced the admissions officer that this wasn’t necessary”. Hers was an education in which art played a significant role, with the support of the teachers of a department which, she says, “is very strong” at her school at Via Pisani Dossi. For her final exam she wrote her extended essay on Arnaldo Pomodoro and his relationship with Milan. While her friends attending Italian schools studied for their high school diplomas, Adriana could compare programmes and teacher expectations. “What I saw was that this course prepares you better for individual, independent study than the Italian system. You feel more involved and constantly called on to make choices; from the subjects you study to research topics through to university outcomes on which you need to be clear even at the age of 16”. The challenge? “Doing everything, which is a lot, on your own. But you learn to organise your time, to plan”.
Andrea Barletta moved from the Bellinzago Lombardo state middle school to BSM just four years ago. “It was tough at the beginning; the language, a completely different system and the teacher-student relationship. Each teacher has challenging objectives and gets students involved in group work”. With schoolmates too, the dynamics are a little different: “You are pushed to show what you’re capable of, positively, to improve things”, he says. After the first year, it all got easier and he felt part of the community which the school creates around its educational activities. During his exams Andrea compared his own experiences with those of his former schoolmates doing the Italian high school diploma exams. “I felt that ours was more challenging”, he said, “because every subject is examined separately. The whole exam process can last two or three weeks. But in the two years running up to it you get plenty of practice, doing lots of mock exams, and this gives you a pretty clear idea of what you can expect. You’re still nervous but you mostly know what you have to do and how to organise your time”. The results will come out in a few days’ time: “I’m optimistic”, says Andrea, “I’m going to study economics in English at Bocconi University. Then I hope to find a job which gives me the chance to travel and meet people from all over the world”.
Francesco Lasagna took history, physics and economics at higher level and Spanish, mathematics and English language and literature at standard level. For his extended essay he chose the relationship between politics and architecture in post-unification Italy. For his community service element, he used his experiences in the Scouts, Milano 45 group, which he has been a member of since he moved from London to Italy with his family in 2004. That was the year he started studying at BSM. Depending on his exam results he will continue his studies in Warwick, UK, where he has a conditional offer to study Political History (‘but I have to get 38 marks out of 45 and 6 out of 7 in history’) or at Bocconi in Milan to study its English-language Economics and Finance course. Pros and cons of the IB programme as compared to the Italian high school diploma? “You need what you want to study at university already in mind at the age of 16 when you choose your subjects. If you don’t take physics, for example, you can’t do engineering in the UK and if you don’t do biology you can’t do medicine. But you’re well prepared and teachers are a great help in giving guidance”.
50 years in 150 countries
Behind the method there is a non-governmental organisation founded in 1968 in Geneva to respond to a practical need: a suitable educational programme for the children of the many international body employees who move countries every few years. In addition to the DP, the best known and most common, the IB has developed a Primary Years Programme (PYP) broadly inspired by Maria Montessori’s thought and the Reggio Emilia approach, a Middle Years Programme (MYP) and a vocational-oriented curriculum, the Career-related Programme (CP).
To celebrate its 50th anniversary this year the organisation “has planned a series of initiatives worldwide and a huge party in Geneva in October,” the IB’s Director General Siva Kumari told Corriere della Sera. She travelled to Milan to visit one of the organization’s affiliated schools, BSM, which is also celebrating its half-century. “Over the years the IB’s educational model has remained loyal to its international vocation and has won over a growing number of supporters for its student-focused approach and potential for shaping an international mindset as well as for the rigour of its examination system”, she said. “One of our strengths is our ongoing training for teachers and school management, with workshops organised all over the world. It is a system which requires a new teaching role, a facilitator rather than a lecturer. This is a teacher whose task is to supply a solid foundation of knowledge and stimulate the active participation of those attending”. Less based on retaining facts than the Italian system, IB ensures students a more complete education than traditional English A-levels too, argues Dr Kumari. Although it is reputed to be very challenging, “students moving on to university are happy. They are better equipped for higher study, they know how to write essays and presentations and do independent research and have a better understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses”.
35 schools in Italy
In Italy, the DP has existed since 1975 and it is now offered by 35 schools, most of them private (listed on the website of the Association of IB World Schools in Italy). It is certainly not a standard open to everyone, but Dr Kumari will not hear it called an elite programme: “It is only elite in the sense that it is demanding”, she says. Certainly, outside Italy students have more choice. In the UK, for example, of the 143 schools offering IB 62 are state schools and 81 private. There are plenty of state schools offering it in the US which is the top nation in terms of number of diploma holders (85,000 last year), with Canada (11,000) in second place. Next comes the UK in third place in 2017 (4,800), fourth the Netherlands (4,600) and then China (3,700), India (3,650) and Mexico (3,400). For Italian IB diploma holders continuing their studies in Italy, the most popular universities are Milan’s Bocconi, Cattolica Universita, John Cabot University in Rome, Politecnico di Milano and Università degli Studi di Milano.
This is a translated version of the original article published in Corriere della Sera in Italian. Read the article in Italian here.