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International Baccalaureate IB Diploma Programme (DP) Guide

International Baccalaureate IB Diploma Programme (DP) Guide

by April 29, 2016

The International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IB DP) is a two-year highly academic programme generally taken by students between the age of 16 and 18 years in International Baccalaureate schools. The program’s value arguably lies primarily as a pre-entrance qualification for students seeking to progress to undergraduate study.

Many argue, however, that its value is intrinsic because, in its breadth of subject provision, it allows for the development of a much more rounded education than its alternatives, and particular the UK International A Level.

Those that hold this view often believe that students should only specialise later at university and that the role of education to the age of 18 should be broad-based.

Prospective parents need to consider extremely carefully the most appropriate curriculum for their children if the aim is for their children to secure entry to university.

For parents whose children are committed to enter industry at 18, rather than proceeding to university, and who are set on an IB school, we strongly recommend the alternative International Baccalaureate IB Career-related Programme (CP).

The IB programme requires that students study 6 core subjects – and complete a service programme, dissertation and a philosophical study in epistemology/knowledge. One of the six core subjects must be a second language – and of the remaining five subjects, students must include a mix of subjects from the Arts, Humanities, Mathematics and Sciences. Most students also complete one course in the Performing Arts, although this is the single subject block in which students can switch-out into an alternative.

Grades are awarded by scoring out of 7 in the six core subjects. Only three marks are awarded outside those core subjects. Students who are weak in one or more area will suffer in their final scoring. Even the most gifted scientist, for example, may find his final score so degraded that he or she is unable to enter a top university because of weaknesses in other areas. As a result, the programme best serves students who are academic polymaths, gifted across all subjects.

The leading competition to the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IB DP) is the International A Level. There is no requirement to study any more than three subjects in order to qualify for university entry to any university, and there is no packaging of other required activities outside the A Levels themselves.


It is often stated that A Levels have depth of study, whilst the IB offers breadth.

The challenge for students who are particularly skilled in one area, whether it is in Sciences, Mathematics, the Humanities or broader Arts, is that where A Levels allows students to choose the subjects in which they excel, the IB forces students to study subjects in which they may be weak.

The logical consequence is that very gifted students in a single subject area, set on securing a place at a top university, would be much better served studying International A Levels. This is a particularly the case where a student is not a linguist and has binary abilities in numerical or arts based disciplines, not both.

More detailed information can be found in the tables above.

Details to consider
Curricula - Which country is it from?


Curricula - Who underwrites it?

International Baccalaureate®
(Formerly International Baccalaureate® Organisation (IBO))

Curricula - Age when taken?

Studied over two years, generally by students between the ages of 16 and 18 years, in Grades 11 and 12 of an International Baccalaureate® school

Curricula - Subjects available?

The International Baccalaureate® Diploma Programme curriculum comprises study of:

(1) 6 subjects, usually 1 chosen from each of six subject blocks (see Note 2 below); and,

(2) the 3 DP "core" elements of (a) study and examination in the "Theory of Knowledge" (TOK); (b) a "Creativity, Activity, Service" (CAS) project; and (c) a 4,000 word individually researched "Extended Essay" (EE)

The six subject blocks are:

(1) Studies in language and literature
(2) Language acquisition
(3) Individuals and societies
(4) Sciences
(5) Mathematics
(6) The Arts

Note 1: usually three subjects are taken at Higher Level and three subjects at Standard Level, although students can choose to take four subjects at Higher Level and two subjects at Standard Level. Both Standard Level and Higher Level papers earn the same marks (although Higher level subjects require more hours off study and may award different total scoring for examinations and coursework)

Note 2: Students may opt to study an additional course from the Sciences; Individuals and Societies; or Languages subject blocks, instead of a course from the Arts block.

Subjects available within each subject block are:

SUBJECT BLOCK 1: Language and literature
Language A: literature (Standard Level or Higher Level)
Language A: language and literature (Standard Level or Higher Level)
Literature and performance (Standard Level only)

SUBJECT BLOCK 2: Language acquisition
Classical languages (Standard Level or Higher Level)
Language B (Standard Level or Higher Level)
Language ab initio (Standard Level only)

SUBJECT BLOCK 3: Individuals and societies
Business management (Standard Level or Higher Level)
Economics (Standard Level or Higher Level)
Geography (Standard Level or Higher Level)
Global Politics (Standard Level or Higher Level)
History (Standard Level or Higher Level)
Information technology in a global society (Standard Level or Higher Level) Philosophy (Standard Level or Higher Level)
Psychology (Standard Level or Higher Level)
Social and cultural anthropology (Standard Level or Higher Level)
World religions (Standard Level only)

Biology (Standard Level or Higher Level)
Chemistry (Standard Level or Higher Level)
Computer Science (Standard Level or Higher Level)
Design technology (Standard Level or Higher Level)
Environmental systems and societies (Standard Level or Higher Level)
Physics (Standard Level or Higher Level)
Sports, exercise and health science (Standard Level only)

SUBJECT BLOCK 5: Mathematics
Further mathematics (Higher Level only)
Mathematical studies (Standard Level only)
Mathematics (Standard Level or Higher Level)

Dance (Standard Level or Higher Level)
Film (Standard Level or Higher Level)
Music (Standard Level or Higher Level)
Theatre (Standard Level or Higher Level)
Visual arts (Standard Level or Higher Level)

The International Baccalaureate requires students to have a much broader education than, for example, International A Levels and they cannot specialise. Every student for the IB DP must study a native language, an additional language, a science, Mathematics, a Humanity and, for most students, a Performing Art.

Curricula - Balance of coursework to exams?

Heavily weighted to examinations in most subjects, between 20% and 40% of the final grade is, however, awarded according to coursework in most subject blocks. The exception is in Mathematics for which grading is based entirely on performance in examinations.

Each of the six courses are collectively worth a maximum of 42 points.

Only the the Theory of Knowledge (TOK) and Extended Essay (EE) components are (externally) assessed on the basis of 100% coursework and together these elements are only worth 3 points.

Creativity, Action, Service – the remaining element in the DP core – does not contribute any points.

Curricula - How much is rote based learning?

Rote learning (retaining of knowledge) is necessarily a core requirement for any student to be able to succeed in the IB DP because of the overarching role off examinations in assessment. Retaining knowledge, however, is viewed by the IB as a basic skill and high performance in examinations requires analysing and presenting information, evaluating and constructing arguments and solving problems creatively.

Curricula - How easy is it?

Highly academic and demanding, many believe the IB DP is the most difficult of all the curricular to pass or master. Students who are not polymaths are disadvantaged over highly talented students in a single field and any weakness in one area of required study, for example in languages or mathematics, can cripple an otherwise exceptionally intelligent student's score.

For many students the fundamental difficulty of the IB DP is not the complexity of any given subject, but this requirement to have abilities across such a wide breadth of very different subjects.

Student results are also determined by performance against set standards, not by each student's position in the overall rank order so it is theoretically possible in a year with more complex examinations that a child could fair less well than an equally able candidate in another year.

It is argued that the highest 45 point IB DP score is equivalent to a student achieving 6 International A Levels at Grade A.

Curricula - Materials for private study?

Materials are widely available.

Curricula - Grades awarded?

Each of the six elective subjects are scored between 1 and 7 points.

The theory of knowledge (TOK) and extended essay (EE) components are awarded individual grades and, collectively, contribute up to 3 additional points towards the overall Diploma score.

The maximum score achievable is 45 points.

Although there is no consensus on an exact comparative relationship between IB scores and International A Levels grades, the following are approximate:

31 Points equates to achieving 3 International A Levels, each at Grade B
36 Points equates to achieving 3 International A Levels, each at Grade A
42 Points equates to achieving 3 International A Levels, each at Grade A*

Some argue that because the IB DP requires core study in six subjects, each should be treated as an A Level and the programme is thereby equivalent of studying the equivalent of 6, not 3, International A Levels.

Curricula - Cost?

An International Baccalaureate® education is usually aligned with the most expensive Emirate's schools. This is mainly because of the calibre of teaching staff required to teach it, and the number of teaching staff required to ensure its effective delivery - particularly within inclusive schools.

Whilst this is a general rule, alternative curricular schools can be more expensive, costs rising according to the number of subject options made available within each school.

Prospective parents are advised not to assess the quality of any school by its curriculum, but rather by a combination of factors including class sizes; staff:student ratios; faculty qualification and experience; the breadth of subject options; enrichment; school transparency; the quality and breadth of facilities; the degree to which a school is selective or inclusive (to determine added value); ongoing investment and development planning; the "feel of a school"; perception of existing students and parents; the "fit" of each child to the offer of each school (academic, vocational, polymath, single subject specialist etc); the quality of, and investment in, SEN and EAL provision - and the performance of a school's students in examinations over time (is there an upwards curve?)

Curricula - Transfer-ability (to other curricula)?

Mid-stream transfer to a non IB curriculum school is not recommended unless there is no alternative.

Transfer to an alternative IB school offering continuity of subject study in all electives is theoretically possible.

Curricula - Where does it lead?

Although there is some argument whether the IB DP enjoys the same global reach of the International A Level, it is nevertheless a globally accepted pre-university qualification that, if scored highly, likely to secure a student a place at any of the top universities worldwide.

There is some argument whether students who are gifted in an individual field and certain of their undergraduate degree trajectory should choose the alternative International A Level curriculum as it allows much greater specialisation and depth of study - and crucially does not penalise weaknesses a student may have in subjects unrelated to their trajectory of eventual career of further study.

With IB study an outstanding student in the Sciences but with a weakness in languages and humanities risks poor scoring relative to that the student would achieve in studying a cluster of pure science-based A Levels.

The degree to which employers recognise the IB is still very dependent on the country and clearly the dominant qualification in any country will generally always be better understood.

There is some research to suggest that in the UK, some universities under-value the IB DP relative to A Levels, making it harder for students to gain entry with equivalent scores.

There is some incidental evidence internationally that amongst otherwise equivalent students, those who have studied for the IB DP achieve higher starting salaries than those with alternative qualifications.

Curricula - Who is it best for?

The IB DP favours the academic polymath who thrives in breadth of subject study. Linguists are significantly advantaged as second language study is compulsory.

It is likely to very significantly disadvantage students who excel only in a narrow group of subjects and who would benefit from greater depth of study.

The IB DP, unless it is delivered in extremely small classes with highly individualised learning, is also likely to challenge students on the weaker to mixed ability spectrum.

The core critique of the IB DP is that it does not cater to subject experts and devalues those gifted in individual subjects by forcing them to study in areas in which they have no natural ability or interest.

Curricula - Global value?

Internationally, the IB has a high value, although it varies considerably between countries and, like all senior school qualifications, becomes less important relative to final degree study and scoring. It is certainly the case that the IB is appreciated more by hiring individuals within industry who have also studied under its programmes.

As primarily a pre-university qualification, prospective parents should arguably focus less on its intrinsic value to employers than on on the likelihood of their child(ren) scoring highly on an intensely academic programme that demands breadth of skills and core linguistic ability.

Curricula - Employer’s opinion?

For polymaths seeking fast-track entry into industry at age 18, the alternative IB CRP programme is a better option.

University’s opinion?

Widely accepted - and most universities have separate, defined criteria for measuring applications from IB applicants.

The degree to which those criteria help or hinder students who have studied the IB DP is subject to extended research and the final verdict is less than clear.

It certainly depends on individual universities, the proposed subject of undergraduate study, the intensity of competition for places and the country in which the university is based.

It is likely that faced with two applicants, one with three A Levels graded at A*, and one with an IB DP scored at 45 points, neither applicant would have the edge/both would be accepted.

The situation becomes extremely muddled in calculating the value universities accord to the IB DP as exam scoring moves from its extremes at either end of the spectrum.


• Hugely rich, inspirational curriculum that offers all students the opportunity to develop academically, emotionally and creatively in ways that arguably no other curriculum can better

• Significant international recognition as a pre-qualifying curriculum by universities worldwide (although there are exceptions, including China)

• The quality of education afforded by schools delivering the IB DP is generally very high because the inherent demands of the curriculum require high calibre teachers if the school is to be successful

• Coursework component (between 20% and 40% according to subject) does recognise the different gifts of students outside examinations (except in Mathematics)

• A curriculum that offers academic polymaths the opportunity to develop their intellectual curiosity and potential to a very high degree


• The IB DP represents a significant risk for students whose academic abilities are limited to a minority of the core subject blocks. The most outstanding students in only one area, because grades are weighted across all six subject blocks, may not secure enough points to gain admission to their university of choice

• The IB DP forces some students to study subjects in which they have no interest or ability – and then grades them in those subjects

• The alternative International A Level, in most subjects, offers much greater depth of study and enables students to study those subjects in which they excel and have an interest

• Subject specialists are likely to achieve significantly higher grades in International A Levels

• The academic focus of the qualification as a pre-university qualifier means that it is less relevant than alternative vocational qualifications for students seeking fast-track entry into industry at 18

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The choice by parents of which school curriculum is best for any given child is exceptionally important and mistakes can cost a child dearly.

Parents are advised to invest in researching curricular offers very carefully before making any decision.

The particular abilities and talents of child(ren) are the key factor in deciding whether the International Baccalaureate® Diploma Programme (IB DP) is likely to best represent a child’s talents for later university admissions.

Because of the way grades are awarded in the IB DP, students whose academic abilities are highly developed across the whole spectrum of disciplines – linguistic, mathematical, artistic and scientific are likely to excel.

Students, however, who have weaknesses in one or more areas, but who are academically gifted in one block of subjects (for examples the Sciences) will always score more highly under an International A Level based curriculum.

For academic, polymath children, the intellectual, creative, emotional and cultural opportunities presented by the IB DP are outstanding.

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About The Author
Jon Westley
Jon Westley is the Editor of and UK. You can email him at jonathanwestley [at]

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