Why A level is recommended instead of IB and Pre-U – John Southworth, Principal of MPW London

Why A Level is the recommended option

Sixth formers wishing to pursue an “academic”, or non-vocational route can generally choose between A levels, IB and Pre-U – or a combination, depending on their school or college’s pathway. So how do students pick a route that is going to suit them best as individual learners, enhance their chances of onward progression in their chosen field or simply keep their options open in the most effective way? John Southworth, Principal at MPW London shares his views on why A levels is the recommended option following the recent reforms and how it will benefit students for their future.

Unique qualities

The defining quality of A level is the unique way in which it combines choice and specialisation. We are so used to a three-subject A level offer as the standard university admission requirements and tend to take this for granted. It is only when we compare it with another curriculum that we are reminded of its benefits. At MPW we have a choice of over 40 subjects, yielding in theory nearly 5,000 three-subject combinations and over 100,000 four-subject combinations. There are no restrictions on the combination chosen other than that it should feature sufficient facilitating subjects (“strong” A levels) so as not to close off entry to the most elite universities to which the student might conceivably and realistically apply. Of course, no student actually writes down all the possible combinations remaining and indeed the process of selection is really very quick and usually hinges for the individual student on perhaps just a choice between three or four subjects for the final spot. But the fact remains that every year someone picks a combination that we have never had before, that is unique to them. The students in question are completely unaware of this. They can see that they are doing subjects that plenty of other people are doing and they are in classes that are more or less full. But the fact remains that a curriculum has been chosen for them and by them that is a unique fit for their particular skills and hopes. None of the other curricula offer such a degree of flexibility and are bespoke in this way.


With this choice and flexibility, of course, comes specialisation. A level not only provides students with skills-based grounding in facilitating subjects such as Mathematics, English, French or Chemistry (to mention just a few) but it also allows students to “get stuck into” the subjects that they might want to pursue at university or in their future careers. This opportunity to do something that genuinely interests them as a specialism can be a crucial motivating factor within the overall sixth-form experience. So long as the crucial skills-based subjects are in there too, then combining them with non-traditional subjects such as Psychology, Philosophy, Politics, Geology, Law or Art History (to mention just a few) can allow students to find out more about themselves, what interests them and what doesn’t, and de-risks the choice of such subjects at university. Meanwhile, for those who know exactly what they want to do at university and want to start their training early, A level is unrivalled. As the Oxford University website puts it when comparing A level to IB, “students who wish to specialise in a particular science at Oxford may find that the concentration of three A-levels prepares them better for an intense subject-specific degree”.

Welcome reforms

Recently, A levels have undergone significant and welcome reforms that re-establish some of the rigour that many educationalists felt had been lost to IB and Pre-U. In the reformed A levels there has been a return to linearity as opposed to modularity and, with that, the practice of being able to cherry pick portions of the syllabus to retake during the course of a two-year programme of study has in effect been abolished. There has been a general reduction of coursework but more emphasis on practical skills in the sciences. Students will now sit all their grade determining papers at the end of the course in a return to the format with which their parents will have been familiar prior to the advent of Curriculum 2000 and its modular AS/A2 form of assessment. For those taking A levels over two years there is still the option of taking AS levels at the end of their first year of study, but the AS qualifications is standalone, ie not contributing to the overall A level result, and worth only 40% as opposed to 50% of the UCAS points and any material that is common to the A level syllabus is not assessed to the same standard as A level. Many schools and colleges, including CIFE colleges, will use the year without formal exam preparation to broaden and enrich students’ extracurricular opportunities.

Whilst the abolition of grade determining exams at AS answers the clamour from many quarters to “give sixth formers back their life”, at least in Year 12, the removal of targets and formal assessments in the first year can have hidden drawbacks that do have to be taken seriously. GCSEs take on added importance as the most up to date evidence of attainment that students are able adduce on their UCAS forms and students for whom poor AS results were a wake-up call to knuckle down to study can sleepwalk into year 13 without realising just how much they are going to underachieve. However, neither of these potential issues is unique to the new A levels. They crop up equally with Pre-U or IB. As specialist sixth-form colleges we are used to seeing students who need to rethink the sixth-form choices they have made half way through the course and we are continuing to do so under the new A level curriculum.

But whether such students are able to complete in just one further year or have to start again with two, we always recommend an A level route even if they have come from IB or Pre-U.
We should never forget that A level is a particularly well established qualification that has been engineered and modified by the best educational brains for several generations. It is built in Britain, the world’s pre-eminent and pioneering centre for educational excellence. It has been exported all over the world and very successfully so. In the UK, it is still, arguably, the sixth-form curriculum that is best understood by university admissions tutors. It is certainly the one that is still best understood by employers. It is beautifully simple in its approach and does not try to weave an educational philosophy into its fabric. Few A level advocates would argue against the benefits to be had from extended essay writing, an understanding of the theory of knowledge or exposure to creativity, activity and service. But we would argue that these benefits can be delivered best through additional enrichment via such devices as the EPQ or community service while the academic offer is kept pure and simple. To pursue the engineering analogy just a little further, the modular AS/A2 system under Curriculum 2000 made A levels a little too easy to drive and led to some lazy habits that ill-suited some students as they graduated to more demanding tracks and faster vehicles. Under the new A level curriculum we combine the best of modern British syllabus design with a return to some of the best features of our traditional assessment system.


John Southworth – John Southworth is the Principal of MPW London. He read Engineering at the University of Leicester and subsequently gained an MSc in Defence Technology from the Cranfield Institute of Technology. Prior to joining MPW as a Vice Principal in 2014, he was a Major in the army, Director of Co-curriculum at The Perse School and, most recently, Principal of Lansdowne College.

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