In 2004 the American psychologist Barry Schwartz published a book called ‘The Paradox of Choice’. In it, he argued that the freedom of choice which enables residents of modern, industrialized societies to choose between a hundred different pairs of jeans or several hundred varieties of salad dressing had brought in its wake no discernible increase in human happiness. Rather than feeling themselves newly emancipated masters of their fates, modern consumers instead felt overwhelmed, even paralysed, unable to come to reasoned decisions and fearful of the consequences of any misstep.
Schwartz’s book was not without its critics, but if you are the parent of a child of fifteen, contemplating the options for the next stage of their education, then perhaps you recognize something of yourself in his portrait of fretting, free yet unfree, modern man. For today’s parents face exactly the predicament which Schwartz sought to describe: They are being asked to make a binding choice between several options of seemingly similar plausibly, whilst being warned of the awful repercussions of a mistake. It is as if they are being led into an educational maze and asked to find their way out without a map, but with shouts of encouragement, dire warnings and contradictory advice assailing them from all sides. ‘Turn this way and your child’s education will lack rigour!’ cry some. ‘Turn that way and the world’s great universities will turn your child away!’ cry others, equally convinced of their case. What is the parent to do, if they are to avoid fruitlessly retracing their steps, hitting the same walls again and again?
The answer is simple. You already have almost all the knowledge you need to find your way through this educational maze at your disposal, for you know your child like no one else.
When choosing between A-levels or the international baccalaureate, ask yourself: What does my child need if he or she is to flourish? The truth is that the world’s great universities are no longer parochial. They understand that able, passionate students can be found all over the world, in many different educational systems, and they are increasingly willing to go out and find them, to understand them on their own terms. They seek the best, and so you should endeavour to find an education which will bring out the best in your child.
It is not true, for example, that the leading American universities do not understand or value the A' Level. Most will ask your child to sit the same standardized tests as their American counterparts, but they will respect the academic rigour of the British qualification. In some cases, they even allow British students to claim academic credit for work done during their sixth-form studies.
Nor is it true that severe English dons set the bar higher for students who apply with the International Baccalaureate, preferring instead the A' Levels they themselves sat twenty years ago and distrustful of all that is new or foreign. This might have been in case a few years ago, but in fact, several leading English universities, including King’s College London, have recently lowered their entry requirements for students holding the IB, in recognition of the qualification’s academic rigour.
You can receive an exceptional education as a student in both the IB and the British systems, and students from both systems who work hard and enjoy their studies will find many doors open to them. Therefore you should choose a qualification which your child will find stimulating and which they will want to work hard for.
You do have a choice to make, but it is one which should be made with joy, not anxiety, because in making the choice you will be affirming all that is best in your child. Are they are a brilliant mathematician who dreams of winning a Fields Medal? Then choose the A' Level system, with its option of pursuing Further Mathematics. Do they have an omnivorous intellectual curiosity? Then perhaps the IB, with its mixture of the arts, languages, and the sciences, will suit them.
Remember, though, as you try to match your child to the system that will suit them, that the differences between the systems are not so great as is often supposed. It is often said that the A-level forces you to specialise whilst the IB allows for a broad education. This might have been the case twenty years ago, when timetabling restrictions and the ‘two cultures’ divide in British academic life meant that students did have to choose between the arts and the sciences, but increasingly schools offering A-levels make every effort to allow for what might have once seemed unconventional choices. Even British medical schools, for example, no longer expect applicants to have studied only sciences to A-level, and in fact some will welcome students whose third or fourth subject is a foreign language or one of the humanities.
When you are choosing between the IB and A-levels, you are in fact choosing between studying four subjects and studying six. If you seek a broad education but are wary of compulsion, then the A' Level may in fact be the best choice.
So, do not fixate on the supposedly crucial differences between the qualifications. Focus instead on your child, their qualities, and the qualities of the school which they will attend. Ask your child’s teachers what they think of each qualification. Ask schools which universities their pupils attend. Above all, however, ask those to whom you are thinking of entrusting your child’s education about their values. What does a good education mean to them? Which habits of thought and action do they seek to equip their students with?
It is in seeking to answer these fundamental questions that schools come to the decisions they do about which qualifications they should offer. If you find a school whose values impress you, then it is likely that they will they have made the right decision regarding the curriculum for you and your child.
Always remember that curricula, however well-written or cleverly marketed, are concerned with only one aspect of education. Other, crucial aspects are attended to in the work teachers do with their students which goes beyond the curriculum, in the intellectual vistas they show them for the very first time, and in the relationships which they build with them. Attend to these aspects of education, with your knowledge of your child in mind, and perhaps with a little extra guidance from an expert educational consultant, and you will come to the right decision with a sense of excitement and eager for the journey which only begins when you have found your way out of the educational maze.
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This article was written by Eleonora Suhoviy, Principal Consultant at the London-based Carfax Educational Consultants, specialising in helping pupils gain places at top schools across the world and a parent company of Carfax Private Tutors Dubai that offers individual tuition in all major academic subjects to families across the UAE and the Gulf.