IB Schools and Colleges Association

The need for breadth in 21st education

Wellington Festival of Education, Friday 23rd June

The need for breadth in 21st education

‘What’s so special or odd about English students that they have the narrowest 16+ education in the world?’ [Carl Gombrich, University College, London]

On Friday 23rd June at the Wellington Festival of Education, the International Baccalaureate brought together key figures from secondary and tertiary education to discuss the need for an education broader than the traditional specialisation of the A level system. On a panel chaired by Jenny Gillett from the International Baccalaureate were:

Carl Gombrich, Programme Director, Arts and Sciences BASc, University College, London

Johnny Rich, Chief Executive, Engineering Professors Council 

Tim Jones, Academic Deputy, Sevenoaks School

Paul Teulon, Director of Admissions, King’s College, London


Jenny started the session with quotations from Sir David Bell, the Vice-Chancellor of Reading University and the reports on 16+ education  produced in 2014 by the Royal Society and the Pearson Group, all of which emphasised the need for an education that gives every student the opportunity to continue to study across Maths, science, languages and humanities – the quotations are attached. Then each of the panel gave his own perspective.


Carl Gombrich is responsible for the highly successful undergraduate degree in Arts and Sciences at University College, London, which launched in 2012 and now has 660 applications for 120 places per year and overall around 450 students in its current steady state. He questioned the strange anomaly that English students study the narrowest curriculum in the world after the age of 16. He said that, in a world where 82% of employers said that they did not require a single discipline degree qualification, such an approach ran entirely contrary to the needs that lie beyond school and university. He said that attachment to the idea of depth and specialisation was an attachment to subject titles invented in the 19th century, an attachment that made no sense when, for example, only 35-40% of engineering graduates end up as engineers. He emphasised that it was vital for students to study at university and work in the world with a range of inter-disciplinary skills.


Johnny Rich, whose career encompasses a range of educational roles, said that in engineering, but not only in engineering, this breadth was essential. At the moment, we are producing only 50% of the engineers that are needed and this is a matter of critical concern. Of course, engineering requires scientific knowledge, but it is also a subject that requires imagination, creativity, the capacity to analyse and synthesise, the power to communicate and, for this purpose, the International Baccalaureate is ‘a perfect solution’. However, he also argued that the matter went further than this. However, he also argued that education was more than just employability and it was about developing rounded individuals with strength of character.


Tim Jones, who is the Academic Deputy at Sevenoaks School, the most successful 100% IB school in the UK, spoke personally and professionally about the opportunities that the breadth of an IB education had brought. He himself had wanted to combine study of Maths, science and English in an A level world that did not countenance such a notion. He had grown up in a world where ignorance of Maths and science had been the socially accepted norm. Whereas now, teaching in a IB school and with children who had studied the IB he has seen, as a teacher and a parent, the value of an education that encourage breadth, depth of thought and thought across disciplines.


Paul Teulon who, as Director of Admissions at King’s College, London, has reduced the IB offer for all subjects from 38 to 35 points, said that, in the good old days, he himself had studied 6 A levels. His experience and data at KCL had shown that IB students were particularly well equipped for the demands of university study, in terms of skills, thinking and determination. There was no doubt that IB students coped very well with the transition to the high demands of independent study at KCL and the reduction in the offer had seen no drop in quality or outcome. That was why KCL had been striving to grow IB applications and it was now the number 1 IB destination in the UK with over 6000 applications and 800 IB graduates enrolling in September 2017. However, as a governor of an inner-London free school, he was concerned that funding cuts were reducing the opportunities for state-school students to study the International Baccalaureate.


In the discussion that followed it was clear that there were serious concerns about funding cuts and a return to an even narrower A level programme would lead to a curriculum that was even less likely to provide the kind of education that was needed in the 21st century.


Further information

International Baccalaureate: www.ibo.org

International Baccalaureate Schools and Colleges Association: www.ibsca.org.uk

University College London, Arts and Sciences BASc degree: www.ucl.ac.uk/basc

King’s College, London: www.kcl.ac.uk



Jenny Gillett: Jenny.gillett@obo.org

John Claughton: Developmentofficer@ibsca.org.uk, 07799 762020

Peter Fidczuk, IB UK Development Manager: peter.fidczuk@ibo.org