Sixth Form: IBDP or A Levels?

Are you currently weighing up your Sixth Form options? We discuss the question of whether to choose A Levels or the International Baccalaureate with leaders from Canadian International School, Chatsworth International School, Invictus International School and Tanglin Trust School.
Sixth Form: IBDP or A Levels?
By Carli Allan
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A key decision for parents and students heading into the final college years is which route to take? While there is the widest choice of international schools in Singapore offering the IB Diploma Programme (there are 27 in total), there is also a number of schools offering sixth form qualifications from the UK (A Levels), US (Advanced Placement), Germany, France, India (CBSE and ICSE), Australia and Japan.

If you’re wondering whether you should do the IBDP or A Levels, you may be asking which one will get you further? Which one do top universities prefer? As with all decisions relating to education, there is no ‘right’ answer about which curriculum you should choose. Both the IB Diploma Programme (and its vocational alternative the IB Career-related Programme) and A Levels are well-respected academic qualifications, and both have been described as the 'gold standard of education'.

The question is, which curriculum is right for you? In this article we speak with leaders within sixth form education in Singapore from Tanglin Trust School, Canadian International School, Chatsworth International School and Invictus International School to discuss the pros and cons of the IB programme compared with A Levels in terms of subject choices, assessment, workload and university entry.

Depth or breadth?

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Sixth formers at Tanglin Trust School can choose between A Levels and the IBDP

Is the decision between A Levels and the IB one that ultimately boils down to depth or breadth? A Level students study a narrower range of subjects and can choose to specialise in the sciences, languages, humanities or the arts. By comparison, IBDP students’ study six separate subjects covering two languages, mathematics, sciences, humanities and the arts – as well as a 4,000 word Extended Essay, a Theory of Knowledge course, and activities involving Creativity, Activity and Service (CAS).

As a generalisation, A Levels are a good option for students who are focused on a particular subject area, or have a clear idea of what they want to do after college – and want to focus on achieving the highest possible grades in their three (or four) most relevant subjects. The IBDP is well-suited to students who want to maintain breadth in their choice of subjects (and perhaps those who need some extra time to decide what university degree or career pathway they want to follow). 

The IB requires students to achieve a minimum level of proficiency in English, maths, science, languages and humanities, which is much broader than A Levels. However, the opportunity to ‘narrow down’ allows A Level students to continue studying only the subjects where their interests and talents lie in-depth, and to have the advantage of dropping their weaker subjects.  

Both A Levels and the IBDP offer breadth and depth to varying degrees, though. In A Levels, there is an option to add breadth by completing an Extended Project Qualification (and students have the freedom to select any combination of subjects, if their school can timetable it). In the IBDP, three (or occasionally four) subjects are taught at Higher Level (HL), which gives the opportunity for more in-depth study of certain subjects, and the other three (or two) subjects are taught at Standard Level (SL), which adds breadth to the overall programme. 

Andy Goodliffe is Head of Sixth Form at Tanglin Trust School, which is Singapore’s only international school to offer students the choice of A Levels or the IBDP at sixth form. Winner of the WhichSchoolAdvisor Best Schools Award 2022 for Best Post-16 Education, Tanglin was praised by judges for its choice of pathways for post-16 students in terms of both A Level and IB, which “means that there are options for everyone, regardless of their interests and chosen career ambitions”.

Because Tanglin offers this choice, Mr Goodliffe is often asked by parents, ‘Is my son or daughter an IB or an A Level student?’. “This is an unnecessary simplification of what the two pathways involve,” he says. 

“Yes, the IB forces breadth and balance across the six groupings, while A Levels allow students to specialise in a way that the IB doesn’t. However, the study of subjects is only one part of the IB’s broad and balanced curriculum, and the additional focus on CAS, the Extended Essay and the TOK is what makes the IBDP a values-driven diploma. And any good A Level or dual-pathway school will acknowledge the shortcomings of A Levels and bolt on different elements to make it a character-based education.”

As well as looking at the breadth and depth of each pathway, the IB and A Levels can be compared as a skills-based programme versus a subject-based curriculum. Mr Goodliffe explains: 

“A Level is a series of standalone courses while the IBDP is an holistic diploma. The IB is a concept-based, inquiry-driven programme whereas A Levels are a bit more traditional in terms of their learning style; they are about content, knowledge and not so skills-based.”

Fang Shelly is the Curriculum Coordinator at Chatsworth International School, an IB Continuum school and Winner of the WhichSchoolAdvisor Best Schools Award 2022 for Best IB School. A strong advocate for the IBDP, Ms Shelly recognises that the broader range of subjects at IB “can be ideal for some students, but a challenge for others”; as a non-selective IB school, Chatsworth was recognised by judges for “delivering excellent results for a moderate fee and maintaining a holistic focus on creating caring young people”. 

As well as breadth, Ms Shelly focuses on how well the IB’s skills-based programme prepares high school students for tertiary education in terms of self-management and critical thinking skills. 

“DP students learn to manage a challenging workload with multiple deadlines, including an Extended Essay that requires students to complete a 4,000 word piece of research based academic writing. As a result of the work they have done for the IB Diploma, a number of our graduates have commented on how well they were able to cope with the demands of first-year university tasks.”

Tanglin and Chatsworth are just two of the 27 international schools in Singapore offering the IBDP, many achieving higher than the global average year on year (in 2022, the Singapore global average score was 37.49, well above the global average of 31.98). 

Canadian International School (CIS) is another school offering all three IB programmes from three to 18 years – and Elsa Baptista, CIS’ Diploma Programme Co-ordinator, explains why.

“IB graduates have the benefit of breadth in learning, and study subject areas they might not have studied otherwise within a more focused system. This structure puts students in a good position when it comes to career and university opportunities as IB students often come away enjoying a subject they didn't think they would.”

The choice of schools offering A Levels is far more limited in Singapore. Tanglin is the largest international school offering International A Levels, and smaller private schools include Insworld Institute and SSTC International Academy (SSTC-IA). Other schools offering A Levels follow a January to December academic year, sit their exams in November, and receive their results in January. These include DPS International School, Ascensia International School, Dimensions High School, and Furen International School (FIS). 

The choice of A Level schools is growing, however. Middleton International School plans to offer A Levels from January 2024, and Invictus International School has just started teaching A Levels at its Centrium campus. Principal Dr Nicholas Duggan believes that the in-depth study of three or four subjects at A Levels can offer advantages to the student who wants the freedom to specialise. 

Dr Duggan explains:

“It really depends on the best fit for the child. A child who excels in the sciences may be intimidated by the options in the IBDP under Individuals and Societies and The Arts, they may be uncomfortable learning a language, or they be may weak in mathematics. However, a good all-rounder may thrive on such a diverse curriculum.

“A Levels offer some career-focused subjects such as Accounting, Sport and Physical Education, Divinity and Islamic Studies, which can lead directly to careers; in a competitive world, this will give students an advantage over those coming from broader subject groups.”

Fact or fiction? The IBDP is harder than A Levels

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Students at Canadian International School study the Diploma Programme after the IB's PYP and MYP

There’s a misconception that the IB is harder than A Levels, and that the IBDP is only right for the brightest, most hardworking students. This is both unfair to any hard-working A Level student and simply untrue. A student who achieves three A* at A Level, for example, will most likely have worked just as hard as any student who is awarded a score of 40-plus in the IBDP.

It’s more about choosing the learning style that is right for you. Generally, the IB has more teaching time and fewer self-study periods compared to A Levels; A Level students have fewer subjects to juggle and only have to commit to their chosen three subjects; they are not held back by having to study subjects they do not enjoy, and they can choose to take part in activities such as service learning rather than have them imposed.

Mr Goodliffe says that both pathways can be as challenging and as manageable as the student needs.

“When we first introduced the IB in 2009 there was definitely a sense that it was only for the elite, and we have been working hard for a decade to dispel that myth. There are manageable routes through the IB in the same way that there are intense routes through A Levels. We should avoid generalising about each one.”

It’s easy to see why the IB is widely regarded as being more rigorous; with six subjects from a range of disciplines and the addition of compulsory elements like CAS and the Extended Essay, the IBDP can feel more demanding than A Levels. Unlike A Levels, IB students can’t choose any combination of subjects, so there if there’s one subject group you want to avoid or are weak in, this may feel ‘harder’ work. However, this can all be seen as a strength of the IB as students are encouraged to learn time management and self-discipline, skills that are incredibly useful when progressing onto university.

Ms Baptista at CIS says:

“In addition to the six subjects that students’ study, they also write an Extended Essay (a university-level research paper) where they apply their research and writing skills that are essential for university. They also participate in Creativity, Activity, and Service (CAS) which takes them out of the classroom and into a real-world context while helping to better themselves and the world around them, and they embark on the Theory of Knowledge course where they master important critical thinking skills as they question how knowledge is actually created.”

So, just how can the IBDP be “more manageable” than A Levels for some students? Let’s look first at how each qualification is assessed. A Levels are more exam-focused than the IBDP (for a single A Level subject, students may sit as many as six exam papers), so arguably better suited to students who perform well in an exam setting. That said, International A Levels are more modular than the A Levels taught in the UK; students sit exams at the end of Years 12 and 13, which means there is less pressure on students in their final year.

By comparison, in the IBDP there are more coursework components, typically completed over several months, that count towards students’ final grades. This is not to say that exam skills aren’t important for IBDP students as they still are; however, A Level students are tested more on what they ‘know’ and IB students more on what they can ‘do’.  

Mr Goodliffe (Tanglin) explains:

 “The IB has a lot of internal assessment, which is like coursework; most of the arts in Group 6, for example, are 100% internal assessment. So, when students get to the end of their two years, instead of facing exams in six subjects they only have five subjects because the arts are entirely portfolio-based. In English, IB students have done about 40% of the course in internal assessment by the time they get to the end of Year 13.”

The IB also offers students the opportunity to study subjects at two different levels of depth – Higher and Standard Levels – which can really make a difference to the academic rigour. You can focus more on your best three subjects, and less so on your weaker subjects; if your weakest subject is maths, for example, then choose the Standard Level.

Mr Goodliffe adds:

“While the IB does mean studying six subjects instead of the three at A Levels, it doesn’t mean it is twice as challenging. Because the IB is such an integrated diploma, you can ask more of Higher Level and less from Standard Level students. It’s this integration that can make the IB manageable.”

Beyond the Academic

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IBDP students at Chatsworth International School graduate to universities worldwide 

While A Levels are one of the most well-established routes to a university degree, they have been criticised globally for being too narrow, particularly when compared to the breadth of study offered by the IB Diploma Programme. A Levels were founded in the UK over 70 years ago as a school-leaving certificate that tested academic ability, and they remain focused on the study of three or four academic subjects.

As highlighted above, the IBDP, which was launched over 50 years, includes compulsory academic projects and non-academic experiences including self-directed research, and community projects.

So does the IB offer students a more diverse, well-rounded portfolio than A Levels? 

The focus of the IBDP focus goes beyond acquiring knowledge, as Siobhan Dean, Head of Secondary at Chatsworth explains.

“The IBDP offers students a range of avenues to develop their interests both within and outside the curriculum. The Extended Essay is a great vehicle for students to pursue their own interest academically and develop their knowledge under the guidance of a supervisor.

"The TOK provides students with an opportunity to explore and reflect on the nature of knowledge and the process of knowing. The CAS programme develops students' self-management, interpersonal and intercultural skills as they devise and explore community, action and service-based projects.”

Ms Baptista at CIS says that CAS is “one of the attractive features of the IBDP as it encourages students to find balance outside of the academic programme and encourages them to try new creative, active or service related endeavours.” 

She adds: “It’s these experiences that can make students really stand out in their university applications. Our alumni often continue with these activities after graduation in their new university communities.”

A Level students can also develop strengths and interests beyond the academic – it’s just not compulsory.

Students who already compete in sports teams, participate in the performing arts, or pursue other extra-curricular activities may find that they do not need compulsory programmes such as CAS to help broaden their horizons. 
And many schools are expanding their A Level programmes to prepare students with university-style study and research skills.

A Levels are increasingly being supplemented by the EPQ (Extended Project Qualification), which is an independent piece of research that’s similar to the IB’s Extended Essay. The EPQ fills a gap in an A Level education by introducing the key skills of independent research that universities are increasingly looking for, and it is now included in offers by some UK universities. 

The number of students taking up the EPQ has grown substantially since its integration into the UK curriculum in 2007; this year, around 38,000 students took the EPQ in the UK alone. At Tanglin, all A Level students follow the Tanglin Core and complete the Extended Project Qualification and the Community, Action, Service programme (the CAS is not reserved only for its IB students).

Mr Goodliffe explains why: 

“A Levels are a series of standalone courses while the IB is a holistic diploma, and any good A Level or dual-pathway school will acknowledge the shortcomings of A Levels and try to bolt on different elements that make it a character-based education. 

“At Tanglin, we bolt on CAS and the Extended Project Qualification; we feel confident that both our pathways do a similar thing because we top up the A Levels with the character education that we know is required, while the IB already has it in one package.

“Every 16-18 year old should have a creative output, should be active, and should be involved in service learning. It makes sense that we make our A Level students do that too.”

Getting you to university

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In short, university admissions officers worldwide do not favour one qualification over the other. 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.

A report commissioned by ACS International Schools and the IB Schools and Colleges Association (IBSCA) highlights the different strengths of both the IBDP and A Levels.

The IBDP 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.

At Tanglin, where students in both the IB and A Level pathways are offered places by universities worldwide, Mr Goodliffe acknowledges that the IB students have “a joined up way of thinking that universities really like.” He adds:

“Such benefits are not written into the admission policies for universities, though, and universities across the UK, US, Europe, and Australia are very clear that they will take students from both the IB and A Levels, as well as other programmes like AP.” 

Chatsworth sees students graduate to universities across the UK, Europe, the US, Asia, Australia and Canada. Iain Hudson, DP Coordinator and University Advisor, explains why: 

“The IBDP is seen as a prestigious high school qualification that demonstrates not only academic capability across a broad range of subjects, but also shows that students possess the social, emotional and academic skills and attitudes that are necessary for success in university and future life. Admissions officers recognise that doing well with the IB Diploma shows that students have a good foundation for the first year of university.”

MYP or IGCSEs?

Tanglin Trust exams
Tanglin says IGCSEs teach you exam technique needed for the IBDP and A Levels

There are several different pathways through primary and secondary offered by international schools in Singapore. The main choices are schools delivering a UK curriculum followed by IGCSEs and either A Levels or the IBDP; IB continuum schools offering all three programmes (PYPMYP and IBDP); and schools offering the PYP, IGCSEs and 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 a 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.

At continuum schools like CIS and Chatsworth, where the IB is in their DNA, there is a strong belief that the PYP and MYP offer the best preparation for the IBDP.

Mr Hudson at Chatsworth says:

“Students who progress from the IB Middle Years Programme into the IB Diploma Programme benefit from a strong conceptual understanding that is part of an IB education. They have also completed the Personal Project, which is a solid precursor to the Extended Essay in the Diploma Programme. The advantage of the MYP curriculum is the focus on conceptual learning and interdisciplinary thinking through inquiry-based learning.”

However, as Ms Baptista at CIS says: “While there are distinct advantages to doing all three IB Programmes as they fit so well together through their focus on inquiry-based learning and the approaches to learning, we do support students who join us in Grade 11 for the first year of the Diploma Programme.”

There are many other international schools in Singapore where students take I/GCSEs before moving onto the IBDP, a pathway that Mr Goodliffe at Tanglin believes offer the best preparation for sixth form.

“Continuum schools are brilliant in terms of being inquiry-led and concept-driven, but there comes a point when you have to learn to respond to pressure. Most schools worldwide offer I/GCSEs and then the IBDP as they teach you exam technique, and how to synthesise knowledge under pressure – and that what’s you need for the IBDP,” he says.

“I/GCSEs are a broad and balanced programme; most schools will insist on doing a language and maybe a humanity or technology, as well as the core subjects. This is all excellent prep for both the IB and A Levels.”

The last word

The question of whether to take A Levels or the IBDP should certainly be considered as students start Year 11 – and understanding the pros and cons, strengths and weaknesses of each pathway is important. 

But, as Mr Goodliffe at Tanglin says, whichever pathway you take will lead you to university – and in university lecture theatres around the world IB and A Level students sit side by side. It’s a not a question of which one can get you there, but which one offers the right pathway for you.

“In the sixth form, you come to a fork in the road when you choose either the IB or A Levels. It separates but runs in parallel and then re-joins further down the road when you go to the university; these are not two different paths that keep moving further and further away from each other.”

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