The International Baccalaureate Versus A-levels

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As one who witnessed students struggle through the International Baccalaureate and watched others enjoy the same syllabus, I have to question whether there really is a superior choice between A-levels and the IB. Is the IB, as some schools and heads of sixth form would have us believe, the “new black” in education? Are A-levels really a near-obsolete route to university?

As a result of the conflicting views, supporting a child through their choice can be very confusing.

An IB student takes six subjects: three at higher level and three at standard, which must include maths, a science, English, and at least one foreign language. The Theory of Knowledge component is also added and a language component including the obligatory 4,000-word extended essay.

As a Principal who offered IB and A levels at a previous school, I think I can offer an unbiased view. The IB is more about an ethos of an educational style, while A-levels place more emphasis on individual subject knowledge.

So is what is said about A-levels yielding a depth of knowledge, and the IB a broad education, true? This is not to say that the IB lacks academic rigour. The three higher-level subjects will be demanding, and will take the pupil to a high level of knowledge.

Top universities making offers to IB students place emphasis on the overall score, and on the scores attained at HL (higher level). My experience would support this, but if the IB really hasn’t worked for a student, his or her overall score might be seriously compromised by low grades in one subject that drag down the whole result. There needs to be an acknowledgement that pupils aiming for degrees in the sciences, maths, or subjects with a high science content, such as engineering or medicine, are better off doing A-levels.

So one choice is better for some children than others? Yes for many reasons. Some pupils appreciate breadth, some like contact time in lessons; some are more indecisive than others.

Some students might be better served by A-levels in order to get into their chosen university on their chosen course. It’s important to bear in mind that a genuine Oxbridge prospect will have a better chance of ‘making the grades’ at A-level but a better chance of proving their worth at IB.

The IB’s popularity with some universities is the result of several factors: it suffers less grade inflation than A-levels and prepares students well for university. IB students who have gone on to university tell me that they are better prepared and do not fi nd it as difficult to adjust as do their new friends with A-levels.

My daughter did ‘A’ levels and her timetable required a dedicated focus to very mature levels – the IB allows less timetable space than A-levels, by about fi ve lessons a week. The curriculum, with its extended essay, world literature and theory of knowledge components, means that she handles an enormous amount of research across a broad spectrum


Dr Geoff Parks, the Director of Admissions at Cambridge, commented last year that when it came to tutors making decisions on borderline applicants, students taking the IB stood a better chance than their A-level counterparts “Because the IB differentiates better than A-level; if we are hesitating about making an offer at all, we would be more likely to make an offer to an IB student than an A-level student”, he explained. But the recent introduction of the A* grade at A-level “has given us a mechanism by which we can resolve doubt in the same way that we have always been able to do for IB applicants.”

The Times Educational Supplement, a highly regarded and informed weekly educational publication in the UK recently had the following to say, “As the benchmark qualification in the UCAS tariff system, the points given for each A-level grade remains constant. So the acknowledgement that the A level exams have become harder means the IB will receive fewer UCAS points at all levels.

A new points tariff announced by UCAS -the Universities and College Admissions Service – made a relatively modest IB score of 35 points (out of a maximum of 45) equivalent to four and a half A grades at A-level. An IB score of 38 was deemed to be equivalent to five As at A-level. Oxford and Cambridge typically ask for 40 points, equivalent to five and a half A grades. Even 30 IB points is judged equivalent to three and a half As at A-level, sufficient to secure a place.

These statistics would seem to sustain the argument that, schools which acknowledge and support different sorts of children through different syllabuses end up doing what pupils need: help them secure a place at university.

This article was written by Gilbard Honey-Jones. Headmaster, The Britist School of Kuala Lumpur  
Source: The Expat June 2011 

This article has been edited for
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