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Should My Child Take A Levels Or The IB?

In the UK, many students face a choice between taking A levels and the International Baccalaureate as their post-16 qualification. But how are these two programmes different, how are they assessed, and which will allow your child to flourish at school, university and beyond?

This article will review the differences between the IB and A levels. It will take you through which is best suited to different types of students and whether the IB or A levels are best for university applications and even career opportunities.

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a levels or the ib

What are A levels?

A levels have been the core national qualification for 18-year-old school leavers in England and Wales since they were introduced in 1951. 250,000 pupils in the UK sit them every year and they are offered by nearly every UK school outside Scotland, where Scottish Highers are the equivalent.

Pupils typically take A levels in three or four subjects following two years’ study in Years 12 and 13. Although A levels are originally a British qualification, international A levels, with content adapted for international students, can be taken in accredited centres overseas. A levels are designed to rigorously assess students’ academic ability and prepare them for the demands of university.

How are A levels assessed?

The A level’s structure has the virtue of simplicity. Students are free to choose whichever subjects they wish to study. In theory, there is a choice of more than 50 subjects, though in practice, no one school is likely to offer all of these.

Students usually take three or four A levels. It is common to begin four courses in Year 12 and drop down to three in Year 13, as most university offers only require three A levels. More academic students may stick with four or even five throughout both years.

Following government reforms in 2015, there is minimal assessment by coursework, so students’ grades will rest on their performance in the exams at the end of Year 13. Grades range from A* to F.

What is the IB?

The International Baccalaureate (IB) was created in 1968 and was intended from its inception to be an international qualification. It has lived up to its billing – pupils from 150 countries sit it every year. It is aimed not just at promoting academic excellence but at cultivating civic, internationalist values. Unlike A levels, therefore, the IB requires students to complete social or community work alongside their academic studies.

The IB is taught by fewer than a hundred schools in the UK, with around 5,000 British pupils sitting it each year. It is more popular in the independent than the state sector, however, and it is offered by some prestigious names, including Sevenoaks School, Wellington College, and Cheltenham Ladies College.

The IB Diploma Programme (IBDP), like the A level, is typically assessed at age 18 after two years of study. In recent years, the IB has added primary and middle years programmes to its ‘continuum’ of education, but the IBDP remains its most popular course and is a direct competitor to the A level. We will focus the rest of this piece on the IBDP.

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How does the IB work?

The IB’s structure is a little more complex than the A level’s. Students must take six subjects, including at least three at Higher Level (HL) and the rest at Standard Level (SL). In addition, they must complete an essay and presentation on the Theory of Knowledge, write an Extended Essay on a subject of their choice, and perform 150 hours of creative, sporting or social-service activity (known as CAS). The IB divides its subjects into six groups:

  1. Studies in Language and Literature
  2. Language Acquisition
  3. Individuals and Society (i.e. humanities and social sciences)
  4. Experimental Sciences
  5. Mathematics
  6. Arts
a levels or the ib

Students must select one subject from each of the first five groups. They may then take a subject from the Arts group, or a second subject from one of the first five. Each of these is graded from 1 (weakest performance) to 7 (strongest). They are then awarded a combined grade for the Theory of Knowledge and Extended Essay modules, on a scale of 1 to 3. The top mark available in the IB is therefore 45.

From 2017-22, the average IB grade was just over 30 points and the average subject score was just below 5. For reference, the average A level grade was a B. A score of 6 in a Higher Level IB subject is equivalent to an A at A level when converted into UCAS tariff points.

There is a higher degree of coursework and internal assessment for the IB than for A levels (typically around a third of the final grade). The rest is assessed in exams at the end of Year 13.

Should I take the IB or A levels?

The IB and A levels are both highly respected qualifications in the UK and internationally, and either will prepare students well for the demands of undergraduate courses. However, whether your child would benefit more from one or the other depends to a significant degree on the type of learner they are.

The IB

The IB is best suited to the all-rounder. It requires you to take more subjects than at A level and you cannot drop science, maths, languages, literature or the humanities. The IB therefore benefits students who perform well and are interested in a wide range of disciplines. Given its internationalist outlook and the compulsory language element, international students, especially those from bi-lingual families, often thrive in the IB.

It also keeps pupils’ options open. If, like many students, your child hasn’t settled on a university course before they start sixth form, the IB will allow them to decide once they’ve tried a range of subjects at a level higher than GCSE.

With its greater coursework focus and the mandatory Extended Essay component, the IB develops independent study skills that are highly useful at university. In addition, the IB’s extracurricular components are designed to develop well-rounded citizens – though, for those with an eye on more practical outcomes, these can also look great on a university application or CV if well chosen.

However, due to the higher subject burden, the IB is likely to be more time-intensive and will leave your child with fewer study periods. They will have less flexibility to manage their own time and their freedom to choose their preferred subjects is limited.

A Levels

By contrast, the A level benefits the ‘specialist’ student. If there is an area of study that your child prefers (or wishes to avoid!), A levels give them the freedom to decide what to focus on. For instance, the student who struggles with essay writing and language learning but has a natural affinity for science and Maths would be better off taking three or four A levels in STEM subjects than suffering through all the IB’s mandatory components.

A levels are also suited to students who are firmly decided on a course they wish to study at university or who already have a career destination in mind. For example, a pupil who plans to study medicine may wish to take A levels in Chemistry, Biology and Physics and/or Maths to prove their aptitude for the course requirements.

Because students typically focus on fewer subjects at A level, the course content is more detailed. Pupils are likely to gain more in-depth knowledge of their chosen subjects than when taking even Higher Level subjects at IB. A commonly noted exception is Maths, however – many students report that IB HL Maths is more akin to Further Maths at A level than the standard Maths A level.

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Is the IB better than A levels for university applications?

Parents and students are quite rightly keen to base their choice of sixth-form programme on practical considerations. Will the IB or A levels get your child into their preferred university and lead to a good degree?

A recent study conducted by the IB itself found that children who had taken the IB were three times more likely to go on to one of the UK’s top 20 universities. Another study, by the independent Higher Education Statistics Authority (HESA), found that IB students were 70% more likely to get into a top-20 university than their A-level peers. Once at university, the difference in performance is less significant, though both studies found former IB students were around 10% more likely to achieve a first.

Admissions departments value both the IB and the A level, but for different reasons. In a 2017 survey by the ACS International Schools Group, 94% of admissions officers reported that A levels prepare students for degree-level study because of their detailed courses, while only 56% believed the IBDP was able to develop pupils accordingly. However, 94% of admissions officers say the IB develops independent inquiry skills ‘well or very well’, compared to 49% who said the same of A levels.

Universities tend to set separate grade requirements for students taking A levels and the IB. Once these grades are converted into UCAS tariff points, the offers for IB students are generally more demanding. Simply Learning Tuition researched a sample of five courses across different subjects and universities, from Management at Bath to History at Cambridge, and found that the IB offer was higher in every case. As the studies above indicate, this doesn’t appear to prevent IB students from making their grades, but some find the inconsistency confusing, especially if their friends are taking A levels instead.

Research from Crimson Education suggests that the IB is highly rated by US universities. Major Ivy league institutions such as MIT, Stanford and Harvard are around three times as likely to offer places to IB students as other applicants. There is no publicly available data on the success rate of A level applicants, but as there are around 10,000 British students studying in the US, it’s clear that the A level is viewed favourably too.

Alec Jiggins, Head of ICS London (an IB school), says that “the data shows that IB applicants are 20% likelier to get into a top US college than A level students. The US has been relatively slow to embrace the IB (like many other countries, they preferred at first to trust their own national curriculum) but I see the IB as increasingly popular now with US colleges.”

Beyond university, IB and A level graduates are well represented in most professions, according to the HESA study. The areas of divergence are professional and scientific jobs, where IB leavers are 36% more likely to work, and retail trade, where A level graduates are 53% more likely to work. IB graduates on average earn 5% more in their first post-university job than their A level peers.

Alec Jiggins: “Several students in my own teaching experience have gone straight from studying the IB to working in successful professional careers. In my view, the IB prepares students better for the world of work – it produces well-rounded, hard-working individuals who are able to think independently and challenge preconceived ideas.”


IB vs A levels for US university applications

Sam Harris, an expert US university applications mentor from ESM Prep, explains how students considering US universities should approach deciding between the IB and A levels:

“Not all A level candidates will select Maths. Since students following the IB curriculum must take a Maths course, the IB will inevitably help them develop their mathematical skills past GCSE standard; this extends their skills and keeps them sharp ahead of any standardised testing a student might sit for US applications. 

“For students enrolled in a school offering both curriculums, it’s also important to consider how many A levels that student is allowed to take and plans to take. I’d recommend having a conversation with their Head of Sixth Form and asking them which curriculum they feel is the most demanding in their school’s specific context. US applicants will be judged on the relative challenge of their chosen curriculum, and schools will evaluate this on most student applications. Ambitious applicants will benefit from being able to state that they follow their school’s most demanding curriculum.

“Finally, I always like to remind students that the educational philosophy that underpins the IB is often more similar to that which informs US undergraduate study. Students who are categorically opposed to the IB curriculum may not enjoy the breadth of study required by many US programmes. Students who follow the IB, however, may find the transition to university study in the US more natural.”

Sam Harris, ESM Prep


What else should I consider when choosing between A levels and IB?

Speak to your child’s current school to find out which programme(s) they offer. Some schools offer both the IB and A levels, while others offer only one. It is sometimes thought that schools specialising in the IB achieve better results, but the top-performing IB schools in the UK in 2021/22 (Godolphin and Latymer and King’s College School Wimbledon) actually offer both. Note that unlike A levels, which students can take privately outside of a school setting (for instance, if they are being home-schooled), students must attend a registered school to sit the IB.

As a general rule, if your child is otherwise happy and making good personal and academic progress at their current school, it is probably not worth risking the upheaval of moving schools simply in order to swap from A levels to the IB or vice versa. A programme of private tutoring from an experienced A level tutor or IB tutor could help them fulfil their potential and win a place at their chosen university.

If you are considering moving, or have to decide between the IB or A levels at your current school, check the school’s results. And if you have an idea of the university courses your child might apply for, research their entry requirements, too – will the school you have in mind give your child a good chance of meeting these? Teaching the IB requires a different set of skills and experience to teaching A levels. It’s worth asking your school how long it has been teaching the IB for – those that are newer to the programme are unlikely to produce the same results as those with years of experience.

You can find the A level results of any school in the UK here. IB results by school are widely available online; your school should also be able to provide you with these. Given the number and complexity of these considerations, many parents find they benefit from the expert advice and guidance of an education consultant. They can give you and your child personal advice on whether the A level or IB would best suit them and which subjects they should consider taking. And, if you’re moving schools, they can help find the best IB or A level school for your child and guide you through every step of the admissions process.

Conclusions

Both the IB and A levels are internationally respected qualifications and will allow your child to flourish academically, though the IB has the edge when it comes to admissions to top universities.

If your child has an aptitude for and interest in a wide range of subjects, the IB is their best bet. It will give them a head start in developing the independent study skills that are vital at university, as well as cultivating in them a sense of social and civic responsibility.

If your child would prefer to specialise in a select group of subjects, they are better suited to the A level. They will gain in-depth knowledge of their chosen area of academic focus that will equip them for the intellectual demands of undergraduate courses.

 


Simply Learning Tuition and Consultancy offer expert advice and support for families and students at every stage of their education. Our award-winning team of education consultants can guide you and your child through the decision-making process when choosing between IB and A levels, or help you with finding and getting into the right school if you’re thinking of moving. Our highly qualified private tutors know both programmes inside-out and can support your child with a dedicated programme of exam preparation that typically sees students improve by 1-3 grades.


This article was updated on 14th June 2023 to include quotes from Alec Jiggins, Head of ICS London (an IB school).