A Levels or IB Diploma? Your Questions Answered

Whilst the UK curriculum, with its well-known and highly regarded A Level qualification, is still studied by the highest percentage of students in private schools in the UAE, an increasing number of students (and schools) are considering, and opting for, the IB Diploma Programme. And now a few schools have gone one step further and are offering both options!
A Levels or IB Diploma? Your Questions Answered
By James Mullan
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Until recently, students at most UK curriculum schools were offered only one curriculum option when entering the final two years of their education. Depending on whether the school they attended offered the UK curriculum GCE A Level qualification or was one of the growing number to offer the IB Diploma Programme,  students were left with a single pathway - irrespective of whether it was the one best suited to them.  For many, it was that or a potential move of school.

But now, a number of Dubai-based schools are offering both A Level and IBDP curricula.  Whilst it is always good to have a choice, it can also be confusing! Our guide uncovers the main differences between the two qualifications and seeks to answer a range of frequently asked questions.

The International Baccalaureate curricula have become increasingly popular in the UAE over recent years and the Emirates are now home to the highest number of IB schools in the region. A growing number of (mainly UK curriculum) schools have chosen to offer the IB Diploma Programme to their Sixth Form students, in order to meet the demand of increasingly diverse nationalities among their student body.  The IB Diploma offers a broader range of subject options than A Level, and opens ups  alternative university destinations (aside from the UK).

A further, obvious reason for schools to make this decision is that the IB Diploma Programme continues the broad and balanced learning approach to subjects found in the UK I/GCSE curriculum up to the age of sixteen. Schools such JESS Arabian Ranches and GEMS Wellington International School were among the first to choose this UK/IB hybrid curriculum for the senior students. 

A number of US curriculum schools have also chosen to add the IB Diploma Programme to their Senior school provision, thus ensuring that students are not confined to a US university option, but have a broader international choice.  Schools such as GEMS Dubai American AcademyUniversal American School and American International School Abu Dhabi have led the way in this regard.  Even Indian curriculum schools are adopting the IB Diploma programme option for their students - most notably GEMS Modern Academy in Dubai.

Having taken the step to offer a hybrid approach, it was only a matter of time before UK curriculum schools would start to consider whether they would be able to offer both A Level and IB Diploma for their graduating students, providing students with a choice of qualification best suited to their individual needs, and avoiding the requirement to choose between schools. 

As it stands, in 2021, there are now five schools actively offering (or planning to offer) this combination.  These are GEMS Wellington Academy Dubai Silicon OasisKent College Dubai, Nord Anglia International School DubaiRepton School Dubai, and Sunmarke School.   

WhichSchoolAdvisor.com spoke to two schools, GEMS Wellington Academy Dubai Silicon Oasis and Nord Anglia International School in Dubai, both of which now offer the option of  A Levels and the IB Diploma Programme (IBDP), to get their opinions on the differences and similarities, and how and why one might be better suited to an individual student’s aspirations.

But before answering our questions, let's look at what’s involved in these two school leaving qualifications and what to consider in choosing one over the other.

As the name indicates International Baccalaureate -IB - is an international qualification, originally established in the mid-1950's to support children of United Nations staff who were globally mobile. The IBDP  is almost universally accepted worldwide. Many features of an IB education (the Primary Years and Middle Years programmes form the basis of Primary/Elementary and Secondary/Middle-Junior High education in IB continuum schools) are designed to prepare students for university education, equipping them with essential skills and methods of analysis more suited to their future needs.

For the Diploma programme, the wider subject range (a total of six subjects across a broad range of subject areas including Maths, Science, Arts, Humanities and one foreign language), together with additional requirements including an Extended Essay, and compulsory Theory of Knowledge and Creativity, Activity and Service elements, means that the IB Diploma programme is often regarded as the most demanding pre-university qualification. The additional requirements for the Diploma, beyond the core six subjects, provide students with significant additional knowledge and experience which make an important contribution to students' CVs and their university applications.

If a family is unsure of their long-term whereabouts and needs to plan broadly, the internationality of the IB curriculum and its widespread recognition by both schools and universities – the IB offers its four programmes to more than 1.95 million students aged 3 to 19 across 5,400 schools in 159 countries - may be worth keeping in mind.

GCE A Levels – which form the national school post-16 leaving examinations in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (though not Scotland, which has its own system more closely related to the IBDP) - are widely recognised in English speaking countries.

For A Levels, a student usually studies 3-4 subjects only (potentially dropping one at the end of Year 12/Grade 11). This is in contrast with the 6+ subjects of the IB. Studying three to four subjects (or possibly 5 in cases of particularly high potential) is obviously going to provide more time per subject, logically leading to study in greater depth and possibly better grades. (The additional ‘free’ study periods the A Level syllabus allows to be incorporated 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 depending on your viewpoint) selection of subjects. This clearly suits some students who prefer specific fields of study (Science versus Arts for example), although increasingly A Level students are encouraged to choose a mix of subject areas.

In the UK, whilst Scotland has always maintained the broader approach in the final years of school, the rest of the country has adopted the narrower approach, with the GCE A levels often referred to as the ‘gold standard’.
But, even in this, there has been debate over recent years about the ongoing validity of this narrow approach.  One consequence has been the introduction of the EBacc which although not a qualification, is a way for the government, and parents looking at school league tables, to measure and compare how many pupils in a school are getting grade C or above in certain academically-focused GCSEs. These are specifically English, mathematics, history or geography, the sciences and a language, that are usually looked on favourably by universities. The similarity to the IB subjects is not co-incidental!

In many parts of the world, 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 additional languages and a vital aspect of becoming educated in a constantly evolving and inter-communicating 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 two languages well; careful examination of our neighbours in the UAE may reveal an even more impressive picture.

Similarly, a good grasp of Maths is vital to adult life as we grapple with interest rates, exchange rates, mortgages, probability and numerous other aspects of daily life. For children raised in the UAE in particular, the simple basics of operating a bank account and managing on a budget may well be entirely new but of fundamental importance.

Thus the IBDP  prepares students for adult life across a wide range of subject areas, whilst A-levels tend to be more grade and depth orientated and would probably be described as “Focused” rather than “Rounded”.

At the top end of the spectrum, an A-level student and an IB student must work equally hard in their chosen subjects, but there are also some notable differences in demands and outcomes.

We asked GEMS Wellington Academy Dubai Silicon Oasis and Nord Anglia International School Dubai to comment on a series of questions and to add their opinions to the above information. 

What is the primary difference between the GCE A' Level and IB Diploma?

GEMS - The most obvious difference is the volume of subjects taught. IB Diploma students study six subjects (three at ‘standard level’ and three at ‘higher level’) while also completing an Extended Essay (EE) and modules on Theory of Knowledge (TOK). Time is also spent on Creativity, Activity, and Service (CAS), which completes the Diploma. The IBDP covers less content in each of the six subjects, but develops a curriculum that deepens the level of critical understanding through developing learning based around conceptual understanding.

At A Level, students typically study 3 to 4 A Levels. With no extra elements, such as the EE or TOK needed to complete A Level courses, the study is deeper within each subject. The IBDP’s breadth of study results in a wider horizontal study. The A Level works to cover a large volume of study and builds a large knowledge base around the students’ chosen subject(s).

NAS - Both curricula are rigorous in nature and will provide students with the skills they need to pursue their future university and career field. The IB Diploma has more breadth in terms of subjects that are taken, with students selecting from six subjects of which they can study three at Higher Level (more depth) and three at Standard Level. The IB Diploma also has the core elements of Theory of Knowledge (TOK), Extended Essay (EE) and Creativity, Activity and Service (CAS).

A Levels delve deeper into fewer subject areas, where generally three or four subjects are selected that link to the student’s future career path; students can also study an Extended Project Qualification which is a process-based qualification that is equivalent to half of an A Level.

Is the IB Diploma more demanding than A Levels due to the additional subject requirements and additional components such as TOK, the Extended Essay and CAS?

NAS - The IB Diploma does require good time management skills for students to balance their workload across the subjects and the additional components, but the depth of the A Level curriculum is just as demanding in terms of workload which is why this is the correct pathway for students wanting to specialise in fewer subjects. Within the IB Diploma students are able to study more depth in their higher-level subjects which should be chosen in line with their future career field.

Are students more prepared for university as a result of the greater focus on independent learning and research skills of the IBDP?

NAS - These are skills that IB students develop by following the IB curriculum, but for example at NAS Dubai, we ensure that students studying either pathway leave with these skills, through planned sessions to develop these areas. Students are also able to take the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) alongside their A Levels which develops independent learning and research skills.

Is A Level better if a student wants to study a highly competitive and focused study such as Medicine, Dentistry, Law etc.?

NAS - Students within both curricula are regarded equally in these areas of study, as both provide students with the necessary skills, to go on to study these professions. Depending of the university country system or university, students have to take additional examinations in these areas which are considered as part of the application.

What is the benefit of one curriculum over the other?

GEMS - The depth of study in A Level is particularly pertinent to students who want to focus their studies on a smaller pool of subjects. The IBDP, however, affords opportunity to keep studies wider and, thus, continue to keep avenues open for study after Post-16.

Many university courses in countries like the US have opening years of study very similar to the IBDP in the sense that they offer a broad range of subjects, so IBDP students transition onto these courses well equipped. Universities in countries like the UK specialise much sooner so students, naturally in these cases, are more comfortable with such quick specialisation.

NAS - No curriculum is superior to the other; it depends on which pathway is more suitable for your child and where their strengths lie in academics. A Levels would be beneficial if a student is focused on specialising in a particular area of study in the future and enjoys a narrower field of subjects. The IB Diploma would be beneficial to students who are all rounders and would like to explore a wider range of subjects or career pathways.

Would you advise switching schools to take the IB Diploma/A Level, or is continuity of schooling more important than curriculum?

GEMS - This is an entirely personal decision. Both courses, whilst being very different in their approaches, are at the start of phase or key stage of learning and make it an opportune time to switch. For some students, for example, on a GCSE pathway, to continue that breadth of study at IBDP is appealing. For others, on something akin to the IB MYP programme, an opportunity to narrow down their focus of study is appealing.

Successful schools who offer multiple pathways will support students in the transition from one pathway to another. Students need to consider the choices based on their end goal. Where do I want to end up? Certain countries make learning under one particular pathway more beneficial.

NAS - The continuity of staying at the same school can be important for students, in knowing the school and their teachers. They may thrive in an environment that is comfortable for them during these crucial two years. For others, the change to a different school and curriculum allows them to grow and develop in a new environment. This decision should be driven by the right pathway for the student whether that is at their current school or elsewhere.

If a student is serious about IB, is it better to go to a school outside of the UAE? Average scores in some UK private schools tend to be higher than the UAE, for example?

GEMS - Absolutely not! UAE schools consistently score above international averages. Some UK private schools would be selective of their students and not have an inclusive approach to their recruitment and retaining of students. The list of red brick, Ivy League, and Oxbridge candidates graduating from IB schools in the UAE is growing and places the UAE as a much desired place to study.

Which is the more credible qualification?

GEMS - Both are equally recognised globally. Naturally, A Levels are more ‘understood’ in the UK, whereas the IBDP, an international qualification, is understood more globally. However, the vast majority of universities and colleges across the world recognise and accept both qualifications equally. Given the quality of each qualification, both, together with good Higher Education advisors liaising with universities, create students who are equally attractive prospects to universities across the globe.

NAS - They are equally as credible and both pathways are recognised qualifications by both universities and employers alike across many different country systems. It is about choosing the right pathway for your child so that they are able to excel.

Does the curriculum choice make any difference in terms of university entrance?

GEMS - In the vast majority of cases, focusing exclusively on IBDP and A Level, it does not make a difference. When applying for universities, the process would usually begin with a discussion of the course the student is on and the grades/scores they would be expected to attain to gain entrance to that university. Most universities’ entry requirements will list what is needed in both A Level and IBDP to gain access on that course. The universities have their own way of aligning the grades, so every student will be treated with equal opportunities where entrance is concerned.

NAS - Neither curriculum makes a difference for university entrance; they are both rigorous in nature and universities view them equally. Universities are looking at the student holistically and do not favour one curriculum over another.

There are clearly a number of considerations in terms of which pathway is the right one for your child. The student's ability, interests, future university options (and career plans - or indeed a lack of them!) will all have a bearing on making the right choice. Providing advice to students about which pathway is best suited to an individual student is usually the responsibility of school counsellors/career advisors.  We would advise you to seek these specialists out before making a decision.  

If you or your child feel that the current pathway, be it towards A Level or IBDP - or indeed, towards US High School Diploma or CBSE/CISCE - may not be the correct one, it may be worth an initial chat with the Admissions staff  of one of the dual pathway schools mentioned in this article, to get their views on what may be the best route. 

Find out more more here:

A Level versus IB – Why choose IB
A Level versus IB - When, why choose a British education
A Level versus IB - The case for a combined curriculum
The Best schools in the UAE 
Best IB through schools in the UAE
Best IBDP schools in Dubai

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