Challenges and Opportunities – Getting to Know the IB Diploma

By Ewan McCallum, May 28, 2020

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The International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP) is one of the most prestigious pre-university qualifications that a pupil can achieve. It’s a highly challenging course that gives pupils the chance to fully explore their potential paths ahead in their academic career as well as their own capabilities as a learner and thinker. It’s also a gateway to a higher level of preparedness for what lies in store and is Wellington College’s chosen course for getting our sixth form pupils ready to take on the rest of their lives with confidence and clarity. 

While most pupils entering sixth form (and their parents) will have heard of the IBDP, not everyone knows exactly what that means or why it’s important. This article is meant to give more insight on the IBDP as well as pupils’ experiences during the final two years of their Wellington education.


The Basics – What is the IBDP all about?

The IBDP is made up of six subject groups and the DP core curriculum, comprising theory of knowledge (TOK), creativity, activity, service (CAS) and the extended essay (EE).

This wider range of studied subjects offered by the IB programme is designed to let pupils take a broader exploration of learning without specialising too narrowly too early on in their formal education. Ideally, this approach will give them the ability to not only enjoy a more holistic education, but also guide them onto a future university and career path that is right for them. 

The Benefits – What does the IBDP offer pupils who take it?  


I get asked this question a lot by parents whose children are about to undertake the IB, and by the pupils themselves. Why study six subjects plus the DP core if you already know what subjects you’re good at from the GCSE/IGCSE years, right? Why not focus on just three subjects which are most likely to result in the best grades?

The problem with this approach is that firstly it’s based on the assumption that the pupil truly does know what they’re ‘good at’. Wellington’s guiding principle is that a holistic education is the best path to prepare our pupils. By studying more subjects, more widely but still in depth, our pupils are truly able to discover where their talents and interests lie. 

Together with the DP core, we believe that this approach sets young people up to be very capable and versatile thinkers. The IBDP achieves this with its emphasis on independent learning and being proactive and resilient throughout the two years of study. These are abilities that our pupils will need more than ever before, as the world continues to change faster and more noticeably. Globalisation and the emergence of advanced technologies are all factors that underline the importance of being able to think for yourself and understand your own capabilities in a world that can change quickly.

As well as the invaluable academic benefits, the IBDP is also an excellent course for focusing and harnessing pupils’ ambitions regarding their immediate future. Regardless of where they are from or where they aim to go, the IBDP is extremely well regarded by higher education institutions due to the challenge and rigour that pupils deal with daily.

The Challenge – Isn’t IB incredibly hard? 


The IB has a well-known reputation for being challenging. That’s because it is challenging. Balancing the need to explore six different subjects and produce work of a consistently high standard, alongside the demands of CAS, TOK and EE is not easy. But, speak to any Wellington alumni and they will tell you that the challenge is steep but structured in a way that means it is achievable. You must be willing to work hard, plan ahead and come forward if you need help.

We fully accept that this is an extremely challenging course and that it is absolutely not for everyone. For that reason, we don’t accept pupils onto the IBDP if we truly do not believe that they will be able to handle the pressure and academic rigour that comes with it. 

However, the challenging nature of the IB is a big part of its inherent value. Much like Wellington itself, the IB expects a lot of its pupils. It pushes them, focuses them, and, crucially, it opens up new horizons for them. So while the difficulty of the task might seem daunting at first, know that the rewards are significant. Wellington has a comprehensive support system in place to give our pupils the means to get the most out of the programme and the best from themselves.

The Response – What does the ideal IB pupil look like? 


While we do have a Wellington IB learner profile that explains in detail the kind of attitude and aptitudes a pupil should have to successfully complete the course, for me, the ideal IB pupil should be all of the following things:

A diligent time manager – Every pupil needs to be able to be organised and capable of making the best use of their time every day.

An effective communicator – Asking for help when necessary is not a weakness, it’s a strength, particularly in the context of the IBDP. Pupils need to be open about their performance and their experiences with the course. They also need to come forward and proactively engage with their teachers, especially if they are experiencing difficulties. 

A hard worker – While the level of work involved in the IBDP is always manageable with the right approach, coasting is not an option. Pupils need to be thinking strategically about keeping on top of their current workload while looking ahead to key deadlines for internal assessments, essays and other major pieces of work that contribute to their final grade.

The Support – What does Wellington do to help pupils get the most from the IBDP?


After joining the College two years ago, I quickly discovered that Wellington’s systems – particularly those involving pastoral care – have created an excellent environment to support its sixth formers as they tackle the IBDP. Thanks to the house system, wellbeing programme and our university guidance team, we are exceptionally well placed to ensure that pupils studying the IB are always supported. The support is not just in terms of their daily and long-term academic work, but also personally. This is a top priority, because while their future is important, we want pupils to get the most from their present school life as well.

The tutor system and general input from IB teachers are also essential parts of the Wellington IB formula. From working closely with all of the College’s staff members who teach our IB pupils, I know that they are dedicated to pushing them in a way that raises their aspirations and capabilities without overloading them. Nobody cares more about these pupils’ success and wellbeing. 

Thanks to their dedication and the small sizes of IB classes at Wellington, it’s possible to give detailed assessments and feedback tailored to each pupil. I cannot stress enough how beneficial it is for our sixth formers to know that their teachers understand ‘where they are at’. This lets them accurately track how they are progressing and what they need to do to hit the grades we know they are capable of achieving.

The Result – What does life after the IBDP look like? 


While we can’t fully guarantee where a pupil will end up after their time at Wellington, I can say with complete confidence that we can help them discover where they truly want to be, and then give them the best possible chance to get there. The IB programme at Wellington continues to go from strength to strength, with successive cohorts of IB leavers achieving offers from many of the world’s most reputable and prestigious universities and colleges. 

Perhaps more importantly, sixth formers leave us confident in the knowledge that they have fought for the options they deserve and made the choice that is right for them. During my time at Wellington, I’ve had the privilege of seeing many pupils mature in a very short space of time, making honest, self-aware decisions about what paths inspire them. Similarly, I’ve seen pupils go on to study at universities that, at the beginning of the programme, felt completely out of their reach. This is what happens when hard work, willpower and the right amount of ambition collide. 

One of the most enjoyable parts of my job is hearing back from Wellington alumni (Old Wellingtonians) letting us know how they are flourishing in this new stage of their lives. While each of their journeys is unique, one of the common threads is how they feel they are coping with the challenge of university life. They find it better than they anticipated, often thanks to the preparatory benefits of studying the IBDP at Wellington. This makes me proud of what we do here. 

With the right support, the IBDP gives pupils the tools they need to succeed at their chosen higher education course and in later life. More importantly, it improves their ability to tackle new challenges and to cope with pressure and failures. They have grit and resilience, the ability to understand their own inherent strengths and weaknesses, and vitally, to know what they want and have the confidence to go after it with everything they have. 

The university offers that Wellington’s current year 13 pupils have so far received represent a truly outstanding achievement. Gaining a range of offers as impressive as these is not easy. They are the product of years of preparation, forensic research and input from a wide variety of people on a range of topics related to university admissions. The fact that Wellington’s pupils have been recognized by the most selective of global universities, from Oxbridge to the Ivy League, is a real testament to the hard work and ambition of the pupils as well as the dedication of all those people involved in supporting them.

Find out more about Wellington’s outstanding 2020 university offers.

Although our campus is currently closed to external visitors – you can still take a look round via our new virtual tours. Our admissions team is readily available to answer any questions you might have and to guide you through the application process.

Please do get in touch.


Ewan McCallum is Head of Sixth Form, Wellington College International Shanghai

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