International Baccalaureate: the perfect preparation for engineers?

This blog has been written for the EPC by Henry Coverdale, Director of Post 16 Education at King Edward’s School in Birmingham. Henry was the author of one of the posters presented at the EPC Recruitment & Admissions Forum this month. 

“Our narrow education system, which encourages early specialisation, is no longer fit for purpose in an increasingly interdisciplinary world.”
Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, Nobel Laureate and President of the Royal Society.

With offers as they currently stand, International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma candidates are less likely to enrol on STEM courses at university the students with other qualifications (HESA).

This is a tragedy on three fronts: firstly, Engineering desperately needs more undergraduates with the sort of skills that the IB provides. The fact that every IB graduate has studied Maths and a Science, while also tackling humanities, literature and a foreign language, makes them ideal for the ethically difficult and creative problems that will face society in the future.

Secondly, IB graduates do fantastically well at university on STEM courses. They are more likely to be awarded a ‘good degree’ than an A level contemporary and, critically for STEM, they are also twice as likely to embark on further study after the completion of their first degree (HESA).

Finally, IB graduates are disproportionately women, if engineering departments were to actively seek out IB candidates it would be a pathway to some superbly creative and scientifically minded young women in schools, which would help to develop diversity in Engineering.

If Engineering departments were to be proactive in recruiting IB students, it would encourage more schools to take the plunge and offer this brilliant qualification, which would improve the calibre of British engineering students no end.

“More schools must adopt the IB – students shouldn’t be forced to narrow their options so early”
– Naomi Climer, President of the Institution for Engineering and Technology

The first, and arguably most important, place to start is reexamining the maths requirements for entry, especially now that the IB maths course is changing to create ‘applications’ courses that should be of particular benefit to engineers and economists. The IB Higher Level Maths course is internationally regarded – up there with Singapore Maths school-leaver qualifications – and it is the one subject where the UCAS points equivalent to A level Maths really doesn’t stack up. Research suggests that Higher Level Maths grade 6 is at an A* grade, with a 4 being approximate to an A at A level. As such, universities examining their Maths requirements could be an excellent start to encouraging more IB students to follow engineering careers. Perhaps, even (following Warwick University’s lead) either Maths or Physics at Higher Level is sufficient, given the other skills IB students arrive with.

If the UK is to tackle its uncertain future from a position of strength, with a workforce able to tackle problem solving in a creative and interdisciplinary way, it is imperative that more pupils are able and encouraged to take the IB diploma at 16. University engineering departments demonstrating they value the depth and breadth of the diploma would be a great step in the right direction. As David Willetts, former Minister for Universities and Science, has pointed out, universities are uniquely placed to influence Sixth Form curriculum decision-making.


This blog reflects the views of the author. The EPC does not have a stated position. To add your view to the debate, please comment below.

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