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A coherent curriculum: A consideration of the IBDP as a model for curriculum design

Written by: Stephen Campbell
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6 min read

Writing in the Autumn 2018 edition of Impact, Tim Oates effectively asserts that the ‘oppositional discourse’ maintained through a debate between knowledge and skills within a curriculum fails to ‘reflect the most effective pedagogy from around the world’ (Oates, 2018, p. 16). With an emerging focus on building powerful knowledge (Young, 2013), there is a danger that the national mood will, rather predictably, swing reactively in the reverse direction to previous educational discourse. What is meant by this is that unless we, as Young himself points out, seek to find another way (Young, 2018), we eschew development of some elements of education over others.

In practical terms, the emphasis on standardised assessment has the greatest impact on curriculum emphasis. What is meant by this is that, in the reality of a school, curriculum decisions will be motivated by those priorities delineated through terminal assessment. Anecdotally, the reformed GCSEs are more difficult than those they have replaced; it has also been reported that, for example, many schools are finding it difficult to cover the required content for these GCSEs (Bloom, 2017). With schools, teachers and pupils under increasing pressure to cover more, no empty platitudes from education secretaries mandating character education will rebalance the tension identified by Oates. So, the reality of the situation is that the issues over the content demands of the reformed qualification in the UK almost prevent us from having the debate that Young sets out; if terminal assessment is built around knowledge then curriculum design will necessarily follow this.

What if there was another way?

Founded in 1968, the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP) seeks to create ‘inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect’ (IBO 2019). Its curriculum, offered in this country as an alternative to A-levels and internationally as a qualification for 18-year-olds, has a coherence that is perhaps lacking in other models. By coherence, it is perhaps best to use Myatt’s definition: a coherent curriculum is one that is built on a pedagogy, approach, content and assessment that reinforce one another (2018). Pupils are encouraged to seek out and explore connections in the knowledge they build, and are given a foundation on which to do this through the delivery of a core that endeavours to develop explicitly the skills required to be a learner, as defined by the IBDP. For example, whilst pupils will study subjects within broad disciplines, the ‘Theory of Knowledge’ course undertaken by all IBDP pupils explicitly seeks to draw horizontal discourse across subjects. Thus, periodically, pupils are encouraged to make links and comparisons between the way that knowledge is formed in various different disciplines, using prescribed knowledge frameworks. The assumption here is that they will challenge the efficacy and legitimacy of the knowledge that they are given in their subject domains; perhaps this is as close a curriculum structure as we might get when trying to enact an education that truly balances knowledge and skill, an education that resolves Oates’ ‘oppositional discourse’.

The IBDP is perhaps unfairly dismissed as being ideologically driven, and lacking the content rigour of A-levels. To critics, the IBDP sits too close to the skills end of the knowledge–skills continuum, emphasising the development of generic learner skills over domain-specific knowledge; House (2015, p. 5) notes that, in a bid to create a ‘globalised knowledge framework’, the IBO has eschewed the rigour of individual knowledge systems. Even worse, he claims that much of the IBO ‘policy discourse is unquestioned’, possibly as a direct consequence of a broad agreement with its overall philosophy.

However, this is too simplistic an interpretation and feeds into the debate that Oates warns us away from. Whilst we might argue against taking university success as an indicator of the robustness of a school curriculum, it is one indicator or measure of the success of a schooling system. The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) reports that pupils who study the IBDP are almost twice as likely to study at a top university, are more likely to attain a first class degree classification and are significantly less likely to drop out of university when compared with pupils who have studied for A-levels (HESA, 2016). These statistics even hold up when controlling for background and type of secondary school.

Interestingly, though, little thought has gone into considering the impact of the model earlier in educational sequences. The International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO) does have its own primary and middle years curriculum, but this is not held in as high regard as the IBDP: increasingly, schools that do make use of these curricula are turning away from them in favour of the aforementioned GCSEs. If we accept, then, that the IBDP offers a robust post-16 curriculum, but that a similar, concept-driven curriculum pre-16 is not stable enough, what would a strengthened, coherent middle years curriculum look like?

There is much to be said for seeking a coherence, firstly, in the GCSEs chosen within schools. Curriculum teams should look at the pedagogical and assessment processes defined by awarding bodies and build a coherence in these areas, which will then ensure a coherence in delivery. This is not to say that curriculum should be entirely defined by assessment, but to realise that a lack of coherence makes it more difficult to teach and learn knowledge and concepts (Myatt, 2018). A coherence, then, can be further defined at various levels.

Structurally, planning documentation provides a vital first step in agreeing a set of principles that underpin subject domains. Knowledge organisers or other planning scaffolds, when standardised, allow for common themes or aims to be delivered or emphasised, as discussed by, amongst others, Helen Ralston (2018). Whilst ‘learn to learn’ curricula and similar approaches to building learning skills are much maligned, the work undertaken by Manion and Mercer (2016) clearly indicates that well-constructed, embedded learning skills can make a significant impact on pupil progress, especially on pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. Where the IBDP is successful is in the way in which the learner skills are deeply rooted in subject curriculum disciplines: a common language binds together learning experience, making it more straightforward to make connections and links across the knowledge that they are building. The success of this approach comes through the structuring of the learning experience: as pupils are required to develop their curiosity and enquiry, this dictates the way in which content is delivered. On the other hand, it is likely that where ‘learning to learn’ curricula have had a minimal impact, they have been bolted on as an adjunct to subject disciplines.

It is interesting to note that these middle school years are perhaps the years caught in an educational wasteland. In primary schools, much thought is being put into creating curriculum coherence; the IBDP offers this post-16 and it is notable that universities are starting to consider curriculum coherence more ambitiously (Fung, 2017). As the title of this article indicates, I am advocating taking the IBDP curriculum model and using its principles to inform a coherent curriculum at Key Stage 3. The years are crucial to a child’s development, and I believe that the model offered by the IBDP will afford pupils the opportunities not only to build powerful subject knowledge but also, importantly, to understand how to apply, question and reconstruct this knowledge.


Bloom A (2017) Key stage 3 history ‘is being taught in 38 hours’. TES Online.  Available at:  (accessed February 2019). 

Fung D (2017) A connected Curriculum for Higher Education. London: UCL Press. 

HESA (2016) International Baccalaureate students studying at UK higher education institutions: How do they perform in comparison with A level students? Available at: (accessed February 2019). 

House K (2015) The elephant in the room: A critical examination of the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme’s policy discourse. University of Bath Education Department Working Papers Series, no. 2015/10. Available at: (accessed 26 March 2019).

International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO) (2019) Mission. Available at: (accessed February 2019).

Manion J and Mercer N (2016) Learning to learn: Improving attainment, closing the gap at Key Stage 3. The Curriculum Journal 27(2): 246–271.

Myatt M (2018) Building curriculum coherence. Impact 4: 35–37.

Oates T (2018) Skills versus knowledge: A curriculum debate that matters and one which we need to reject. Impact 4: 16–17.

Ralston H (2018) A Templar’s to trigger and capture improved thinking on curriculum and assessment. Impact 4: 66.

Young MF (2013) Powerful knowledge: An analytically useful concept or just a ‘sexy sounding term’? Cambridge Journal of Education 45(2): 195–198.

Young MF (2018) A knowledge-led curriculum: Pitfalls and possibilities. Impact 4: 1–3.

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