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The International Baccalaureate in Australia – a standard alternative or a market exercise?

By Catherine Doherty - posted Wednesday, 21 April 2010

The International Baccalaureate is a suite of school curricula that is becoming increasingly popular in Australian schools. The growth in its uptake serves strategic purposes for students, parents, teachers and school managers, under different logics, each defensible on its own terms, but equally open to critique on others. Nevertheless, it is always a “marked” choice, that is, a choice that eschews the default, and implicitly serves to critique the local government curriculum. I would argue that we as a community need to understand how the fact of its presence in the Australian educational landscape has influenced public debate around educational standards and curriculum design.

So what is the IB? The IB originated in Geneva in the UN community of the 1960s where transnational parents were worried about the tertiary education opportunities of their children. From this relatively privileged enclave, the non-profit International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO) has grown to a sophisticated global concern, administering three school curricula – its flagship Diploma Program for Years 11 and 12, the Middle Years program, and the Primary Years Program - now operating in a total of 2,871 schools in 138 countries. In Australia the PYP is currently offered in 53 schools, the Middle Years Programme in 47 schools and the Diploma in 58 schools, with more seeking accreditation.

Apart from its recent rapid growth in enrolments, the most interesting recent development has been the spread of IBO's programs beyond its original habitat in “international schools” to government schools, to be offered to local populations, particularly in the US, the UK and nowAustralia. We can understand the presence of IB programs in Australian schools at one level as an exercise in markets and branding, producing students, schools or teachers with some  “point of difference" in marketing-speak. In this vein, Education Queensland chose the IB Diploma as the only curriculum to be offered to the “best and brightest” in its new selective academies opened in 2007 and 2008. Now, that’s an interesting development when you consider that Queensland administers its own curriculum which has been thrashed out through the rigours and accountabilities of domestic politics. Importing a curriculum circumvents the vexed dialogues and communal soul searching around what should or shouldn’t be taught in our schools. Should we be worried?


As an educational enterprise, the IBO have the privilege of designing curriculum without necessary reference to a particular schooling system and its pragmatic operational constraints. Nor has it had to negotiate the competing priorities of a robust democratic process and nation-building to test or complicate its premises. Schools apply to the IBO to offer its curricula and have to fulfil its rigorous accreditation processes, not vice versa. It is thus no accident that in Australia, the IB programs have more typically been found in the non-government sector and charge extra fees to fund their delivery in government schools.

Without such systemic constraints, one could argue that anyone could dream up an ideal curriculum. And the IBO is unashamedly idealist. Underpinning its whole curricular “experiment” is a commitment to nurturing “international-mindedness”, and global citizens with a commitment to community service. Though this appears to be inarguably a good and timely thing, it has been accused of undermining patriotism in some US states. In Australia, such sentiments may not be as strident, but the school curriculum is still considered an important site for designing and sustaining a national identity – just ask the people charged with writing the national curriculum! So again, the choice of IB programs over local ones evades some difficult questions.

Perhaps the biggest challenge that the IBO hasn’t had to address to date is designing a curriculum for the majority of children who aren’t headed for university study. This uncompromised focus allows it to assert “rigorous” standards and maintain its reputation for academic excellence in the high stakes Diploma program. It is essentially a curriculum that selects its students, by giving enough brand warnings of its difficulty and workload demands. This reputation can create classrooms of engaged, thirsty and capable learners that teachers relish because everyone is on the same page. But elsewhere, as a nation, we have seen fit and fought hard to achieve mass secondary education and invested in a creeping increase in the age for compulsory attendance, to meet the cognitive demands of a globalising economy. A curriculum frame for all comers cannot afford to specialise in the needs of just the academically ambitious, but needs the flexibility and range to connect with the variety of students and their lifeworlds. The complexity in that challenge makes the IB Diploma “s academic niche look like an easy gig.

During early conversations around the national curriculum and a possible “Australian Certificate in Education”, the IB Diploma became the pin-up icon for curricular choice. Like health insurance, mobile phone plans and television channels, market choice has become the logic for much educational policy and reform (think My School website). The presence of the IB as an option in some high status schools became emblematic of the potential for a national curriculum as well, to displace the dreaded “monopoly” of state curricula that was unavailable to Commonwealth tinkering.

There is however a remarkable irony when the IB Diploma stands for an ethic of choice, because it is a curriculum defined by strong prescriptions and lack of flexibility about the spread of subjects students will take across disciplines, and the nature of assessment. Since the 1970s it has held fast to the vision of the cultivated, well-educated liberal humanist, at ease across the sciences, arts and humanities. Though laudable, this vision seems nostalgic and a tad elitist, and has not engaged with the imperative for relevance and human capital preparation that industry boards would demand of government curricula. “Flexibility” and “choice” far better describe the variety of state government curricula that can accommodate either breadth of subjects or specialisation as desired in multiple pathways. Parents and students can build cross-disciplinary balance if so desired, but equally can play to a student's strengths and vocational goals.

Public debate invokes the term “standards" as if we all know what we mean, but scratch any curriculum and you’ll find complex settlements between competing priorities, all jockeying for position in the limited time and resources of an official curriculum. When we talk about “standards” in education, we need to think about “whose version” of “what standards”, “for what purpose”, “for whom”, “in what frame”, and “to what end". None of these considerations are self-evident or resolved, despite what conservative pundits have to say. In fact the term “standard” in itself works hard to erase this complexity. Alternative curricula such as the IB suite offer comparative foils which can help us explore what’s possible, and how settlements might be tweaked. But to me, the wholesale outsourcing of the decisions on what should go into our children’s education seems an overreaction and abrogation of a civil society’s responsibility to argue these issues. My argument is not with the IBO, which from all my observations is a thoughtful responsible organisation that continues to reflect and evolve in response to emerging conditions. No, my argument is with lazy governments that allow markets to resolve the big issues.



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About the Author

Catherine Doherty is a sociologist of education working as a research fellow in Queensland University of Technology’s Faculty of Education, with research interests into internationalised curriculum and mobility in higher education and schooling.

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