The A Level vs IB Debate

If you are thinking of moving your child to a new school for 6th form, one of the key factors to take into account is the curriculum the school is offering. Which one is going to be the optimum choice for your child to secure the grades to enable them to access Higher Education? In this blog, we look at the A Level vs IB debate.

a level vs ib right choice

A Level vs IB: Which one is right for your child?

A Levels

The A Level curriculum has had a major overhaul in recent years, adding in a top grade of A* and over the last two years reverting back to a linear exam – i.e. one where the subject knowledge is all tested at the end of a two year course.

An A Level candidate will choose three or four subjects and study these in depth over the two years. Most courses take a synoptic view and teachers are free to select certain topics from a range on offer.

A variation on the A Level, the Pre-U was introduced in 2010 and several schools, who consider the Pre U to be more academic, replace an A-level in one subject with a Pre-U Principal Subject. This ‘mix and match’ approach has been followed by schools such as Millfield and Wycombe Abbey but has not been picked up on the International School circuit.


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The IB

In light of the recent changes in the A level system, the IB, founded in 1968, has remained stable and unchanging.

Universities and schools like the exam for its breadth and its emphasis on independent work. The diploma requires students to take six subjects, three at Higher Level and three at Standard Level.  

There is an overall emphasis on developing independent and creative learners who can see connections and think across subject boundaries.

The choice of subjects is prescribed, students must take maths, their native language, a modern foreign language, a humanity and a science subject with a freer sixth choice: either a second subject from the previous categories or music, drama, art, etc.

In addition, there are three core elements, the extended research essay, the Theory of Knowledge and the CAS programme – creativity, action and service.  

American Universities view the IB as a great preparation for their liberal arts programmes but some British Universities have reservations particularly science departments,  as a candidate is only allowed to study two sciences at the Higher Level.

For the more mathematical subjects, there is a concern about students being able to access enough maths of the right level. ‘There isn’t much out there that can beat the combination of maths and further maths A-levels for both breadth and depth,’ says Dr. Sam Lucy, Admissions Tutor at Newnham College, Cambridge.


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Other options

For the more vocationally orientated pupil a series of BTECs are available.  These courses take a more applied approach to learning and cover subjects such as Hospitality, Sport, Countryside Management and Drama.  

Assessment for BTECs is via coursework and continual assessment which can suit children who do not fare well when it all comes down to a final exam. The BTECs are allocated points that are equivalent to A Levels but it is vital to check how they are viewed by individual Universities.

So which is right for your child?

For the student who is clear about the path they want to follow at university, and are happy to pick the three most relevant subjects, then A levels represent a straight forward route through 6th form academically rigorous and focused, they are excellent building blocks for a subject based degree in a UK University.  

However, for the student who is less sure about their future then the IB Diploma can give them the flexibility of multiple subjects and keeping their options open, positioning a student well for university in either the UK or the US.

Students need to consider their own strengths, interests and abilities before deciding which one offers the most likely path to success.


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