Hong Kong Curriculum Guide: IBDP vs A Levels

So, IBDP vs A Level? Which curriculum is right - for you? Here we have compiled a set of frequently asked questions on the two most popular post-16 qualifications offered at international schools across Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand and Vietnam.
Hong Kong Curriculum Guide: IBDP vs A Levels
By Carli Allan
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What is the best post-16 qualification? For many secondary school students, the choice comes down to the IB Diploma Programme versus A Level. Both programmes are offered by some of the top international schools in South East Asia, and both are recognised by universities and employers worldwide. So, it’s not an easy decision to make.

Here, we discuss some of the key differences, strengths and weaknesses of the IBDP and A Levels to help you and your child find the programme that’s right for them.

Which schools can offer the IBDP or A Levels?

The IBDP is only offered by international schools who have been authorised by the International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO). In 2018, 2,285 students completed the IBDP in Hong Kong, 1,493 in Singapore, 986 in Thailand and 469 in Vietnam.

International schools can offer either the GCE A Level (the most common UK qualification used for university entry) or the International A Level – and sometimes both within the same school. Those with higher numbers of students from the UK tend to offer the GCE A Level. Those whose demographic is more international tend to offer International A Levels, which are offered by exam boards including EdExcel and Cambridge.

Click here for a guide on which schools in Hong Kong offer the IB DP, CP, A Levels - and those that offer both the IB and A' Levels

What are the primary differences between the IB Diploma and A Levels?

The International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP) continues the broad and balanced learning approach to subjects as usually found in the school curriculum up to the age of 16. Students taking A Levels tend to become more specialised and focus on three or four subject areas that reflect the direction that they are likely to take at university level.

To receive the full award of the IB Diploma (IBDP) students need to successfully complete six subjects, three at higher level and three at standard level. Students study two modern languages, a humanities or social science subject, an experimental science, mathematics or computer science, and another subject including the arts. In addition, they complete a two-year course called Theory of Knowledge (TOK), write an Extended Essay, and take part in Creativity, Action, Service (CAS).

  • TOK: an essay of 1,200-1,600 words written on a given title (from a choice of ten), followed by a 10-minute presentation in class
  • Extended Essay: a research project that leads to a 4,000-word essay on any chosen subject and title
  • CAS: complete at least 150 hours over an 18-month period in any form of creativity, a sport or other physical action, and doing a social service

“IB or A Levels – it's a choice must be made by the student. Very broadly, if you know you want to be a doctor, a vet or engineer etc, then you choose the three or four A Level subjects that you need to access that course. If you enjoy doing everything, then the IB lends itself very well to that as you can choose six subjects including English, maths, humanities and a language; you’re covering every base.”
Allan Forbes, Tanglin Trust’s head of senior school (Singapore)

A Levels focus on three or four academic subjects, which are studied in depth. There are no compulsory subjects, and schools can offer a choice of more than 50 different subjects in any combination. They are studied across two years, which includes the AS year (Year 12) and A2 year (Year 13). You can study a subject for one year to achieve an AS Level, or for two years to work towards an A Level. If studying an International A Level, AS marks can be carried forward to a full A Level in most subjects; this is not the case for the UK’s GCE A Level, where AS marks no longer count towards an A Level grade.

Students can select A Level subjects that might not have been an option at GCSE, such as psychology, photography and economics. Also, some schools offer the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ), alongside A Levels. Similar to the IB’s Extended Essay, the EPQ involves choosing a topic, carrying out research, writing a 5,000-word dissertation, and delivering a 10-minute presentation.

Up until 2017, students could take the skills-based Critical Thinking A Level as an extra course, but this has now been scrapped. Schools are also offering additional programmes, similar to the IB. For example, Harrow International School Hong Kong runs its own Skills & Competencies course and Facing Challenges programme, Tanglin Trust School in Singapore requires all students to participate in its Creativity, Activity, Service (CAS) programme; and Bangkok Prep has a compulsory core curriculum that includes PE, Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) and community service. Most schools will offer extracurricular activities such as the International Award (known as the Duke of Edinburgh Award in the UK), which help to develop the same skills as the IB’s CAS programme.

How is each programme graded?

The IB programme uses a points system, and students receive grades for each course completed during the two years; this grade ranges from 7 to 1, with 7 being the highest. A student’s final diploma result score is made up of the combined scores for each course; you need 24 points or above to achieve an IB Diploma, and the perfect score is 45 points.

A Levels are graded by letters A-E, with A* being the top grade. The standard admission requirement for UK universities is three A Levels. Following changes introduced to GCE A Levels in 2017, no subject has more than a 20% coursework component and most courses are assessed entirely through exams. A Level students sit their exams at the end of two years of study, rather than taking modular exams throughout the course. This can vary for International A Levels.

When applying to university, A Level grades and IB scores are converted into points; for example, each UK university course requires a certain number of UCAS points.

What do university admissions officers think is the best post-16 qualification?

In short, university admissions officers worldwide do not favour one qualification over the other. A report commissioned by ACS International Schools and the IB Schools and Colleges Association (IBSCA) does highlight the strengths of both the IBDP and A Levels, though.

The International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme is better at encouraging a “global outlook” and “independent inquiry” in students, while A Levels give students more “detailed and in-depth expertise”, according to the findings of the University Admissions Officers Report 2017.

94% of admissions officers believe that A Levels prepare students to degree level study because of the detailed courses; only 56% believed the IBDP was able to develop pupils accordingly. However, 94% of admissions officers say the IB develops ‘well or very well’ independent inquiry as skills, compared to 49% who believe that A Level students are well equipped with such skills.

Admissions departments will consider students from both programmes based on their individual merit, and universities offer grade requirements for students from both programmes to help you evaluate which option is best for you.

What are universities looking for?

The key element in a university application is academic attainment; does the student meet the university’s minimum criteria for a particular course of study?

The admissions tutor will also be seeking to understand how the applicant has grown in a wider sense and his or her developing attitudes towards independent learning, social responsibility and so forth. The beauty of the IBDP is that it covers all of these aspects and offers credit for them against clearly stated criteria for success in obtaining the diploma. But all good A Level schools also offer opportunities for a student to grow through these areas and it is important, therefore, that there is some form of reference to this and/or evidence of it in the college or university application.

Some would argue that the IBDP requires the student to develop a stronger sense of time-management which is also considered good preparation for university study.

In terms of A Levels, there are facilitating subjects that are most commonly preferred by UK universities; students are advised to take at least one of these subjects. The Russell Group, which represents 24 leading UK universities, defines these facilitating subjects as:

  • English literature
  • History
  • Modern languages
  • Classical languages
  • Maths and further maths
  • Physics
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Geography

The bottom line is that university entrance is competitive, and the top-tier universities will always require the applicant to attain the highest-grade levels to gain entry. It may help to look at the entry requirements for you preferred degree course and university, and decide whether you are more likely to achieve that by following A Levels or the IBDP. For more information on the IBDP points awarded, visit www.ibo.org; to understand how these translate into the UCAS tariffs for entry to UK universities, see www.ucas.com.

Are A Levels more likely to get you into a UK university?

Both qualifications are accepted by universities worldwide. However, the IBDP is more readily understood by universities in the US, and A Levels are the benchmark against which most UK universities set their entry requirements for courses. Truthfully, nearly all universities would now understand and recognise both.

Is there a technical post-16 alternative to the very academic IBDP and A Levels?

The International Baccalaureate Career Programme (IBCP) is an alternative to the IBDP that’s specifically developed for students who want to focus on career-related learning. It leads to further/higher education apprenticeships or employment. It is the equivalent of the UK's BTEC, although with a distinctly more academic shell.

“The IBCP is a distinguishing feature of RCHK. I’ve always believed that while anyone can do the IBDP, it’s not always the best fit for everyone, particularly those students who are very focused on certain career outcomes such as the arts or digital design.

For the IBCP, we’ve partnered with SCAD and the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (HKPA). At the end of their high school experience, students then get their high school diploma from us, get certificates from the IB for the courses they’ve passed, and they also earn college credits. In this way, the IBCP gives offers a more personalised learning experience and a more vocational education.”
Dr Harry Brown, principal, Renaissance College Hong Kong

In the UK, T Levels will be introduced from September 2020. Taught over two years, T Levels will combine classroom learning and ‘on-the-job’ experience during an industry placement of around three months; they will be equivalent to three A Levels. Whether T Levels will be offered by international schools is still unknown, but may depend strongly on their ability to offer industry placements.

When are the results published?

Whilst different exam boards have different timetables, A-Level exams are sat in May/June, and the results are published in August.

The IBDP exams are sat in May for schools following the September to June academic year, and in November for those following a January to December calendar. Results are then published in July and January, respectively. If you receive your results in July, you’ll receive confirmation of your university place well in advance of A Level students; if you need to go through the UK’s Clearing system, you’ve got extra time to plan this.

Is the IBDP harder than A Levels?

No. An A Level student aiming for three A*s will work just as hard as an IBDP student working towards a score of over 40 points. However, what puts some students off taking the IBDP is that they have to study six subjects, and each individual subject counts towards their final grade. This is not as daunting as it sounds, though, as students take three subjects at Higher Level, and their three weaker subjects at Standard Level.

In general, the IBDP is more suited to students who are all-rounders; A Levels are favoured by students who are stronger in one subject or specialist area.

Why is the IB more expensive than A Levels?

IB programs are costly, both in time and money, for schools to implement – and any school offering the IBDP has to go through an expensive accreditation process by the IBO.

Do students have to follow the IB system throughout their education before taking the IBDP?

There are several different pathways offered by international schools across South East Asia. The main choices are IB continuum schools offering all three programmes; schools offering the PYP, IGCSEs and the IBDP; and British schools delivering the UK curriculum, IGCSEs and either A Levels or the IBDP.

Students who have followed the IB’s PYP and/or MYP will have developed the skills and knowledge base needed to meet the demands of the IBDP. For example, it gives students the research skills needed to complete the Extended Essay. That said, students can successfully switch to the IBDP after studying the UK curriculum; IGCSES are internationally recognised qualifications that offer students both breadth and specialisation, and the exams prepare them for the rigour of the IBDP.

Click here to read more about combining GCSEs with the IB programme.
Click here for all Hong Kong's IBDP schools
Click here for all Hong Kong's A Level schools

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