International Baccalaureate vs. A Level: What's Best?

International Baccalaureate vs. A Level: What's Best?
By James Mullan
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As parents we want to provide the best for our children, but this is getting increasingly harder to identify. In part the reasons for this are the  vast range of choices available; our cultural background, expectations and aspirations for our children; their hopes and plans. Major aspects to evaluate are also where the child is likely to continue studying, then working.

The choice between these two educational paths is not as transparent as it first looks.

Why do we bother educating our children at all? The law dictates that as parents it is our duty to provide our children with education. Beyond that, for most people, the ultimate aim is to give their children a means to support themselves by once they are independent. Most of us in Dubai wish that “means” not to be just a way to earn minimum wage; we have ambitions for our children: to do better than we have done ourselves, or to do at least as well. If we are unhappy with the gruelling grind of our daily work, we want them to be happier, more fulfilled. If we have instability or uncertainty in our employment, we want our children not to have to suffer in this way. These are fine, understandable ambitions; are they realistic?

To provide our children with a rounded education, a plethora of skills in addition to a solid knowledge base, they need to be exposed to as much knowledge and learn as many skills as possible. Yet, achieving the highest attainable grades to compete in the merciless push for further education and top jobs contradicts this lofty ideal. Therein lies our dilemma, with most of us choosing to ensure our children achieve the top grades.

Some of us look down on skilled professions, choosing tertiary education as the necessary path for future success. Not only is this blatantly wrong, but it may actually not be in the best interest of the child.

If a child has clear inclinations, well-defined interests and obvious talents from an early age, our task as a parent is much easier; most children, however, do not. Our off-spring may occasionally harbour hopeless dreams which they may need dissuading from. To achieve this without disillusioning them is a challenging task.

As the name indicates - IB – International Baccalaureate is an international qualification. It is almost universally accepted, though possibly not favoured, all over the world. Many features of IB education are designed to prepare students for tertiary education, equipping them with essential skills and ways of analysis more suited to their future needs.

If a family is unsure of their long-term whereabouts and needs to plan broadly, this may be worth keeping in mind. In any case, potential future universities should be investigated for admission criteria. That will give the clearest indication for any decision making. A-levels are only really useful in English speaking countries; primarily, of course, in the UK.

For A-levels a student has to study 3-4 subjects only. This seems to be in contrast with the 6 subjects of the IB. Studying 3 - 4 subjects (possibly 5 in cases of good potential) is obviously going to provide more time per subject, logically leading to study to greater depth and possibly better grades. (The study periods the A-level syllabus incorporates into the day further enhance this.)

In addition, when choosing an A-level course, it is possible to discontinue the study of a language, maths, creative subjects or sciences beyond GCSE level, leading to a more focussed (or one-sided) selection of subjects. This clearly suits some candidates.

In many parts of the world, however, a secondary education lacking in at least one foreign language would not be called a “rounded” education. Insight into, and understanding of, other cultures is just one of the many benefits of speaking other languages and a vital aspect of becoming educated. In our globally expanding world this is of ever greater importance in fostering understanding and acceptance of other cultures and ways of thinking. People in most parts of our planet speak a minimum of 2 languages well; careful examination of our neighbours here in Dubai, may reveal an even more impressive picture.

Maths – a good grasp of it is vital to daily adult life as we grapple with interest rates, exchange rates, mortgages, probability and numerous other aspects skills. (And no, we cannot just call in the experts. In our financial gain driven world, the individual has increasingly got to have better understanding in order to avoid being be at the mercy of exploitation by those who do have better understanding.)

Rounded A-level is not. Grade and depth orientated, definitely.

At the top end of the spectrum an A-level student and an IB student attain similar depth of knowledge and must work equally hard in their chosen subjects. However, an IB student, even one working for a lower average grade, must put in more hours of work – no incorporated study periods for revision. If an A-level student is satisfied by C grades, their work load is much less. For some this is therefore an obvious choice, as the same level of attainment within the IB curriculum still requires more work. A child with the advantage of being bi-lingual studying in one of these languages, with a “foreign language” being the other, or one with outstanding talent in sport, is, of course, at an enormous advantage here.

A point very strongly in favour of A-levels is that, given a certain selection of subjects eg Maths and Physics, coupled with a highly gifted candidate who has few outside interests beyond in-depth study, this study path offers greater focus and higher levels of achievement. In addition, this route will enable such a student to stand out and excel; conversely the IB route may well lead to mediocre results, stifling the gifted nature of the student. It has to be noted here that university options available to students with such a closely related cluster of subjects will lead to university options in these areas only. Whether this background provides sufficient preparation for adult life for young people nowadays, is a matter that should also be weighed up.

Another facet of the decision has to be global movement. Whether we like it or not, the world is becoming easier to navigate. Our children have a far more globally based life than previous generations, leading to the question: which curriculum will prepare my child for what life in our world is demanding of them? Where may they continue studying? Where are they likely to live?

If you are reading this, you are already grappling with these complex issues. Your child may also experience peer pressure to select one path over another adding another aspect to decision making. The soundest advice here would be to speak to as many people as you can and research the specific universities you are considering. Then investigate what happened to the students from your child’s school who had gone to those universities. What were their experiences? Often what looks good on paper does not work out as expected.

Good luck to you and your child!

Also see:
Sixth form life: Living with the IB
IB vs. A' Level: A student's view
IB vs. A' Level: An FAQ

Agnes Holly has worked for more than 25 years in education ranging from university to nursery, and everything in-between.  She is a qualified SEN teacher and has worked extensively with children who have dyslexia and ADHD.  She has additional practical experience in the form of five of her own children aged between 6 and 23.

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