The IB Experience: What’s It Really Like?

Curious about the International Baccalaureate, or IB diploma programme? Get an insider’s view from a local parent whose son is in Year 4 of his IB studies. 

IB programme

Founded in 1968 in Switzerland and globally recognised, the IB offers an education for students from age three to 19. The hallmark of the IB curriculum is that it focuses on teaching students to think critically and independently, and to inquire with care and logic. 

Currently, 27 schools in Singapore offer the IB diploma programme, including Anglo-Chinese School (Independent), the School of the Arts (SOTA), St Joseph’s Institution, and the Singapore Sports School. Of the listed schools, only SOTA offers the IB Career-related Programme, which addresses the needs of students engaged in career-related education.

Interested parents can read more about the IB on the official website.

Early this year, it was reported that students who sat for the IB diploma exams last November had average scores that were higher than the global average — 38.49 points versus 28.58 points respectively, with the maximum or “perfect” score being 45. 

In addition, almost all the 2,152 students from Singapore (97.99 per cent) passed the IB diploma exams, compared with the global rate of 68.73 per cent. These figures were supplied by the Switzerland-based IB organisation, which conducts the exams.* 

What exactly do students in IB schools do differently, and could this pathway be suitable for your child? We spoke to a parent of a Year 4 IB student, who gave us his insights and tips on pursuing the IB diploma in Singapore.

*Note: For a comparison, click here to see how last year’s Singapore cohort performed for the GCE A-Levels.

Why did you encourage your son to enrol in the IB programme?

My wife and I have always had an interest in a slightly less mainstream educational path for our son. In fact, he had applied and auditioned for SOTA — through his violin playing as he has a Grade 7 ABRSM qualification — but he didn’t make it. That was heartbreaking for him, and we’ve never seen him so crestfallen over a failure before. (My son is a “glass half full” optimistic guy.) 

However, that also prompted him to work hard for the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), and he did well enough to make it to schools that offered the six-year Integrated Programme for the GCE A-Levels or the IB. 

Why did you choose the IB over the A-Levels?

The IB programme was attractive to us as we felt it offered a more holistic education with a stronger grounding in the humanities. We also thought that compared with the A-Levels, the IB programme was slightly less focused on academic results.

In my son’s school, the IB programme is also a through-train programme, so it is a six-year direct programme that skips the O-Levels. The main reason we chose it was due to the broader emphasis of the curriculum beyond examination requirements. Having said that, I understand that different IB schools can be run quite differently. 

Tell us more about the “broader emphasis” of the IB curriculum.

For example, in one of my son’s geography projects, he had to go around the heritage precincts with his teammates (to Little India, Kampong Glam, and Chinatown) and take photographs, document the unique points of each precinct, and describe how they’ve evolved as well as the possible tensions that may arise in each area. 

Some of his projects require him to write an essay, create a website, or deliver a powerpoint presentation. These projects also have to be properly researched, with the relevant citations included in the bibliography.

He also has a subject called “The World and Me,” which has a community element. For one of his projects, he worked with his teammates to reach out to foreign workers (who played volleyball in Kallang during the weekends), and help them to organise a volleyball championship. This community included Bangladeshi and Indian construction workers, Filipino domestic workers, as well as Filipino executives and other groups. 

For Years 5 and 6, there is a subject called the “Theory of Knowledge,” which requires students to write a 1,600 word essay and deliver a presentation on the topic of their choice.

What else might local parents not know about the IB programme? 

Well, I’m not sure if it’s the IB programme or the school that my son is in, but they do have a lot of group projects, presentations, and individual research work as part of the curriculum. While the exams and tests still play a part in determining a student’s overall grade, the projects help to inculcate teamwork, leadership, and project management skills.

One thing which surprised us was that not all IB students are “super kiasu.” Many of them also have a life outside of schoolwork and their co-curricular activities.

What does your son find most rewarding about the IB?

He likes the variety of group projects that they handle. This includes creating websites and giving presentations, which he enjoys, as he likes to talk! 

What’s been the most challenging for him? Was there an initial adjustment period? 

The most challenging aspect would probably be the profile of his peers. Most are smart and driven to succeed academically. My son is fairly average in his class, but he has started to shine in some subjects (while lagging in others). I don’t think he had a lot of adjusting to do. He simply took to the new experience like a fish to water, and he liked it a lot better than primary school life.

There seems to be a notion locally that you need to be a good communicator to thrive in the IB programme. What do you think? 

This is true to some extent, as they emphasise presentation skills, the crafting of project papers, and gaining familiarity with different presentation formats. The IB programme is probably not that well-suited for shy and introverted students who are more technical in nature.

From what my son tells me, he was able to do well even in subjects like Higher Chinese (which was a surprise to me) because of the heavier emphasis on oral versus written papers. Of course, they still need to sit for written exams, but the weightage for oral and presentation skills helps students who are comfortable with speaking up to do better.

However, I think students who may not have good communication skills should also try out for the IB programme if they have the growth mindset. It will help to stretch them outside of their comfort zones and to do projects that are outside of the usual academic areas. For example, I learned recently that my son had to write a letter to our Member of Parliament — and surprisingly, he replied within the same day!

Do you know of others in the IB programme who’ve had a different experience?

Yes, my niece is also in the IB programme, and by her account, her environment is more competitive. Her workload may not be significantly different, but it seems that there are high expectations of the students in her school. 

In general, the IB experience in the local Independent schools — which take in high-scoring students — will probably be more hectic and stressful than in the International schools. 

What advice would you have for kids who are interested in the IB?

Read widely on various topics, especially current affairs. This will help them to enjoy the course better and do well. The other thing is that there is no point to “mug” for an IB school, since it really is about inculcating a more holistic interest in learning beyond the core subjects. 

How can parents better support their kids in the IB?

Take an interest in the projects that your kids are working on, and keep up with global affairs. Discussing these topics with your kids can help to nurture their interest. 

Adopting a curious mindset is also key. This will help your kids to build the foundations for independent research, which is much needed to thrive in the IB programme.

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