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Tough Choices – A-levels vs. IB

November, 2017
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As a Head of Sixth Form (‘Sixth Form’ being the name given to Years 12 and 13, in the British education system), I am often asked my opinion on the debate regarding the choice between A-levels and the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program (known as the IB DP). My answer is that it is indeed a ‘choice’ and there is no single right answer to fit every child.

192a89012In answering this question, I do frequently encounter a frustrating number of misconceptions. So, I would like to start by addressing some of these. One commonly held belief is that A-levels are ‘outdated’ and do not reflect the most up-to-date trends in education. This is not true. In reality, both A-levels and the IB have been around for roughly the same amount of time. A-levels were first introduced in the United Kingdom in the 1950s, as a two-year course to facilitate entry to higher education. The earliest A-levels simply awarded pupils a distinction, pass or fail. Gradually, over time, grading was introduced, with an additional A* grade being added in 2010. The IB was developed in Geneva, Switzerland in the 1960s. Pupils are graded on a scale from 1 to 7, with 7 being the highest.

The syllabuses for both A-level and the IB courses are regularly revised and updated to keep up with current developments in education. For example, starting from 2015, new style GCSEs and A-levels are progressively being introduced, as part of the UK government’s program of educational reforms. This has been widely reported in the UK press. These new courses generally increase the emphasis on formal examinations, whilst reducing the amount of coursework that a pupil is required to produce. They are widely regarded as both challenging and academically rigorous. In 2016 and 2017 significant changes were made to many of the IB courses. 

Another misconception is that A-levels are somehow perceived as a weaker qualification by many top universities. Again, this is not true. A quote, taken directly from the University of Oxford’s website, clearly states: “A-levels and the IB are both eligible qualifications for entry to our undergraduate degrees. We do not weight either of these qualifications as ‘better’ than the other, since both are eligible for entry, and all applications are considered very carefully on their individual merits.”

Entry to British universities is administered through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (known as UCAS). UCAS converts A-level grades into points. The higher the grades, the greater the number of points a pupil will be awarded. Pupils applying to study a course at a British university will generally be required to achieve a certain number of UCAS points to gain admission. Depending on the course, a university may also require a pupil to have studied a certain A-level, or combination of A-levels, and requires pupils to achieve specific grades in certain subjects to be considered for admission. UCAS also converts IB results into UCAS points. Again, depending on the course, universities may require specific points to be achieved in certain subjects. Whilst a number of UK schools have very successfully adopted the IB, A-levels still remain the qualifications that the vast majority of young people in the UK use to gain entry to university.

Both A-levels and the IB are recognized by universities all over the world, including those in Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand and in America. However, American universities will usually expect applicants to complete SAT tests.

The real difference is that of choice. A-levels offer pupils complete freedom of choice over the subjects that they can study, as there are no specific requirements for which subjects a pupil must study. Pupils will generally study three or four subjects at A-level. Pupils studying the IB must complete assessments in six subjects, along with other core requirements.

192a89311When I meet potential Sixth Form applicants, I really enjoy hearing about their interests and enthusiasms. A-levels allow pupils considerable freedom to specialize in those subjects that really interest them and which are more closely related to the course that they might aspire to study at university. Certain subject combinations, such as Maths, Further Maths, combined with a science subject, are easily achieved through an A-level program. For pupils who aren’t quite so sure about their future plans, A-levels still give them the option of maintaining a breadth of subjects, such as studying humanities subjects, combined with Maths or science. This keeps their future options open. Put simply, with A-levels, the program of study can be tailored individually to each pupil, rather than molding the pupil to fit the qualification.

Returning to the university admission question, a typical university requirement to study a competitive subject, such as Medicine, might be A*, A, A, to a pupil studying A-levels, or a combined total 40 points for a pupil studying the IB. It can be debated as to which pupil, if any, has the advantage. This would require the IB pupil to get at least a 6 in most of their subjects. I would suggest that the pupil who is specializing in only three A-level subjects, particularly ones that interest them, would be at an advantage. If a pupil enjoys a subject, it stands to reason they will work harder at it.  

It is also occasionally argued that IB provides pupils with a more broad-minded education. At worst, I have even heard it crudely suggested that A-level teachers, ‘spoon-feed’ their pupils, whilst IB teachers, liberate young minds! Once again, this is simply not true and as an experienced educator, who has taught both A-levels and the IB, I find this a rather insulting argument. A good teacher will always seek to broaden their pupils’ minds as opposed to ‘teaching to the test’. Focusing on three subjects at A -level, as opposed to the six studied at IB, gives teachers considerably more time to explore a topic in depth. A timetable based around A levels also allows pupils to have a generous number of study periods, where they can complete wider reading and undertake research tasks. This helps to prepare them for future study at university, where learning is much more self-directed. 

harrow-shanghai-mark-batten-photoI often tell Sixth Form pupils that the principal challenge of the final two years of their school career is learning how to make choices and follow them through with determination. The choices that pupils will make during their Sixth Form years will, in many cases, determine the course of their adult life. There are certainly no easy answers and the debate will undoubtedly continue. A qualification, such as A-levels, that gives pupils the freedom to specialize, has advantages that cannot easily be dismissed.

By Mark Batten, 

Head of Sixth Form, Harrow International School Shanghai



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