IB or A Level? Which is the best option for your son or daughter?
23 Nov 2011
35 years ago this year St. Clare’s, Oxford decided to stop teaching A Levels in favour of the then, little known, International Baccalaureate Diploma. My predecessors recognized then, as I do today, the considerable advantages that the IB offers young people as they prepare for the next stage of their education at university, either at home or abroad. There are significant differences between these two qualifications the most salient of which, I believe, are as follows:
- IB students take six subjects, three at higher level and three at standard level. These subjects are studied for two years and are examined at the end of that two year period.
- In contrast, A Level students, usually take 4 or 5 subjects in the first year and a smaller number in the second year. It is possible to “cash in” a subject at the end of year one and accept a qualification called the AS Level. The full two year course of study is known as the A Level.
- The IB offers a broader education: there are six subject groupings and students have to take a subject from each of the first five. In practice this means that IB students have to study literature in their own language, a second language, a social science subject, a science and mathematics. The final subject area is the Arts – Music, Theatre or Visual Arts and it is possible to take one of these subjects as the sixth option or, instead, take an additional science, an additional language or an additional social science subject. This flexibility means that it is possible to take Biology, Chemistry and Mathematics – if you want to study medicine – plus literature, a language and a social science subject. It is also possible to take unusual subject combinations – Italian, English, Chemistry, Mathematics, Psychology and Art, which would be difficult to replicate in an A Level school.
- There are also a number of other requirements which are an integral part of the IB. Each student prepares a 4000 word essay based on an original piece of research and there is a compulsory Theory of Knowledge course which is also assessed. Finally, the IB involves a compulsory programme known as CAS (Creativity, Action and Service). This involves a minimum of 50 hours each of a Creative activity and Action activity and a Service to the Community activity and it is impossible to be a warded the Diploma without satisfying this component.
- Schools which offer the A Level will, of course include sporting, cultural and volunteering activities within their sixth form curriculum but there is no attempt to integrate these elements in the same way as which this has been done with the IB.
- How difficult is the A Level when compared with the IB Diploma? The maximum score achievable for the IB is 45. Only about 65 students worldwide are able to do so each year. The pass mark is 24 points. It is possible to fail the Diploma as, worldwide, only 78% of students who take the Diploma each year pass it. Compare this with the A Level where hundreds of schools and colleges are able to report that their students achieved a 100% pass rate when the results are published each year. According to the UCAS tariff, 45 points is the equivalent of 5 grade A* at A Level, 40 points is the equivalent of 4 grade A* at A Level and 35 points is the equivalent of 2 grade A* at A Level and 1 grade A. Finally, the percentage of students achieving a Diploma each year has remained constant over the last decade which indicates that, unlike the A Level, there has been little grade inflation.
Where parents have a choice of sixth form, attention must also be given to the ethos of the school or college, the level of support given to students and the level of careers advice – all of which contribute to finding a school where a young adult will be happy and productive.
Mrs P Holloway, Headteacher St Clare’s, Oxford