Do you have a child in Year 11 (or equivalent) who is currently trying to decide what to study next year? If so, you may have heard of the International Baccalaureate (IB). Many schools in the UK are now offering the IB as an alternative or replacement for the A-Level. We often get asked which is the better qualification - here we give our opinion!
Do you have a child in Year 11 (or equivalent) who is currently trying to decide what to study next year? If so, you may have heard of the International Baccalaureate (IB)! Many schools in the UK are now offering the IB as an alternative or replacement for the A-Level. It is a very different qualification to the A-Level, so here we try and outline the benefits of each qualification and what kind of student they are best suited for.
The most obvious difference between the two qualifications is the number of subjects studied. A typical A-Level student will study 4 to 5 subjects at AS-Level, then 3 in Year 13, an IB Diploma student will have to study 6 all the way through. At A-Level, there are no restrictions on subject choice (beyond what is offered by the school). At IB there are strict rules on what can be chosen. Subjects are split into six groups, with students having to pick subjects from a wide variety of these. In effect, this means that all IB Diploma students will study subjects across the Arts and Sciences, whereas A-Level students are allowed to focus on a narrower band of subjects in one area (should they wish to).
Both approaches have their benefits. If a student wishes to specialise on just the Sciences or Arts, the A-Level will be more beneficial. If a student wants to gain a broad overview of different subject areas, the IB is probably the better choice.
Universities will normally ask for specific grades on different A-Level subjects, whilst IB students are normally set an overall points score target. The result of this is that all-rounders tend to thrive at the IB, where they can pick a couple of “easier” subjects to boost their points score, whilst specialists might do better to go with the A-Level. At A-Level students are assessed on a familiar A* to U grading system, with the minimum benchmark for top UK Universities being two As and a B. A very Mathematical student would be allowed to pick Mathematics, Further Mathematics and Physics (generally considered a close subject to Mathematics). This would allow them to study two subjects very deeply, and work on a very specific skill set. A University offer (received in the Autumn of Year 13) might specify A grades in the Maths courses, with a B in the Physics, allowing a student to ease up slightly in one subject and focus on the areas requiring the most work. Other similar subject combinations might include picking both English Language and Literature, or similar languages. (Some students even benefit from doing A-Levels in their mother tongue!). The IB is marked on a scale from 1 to 7, with extra points for an extended essay and a compulsory unit in Epistemology (“Theory of Knowledge”). Common practice is for Universities to use the total score awarded (up to a maximum score of 45), with no specific demands made on individual subjects.
Generally, well-rounded students do well at the IB, and will benefit from the cushion of not having to score specific grades in each subject. Those with tendencies towards just the Arts or Sciences will suffer and should go for the A-Level. Do think about career choice as well, especially if your child is leaning towards Medicine- they will likely find it less risky to focus on the required Sciences at A-Level than to spread their talents on the IB.
All IB exams are at the end of the two year course, whereas the A-Level is modular (with around half the points coming at the end of Year 12 with the AS-Level). Note that January exams have now been scrapped for the A-Level, so retaking modules from Year 12 will mean waiting until summer of the next year. The IB examination period is stressful for all students; there are anywhere up to eighteen exams in three weeks. IB Diploma subjects are split into “Higher” and “Standard” level, with students having to choose three of each. Standard level is roughly analogous to AS-Level, and Higher to the A-Level. Exceptions are Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics, where the Higher-Level course is significantly more difficult than the A-Level (this is largely due to the “International” in the IB, with students competing against counterparts from arguably stronger Mathematical cultures like Eastern Europe and East Asia. IB students need to think about balancing challenging subjects they enjoy with perhaps a couple of subjects chosen to secure points.
Due to the sheer number of subjects, it is fair to say the IB is more work than the A-Level. Timetabling extra subjects means less free periods, i.e. more studying needs to be done at home, and the levels of coursework can be high. The IB requires organisation and independence from the start of the course; with all exams for six subjects coming at the end of the course it simply isn’t possible to cram in the weeks before the exams. That being said, the A-Level is arguably more demanding in that top Universities can and will ask for top grades in relevant subjects. Achieving an A* on an A-Level requires achieving 90%+, which requires being consistently at the top of your game across several different examinations.
A recent study found that IB students outperformed A-Level students on both salary and entrance to top UK Universities, so no worries here! (It should be said that the IB is proportionately more likely to be used by Independent schools, and so there is a definite skew to the data).
The IB is the hands-down winner here. Not only do students have to study a balanced range of subjects, but they are also compelled to study extra-curricular activities and do voluntary work as part of their studies. (Students have to do a minimum of 150 hours as their “Creativity, Action and Services” (CAS) module- compulsory for passing the IB Diploma). The extended essay and epistemology elements of the IB add extra flavour and rigour that prepare them well for University.
This is not to do a disservice to the balanced education offered by the many wonderful colleges and schools teaching A-Levels. Programmes like Duke of Edinburgh, World Challenge, CCF and Raleigh International (as well as many volunteering opportunities closer to home) all give students opportunities to get out of the classroom. That being said, the A-Level is arguably more demanding in that top Universities can and will ask for top grades in relevant subjects. Achieving an A* on an A-Level requires achieving 90%+, which requires being consistently at the top of your game across several different examinations.
Any qualification is only as useful as its benefit to the student sitting it, and the most important thing to consider is the personality and ambitions of the student. It is my opinion that the IB is more academically rigorous qualification, and that achieving a high score on the IB is more indicative of hard work and academic ability than a high score on the A-Level. (Only about 70 students EVER have achieved the top IB score of 45 points). For a student with balanced academic interests who is able to organise their time well and work consistently from the start of Year 12 until the end of Year 13, the IB is the superior choice. (It also makes access to international Universities more straightforward). That being said, the A-Level carries less “risk” than the IB. If a student struggles with any aspect of revision or time-management, or is put off by having to select a Language or Science to a high level, then the A-Level makes more sense. Hopefully you’ve found this blog post useful. Anything you want to add or challenge? Do let us know your thoughts below!