Is the International Baccalaureate program right for your kid?

By: Tim Johnson

Photo courtesy of Paul Bradbury/237/Ocean/Corbis Author: Canadian Living Credits: Photo courtesy of Paul Bradbury/237/Ocean/Corbis


Is the International Baccalaureate program right for your kid?

By: Tim Johnson
The move from high school to university is where the rubber meets the road, academically speaking. The transition can be difficult for many students—grades often drop due to much heavier course loads and much stiffer standards. But for Carol Drumm, who is entering her second year at the University of Toronto, the move to post-secondary education was a smooth one.

As a high school student at Toronto's Branksome Hall, Carol was enrolled in an International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma program instead of the regular curriculum, allowing her to tackle tasks she believes made the transition to university easier.

"The IB program requires students to take six courses and a theory of knowledge course; complete an extended essay, which is a two-year intensive research study in a subject of your choice; and participate in co-curricular activities under the areas of creativity, action and service. Completing all of this work in two years allows IB diploma students to arrive at university with a strong work ethic," says Carol.

An increasingly popular choice for parents and kids across the country, the IB diploma program provides a solid foundation for post-secondary-bound students. Grads say the focus on university prep gives them a distinct leg up. But getting your child into an IB diploma program can be challenging. While the curricula and standards remain consistent across Canada, fees and entrance requirements vary from province to province, district to district and even school to school. Here's what you need to know.

IB is about prioritizing
Founded more than 40 years ago by the International School of Geneva in Switzerland, the IB diploma program operates in more than 3,800 schools in 146 countries. Four program levels encompass kindergarten onward, but the diploma program is most often the one parents and post-secondary institutions are looking for.

Sabrina Chee, a Grade 12 IB student at Western Canada High School in Calgary, says any driven student can join the program. "It can take passion, critical thinking and, of course, time management. A student's priorities also play a huge role. Mostly, it takes hard work and a willingness to go above and beyond what you are capable of doing."

Though it may sound like a program for academic elites, that's not the case, says Shelley Maximitch Johnston, an IB teacher at Abbotsford Senior Secondary in British Columbia. "We have such a variety of students that come through," she says. "The program is designed for anyone who has a strong work ethic and a passion for learning."

IB program structure
IB programs aim to create well-rounded graduates: students who participate in community service, are physically active and engage in creative endeavours, such as music, dance or debate. But students at the top of their classes in regular public (or private) schools might find themselves needing to dig deeper for their IB diplomas.

All IB schools create their programs out of the IB framework, but each program differs. All the exams (known as "external assessments") are marked by international monitors and serve as ongoing report cards, not only for students but for teachers, too. Emphasis is on inquiry-based learning in which students are placed in the driver's seat to meet critical challenges that build skills needed for university.

Getting into the IB program
IB diploma programs are taught in 155 schools in Canada. To find one in your area, use the search tool at There is no agreed-upon approach to how students are admitted. Some schools conduct a series of personal interviews and require entrance essays (completed at home or under the supervision of a proctor). And while some programs require top grades to get in, the overarching philosophy is to identify—and nurture—unrealized potential. Ultimately, schools are encouraged to open up the program to as wide a swath of students as possible.

Cost of the IB program

While independent schools commonly lump the cost of IB into tuition, public schools lack a unified policy. Costs can be significant because each school is required to pay for an IB program coordinator (who is also a teacher at the school) and annual fees, as well as provide teacher training, says Pamela Gough, a Toronto District School Board (TDSB) trustee. "It's substantially more expensive to run [than the regular curriculum]."

The TDSB doesn't charge the 700 students enrolled in its six IB programs. "The IB program attracts people to the public board because it offers curriculum at a standard that some of the very best private schools offer," Gough says.

But other school boards can't afford such incentives. The Toronto Catholic District School Board bills parents $1,200 per year for the two-year diploma program, while the York Region District School Board charges $1,500 per year. At Abbotsford Senior Secondary in British Columbia, IB diploma program students study for free. There's also the potential for savings down the road. Students may get university credit for the program's three higher-level courses if they achieve a certain grade, though standards vary from university to university.

Does IB better prepare your child for university?

Andrew Arida, associate registrar for undergraduate admissions at the University of British Columbia, says UBC surveys show that former IB students rate themselves as "very good" or "excellent" more often than other grads in areas such as research skills, library skills, reading, comprehension and presentation preparation.

"International Baccalaureate students enter university more confident in their skills and abilities, and that level of confidence is sustained through to the end of first year," says Arida. "How you do in first year sets you up for the rest of your university career."

According to Arida, IB grads are often more involved on campus, and even the most lacklustre IB students tend to perform as well as (or better than) straight-A grads from traditional programs. Students from low socioeconomic backgrounds are also more likely to go on to university when enrolled in an IB diploma program.

A somewhat less definable factor—teacher satisfaction—also comes into play. "It's a program in which students who love to learn are being taught by teachers who love to teach," says Arida. "When you've got passionate educators and engaged students, that is remarkable in and of itself."

Carol says one of the most valuable lessons she learned is something many first-year post-secondary students struggle with: finding time for everything. "IB students participate in the arts, numerous clubs, sports teams and service initiatives, and we do this on top of a rigorous academic program. By the time I finished the IB diploma program, I had found my own concept of balance," she says.

For Sabrina, she says she hopes attaining an IB diploma will help her earn a spot at an Ivy League school or a university abroad. "I believe with the help of my teachers, classmates, parents, friends and the resources provided for me in IB, I'll achieve my goal."

Preparing your teens for university can be daunting for both teens and parents. Here are five things university students want parents to relax about.

With files from Robin Stevenson
This story was originally titled "Higher Learning" in the September 2014 issue.
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Is the International Baccalaureate program right for your kid?