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OIB : entretien avec Cambridge Inspector

Interview with Adrian Barlow

(Cambridge Inspector for Language and Literature, OIB British Section)

Adrian Barlow has been the OIB Cambridge Inspector for Language and Literature since 2004. Formerly Chief Examiner in English Literature and Chair of Examiners for the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate (Cambridge Assessment), he is now Director of Public Programmes for the Institute of Continuing Education at Cambridge University. He is editor of the C.U.P. series ‘Cambridge Contexts in Literature’ and his most recent book is Second Reading : Debating the Future of English (2005).

What is your role in regard to the OIB ?

I’m one of the two Inspectors appointed by Cambridge Assessment (the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate) ; the other is Claire Sladden, who is responsible for History-Geography. Our job is to work closely with the OIB subject co-ordinators and teachers, supporting them in their preparation of students for the OIB examinations. We set the exam papers (in conjunction with our opposite numbers, the French Inspectors appointed by the Ministry of Education) and moderate the marking of the written and oral examinations. This means we check that the marking is fair, consistent and accurate for all candidates, we travel to France to monitor the conduct of the orals, and we write detailed reports which are then discussed at the annual subject meetings of all the teachers, held each October. In all of this, we are responsible to Cambridge and to the French Ministry of Education for confirming the marks awarded to students, for making sure that the demands and standards of the examinations are consistent with those set for A level examinations in the UK, and that the syllabuses in our subjects take account of developments in England and Wales.

An increasingly important part of our job, now that the OIB is growing rapidly, involves training teachers, both those new to the OIB and those who may have had many years’ experience, so that the teaching they offer is up to date and enables students to achieve the best of which they are capable in the examinations.

What is the history of the OIB ?

The OIB has its origins in 1981, when the French government proposed that specially designed ‘international sections’ should be created ; this came in response to growing demand for more widespread bilingual education and in recognition of the need to pride appropriate education for the growing number of foreign students studying in France. As a result there are now up to ten different countries which have their own international sections in French schools. When these sections were set up, it was agreed with the French Ministry that they would be staffed by native speakers from the country involved. Thus both the teaching and examining of the OIB would be at a standard comparable with that in the ‘home’ country. Ensuring that this is so remains one of the main tasks of the Cambridge Inspectors.

Could you explain Cambridge’s involvement with the OIB ?

Unlike many countries, Britain (i.e. England, Wales and Northern Ireland) does not have a national examinations board setting annual national examinations. Scotland does have a national system, the Scottish Qualifications Authority ; but in England, there are three independent examinations boards, of which Cambridge is the oldest, and the only one with a long-established tradition of also examining outside Britain. So the British Section of the OIB is overseen, at the request of the British Government and by contract with the Ministry of Education in France, by Cambridge International Examinations (CIE), the overseas branch of Cambridge Assessment. CIE examines world-wide from New Zealand to Singapore to Pakistan and the Middle East, as well as in Europe and South America. In many of these places, it works closely with the Ministry of Education : in Singapore, for instance, Cambridge is responsible for running the country’s national school examinations. However, the OIB is an unusual partnership since, in effect, Cambridge is responsible for one element of another country’s national examination - the French Bac.

How many lycées offer the OIB and how many students are involved ?

At present, 21 schools enter students for the OIB. These schools are now spread all over France, from Le Havre to Strasbourg and Aix en Provence. The number of students has doubled since 2002 : this year we expect about 520 to take the examination, and we know that numbers will continue to rise sharply in the next few years as more schools join the OIB.

What are the advantages of the OIB ?

There are several. Number one : the teaching is of very high quality, and is recognised to be so by the French Inspectors. From my own observation and from working with the teachers each year, I can vouch for their tremendous commitment, both to the OIB and to their students. Second, the students themselves - an increasing number of whom are francophone - are also highly motivated. They have to be, in order to meet the demands of studying English, History and Geography in English at an advanced level and to undergo two rigorous oral examinations, again in English, at the end of the course. Third, the OIB is an excellent qualification for later on, whether at university or in employment. When academic and professional life is ever more international, the OIB offers students the chance to develop a genuinely international outlook : the courses are specifically designed to provide an insight into British culture as well as the English curriculum.

How does the OIB compare with A levels ?

You’d need to ask my colleague Claire Sladden about comparisons with History-Geography. I’ll only mention the fact that in the UK, History and Geography are taught as two separate subjects, and do not involve an oral examination.

As for English, there is much that is similar, but there are some important differences too. First, there are three separate A levels : English Literature, English Language, and a combined English Language and Literature. Students who study Language focus on specifically linguistic topics such as language and gender, international English, child language acquisition etc. The Language element of OIB English Language and Literature is assessed through students’ ability to write fluent and accurate English in the written paper and, in the oral, both to give a 10-minute presentation on Shakespeare and to engage in a discussion of three texts with two examiners for twenty minutes. This is much more demanding as a test of language than anything required by A level English, which has no oral component.

Another important difference is that A level Literature now requires students to study and to answer questions on at least twelve texts, whereas the OIB asks for six. There is much more emphasis on contextual and comparative study, so that students may, for instance, answer questions that ask them to compare two novels or to discuss Shakespeare’s use of comedy by referring to more than one play. A levels now expect students to undertake coursework, submitting for example a long project essay of 3000 words on a literary topic of their choice. The OIB has a narrower and, some might argue, a more traditional literary focus.

A third difference is that the OIB has a compulsory Critical Appreciation section in the written paper, where students have to write an essay on a poem or passage of prose that they have not seen before. Unseen practical criticism used to be a feature of A level English too, but has largely been dropped. However, I think this emphasis on close reading in the OIB exam is one of its great strengths.

Finally - and in some ways the most important difference of all - in the OIB the teachers themselves act as examiners, both for the written and the oral examinations. Of course, they do not mark the work of their own students, but all teachers are expected to be examiners too. In the UK, all examining of written papers is undertaken by markers who (though they will usually be teachers) are employed by the examination boards and who have no personal stake in the examination at all. I think it is one of the greatest strengths of the OIB that its teachers are so actively involved in every part of the process : they propose questions for the examinations (though the Inspectors set the final papers and no one knows in advance which questions will be likely to appear) ; they teach the students, preparing them for the written paper and the orals, and they then act as examiners at the end of the course.

Our students applying for admission to UK and US universities find that the OIB is frequently confused with the IB. How can recognition of the OIB in the UK and the US be increased ?

There are two issues here : first, the IB is a complete and free-standing diploma qualification, with the same papers taken by students all round the world. It is a wellknown brand name. The OIB, by contrast, is both more local (each international section setting its own examinations) and it is only part of a larger, national diploma, the Bac. If people come across the OIB they tend to assume it is the same as the IB.

Second, but arising from this, since the IB has a much higher international profile it is better understood by university admissions tutors - many of whom may only rarely encounter a student who has taken the OIB. However, as numbers of OIB students rise, I am hopeful that the examination will be better understood both in the UK and in the US. It is not easy for university admissions tutors and administrators to understand a qualification which sits, as it were, within a larger one - still less for them to appreciate the complex but valuable system of coefficients which determine the final weighting of an individual’s Bac result. There is no equivalent system in the UK, where results are given for individual subjects, not for an overall diploma spanning several subjects. I think it is important that both the OIB community itself and Cambridge Assessment should take the initiative in talking to universities about the qualification and about its unique characteristics and advantages. This will become easier as numbers continue to grow : when admissions tutors regularly meet OIB applicants, they will want to understand what makes them special.

Finally, what challenges does the OIB face in the future ?

Examinations and curricula these days are increasingly at the mercy of government policy. This is equally true in France and in the UK. Making the case for the OIB at the highest levels is therefore important, and I am pleased to hear that a number of very positive statements about the value and quality of the OIB have been made by senior inspectors and civil servants in the past year.

I’ve already mentioned some advantages of the continued growth of the OIB, but - as with any growing family - the larger it gets the more challenging it becomes to retain a sense of cohesion, of shared purpose, and to make sure that the founding aims and ideals of the OIB are kept clearly in view. Every year new schools, new teachers and new students need to be introduced to the OIB and trained to understand how and why it operates as it does. They need to learn very quickly how to prepare for courses and examinations that are among the most demanding in Europe. All of this (to return to my opening comments) is an important part of the Inspectors’ work and one of the many reasons why I find my involvement with the OIB such an interesting and rewarding experience.


Par : C.Dray le 06/11/2015