IB Diploma vs. A levels – Unraveling the distinctions

23 Nov 2023

What’s the difference between A levels and the IB Diploma (DP)?

The IB Diploma is more comprehensive than A levels – comprising six subjects from broad curriculum groups rather than the usual three at A level – as well as other enriching elements. But more importantly, the IB offers a breadth of learning via student-centred learning and teaching.

Diploma students will study at least three subjects at higher and three at standard level – including languages and literature, language acquisition, sciences, maths, the arts, and individuals and societies. Students receive an overall score to a maximum of 45.

But the IB, with a more rounded approach, offers far more than breadth. Students must also write an extended essay on an area that inspires them, and complete the creativity, activity and service (CAS) element and explore the theory of knowledge – which asks students to assess how they know what they know and encourages a more sophisticated approach to alternative perspectives on global issues.

So what type of student does the IB suit?

Most – but particularly those who are curious, keen for a broader perspective and who welcome an inquiry-based approach within a global perspective. A levels suit those who prefer a structured approach to curriculum and learning with fewer options for individual preferences.

What are the benefits of the IB?

It’s an internationally focused programme which takes students beyond merely learning and recalling content. While the subject courses are rigorous, the IB programme teaches our students to think critically, and become thoughtful, empathetic individuals who enjoy learning.

We can bring real life and current concepts and events into the classroom – which are far more engaging for students. There’s flexibility – we’ve investigated US President Trump’s broadcasts, the impact of vaccinations and the effectiveness of hand sanitisers, and much more.

The skills of inquiry apply to all subjects, and we have the freedom to tailor programmes so they are relevant. Students, who can take two languages, develop cultural sensitivities and an international perspective. These skills, combined with the breadth of study, help our students keep their options open when considering university courses and career choices.

Isn’t the IB too broad?

If you study sciences at A level, for example, you may go into these individual subjects in greater depth. But we believe 16 is too young for most students to restrict themselves unnecessarily. Every IB subject is academically driven at Diploma level. What students learn during the Diploma is far more than content – the focus on approaches to learning prepares them for university and beyond.

Students don’t just complete assignments, take a test and move on. They take ownership of much of what and explore how they learn best – they design their own experiments and research in science for instance – independently setting and meeting milestones. They learn critical thinking and the skills for research which they can use throughout life, as well as all-round life skills.

“The long term nature of these projects is good practice for university,” says Duncan Blair who teaches biology to Diploma students. “Some kids know they want to be scientists or doctors, but many don’t – and the fact they’ve been forced to have a university-level experience in secondary school gives them a leg up in the decision making and makes them better students in their first year.”

This sounds like hard work?

Diploma students are undoubtedly busy – it’s a challenging programme. “But we support them along the way,” says Mr Blair. “We know some need more help than others – they all get there.” Students juggle long and short term deadlines and learn quickly to manage their time – an essential skill for the future. We help students to structure their independent learning.

Do UK universities recognise and understand the IB?

It’s an internationally recognised qualification and top UK universities are familiar with the breadth and depth of the IB, and they respect it, says higher education and careers advisor Rosalind Stewart.

The IB’s core elements allow students to demonstrate much more than their academic achievement – and this plays to the UK university pre-qualification application system – which places weight on the student as a whole person. UK universities are increasingly knowledgeable about international qualifications.

All UK universities accept the IB, with more selective universities specifying a total score and also higher level grades. More than 60% of our students gained places at prestigious UK universities – including Oxford and Cambridge – in 2020.

London as a classroom – what does that mean?

It is part of the founding ethos of the school and thanks to our unique place in central London. The capital is a global city and we can draw inspiration from events and institutions on our doorstep.

While lockdown has closed venues, London’s museums were quick to react and move online. “There’s a tonne of resources produced by local institutions for us to use,” says Head of Science, Hannah Rundle. From the Royal Observatory in Greenwich through to Brick Lane, and the Wallace Collection, Cartoon Museum, British Library, Wellcome Collection, Petrie Egyptology Museum, British Museum all within walking distance, students use these trips when they can get out and about to investigate and learn.

And when the city is open, students are able to attend evening talks by societies and universities such as Imperial College London.

You’re an IB all through school – does that make a difference?

We deliver all three IB programmes for ages 3 (three) through to 18, which makes us an IB World School and we were the first in London with that accreditation.

Students who’ve gone through the early years and middle years programmes are very reflective, very able to evaluate information, draw hypotheses. They’re good communicators, they’ve developed their research skills, their social skills and they can manage their time and studies.

These are the approaches to learning that underpin the entire programme, from top to bottom.