IB or A Levels in the UK - Which Is Right For You?

So, IB or A Levels? 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 private schools in the UK.
IB or A Levels in the UK - Which Is Right For You?
By Carli Allan
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Is your child heading towards the college years? Are you looking for the best curriculum to prepare your teenager for a top university or career path? While A Levels are the official college qualification for students aged 16-19 years in the UK, there is a large number of private schools in the country offering the IB Diploma Programme (IBDP) and the IB Career-Related Programme (IBCP). All three are two-year programmes that are widely recognised by universities and employers – and when it comes to the question of which qualification you should choose, there is no straight answer.

Conventional thinking says all-rounders (with strong organisational skills) tend to prefer the IBDP, while those with a clearly defined academic passion and preference for science, or the arts, or languages or the humanities tend to favour the A Level.

There are 96 schools in the UK offering the IBDP, including five that are full IB schools and also follow the IB Primary Years (PYP) and Middle Years Programmes (MYP). There are also 46 UK schools offering the IBCP. There’s a much wider choice of schools offering A Levels.

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 offer the IB and/or A Levels?

Private schools 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.

The IBDP and IBCP are offered by both private and state schools who have been authorised by the International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO). In May 2020, 4,500 students completed the IBDP in the UK.

There are five full IB schools offering all three programmes including the IB Primary Years (PYP) and Middle Years Programmes (MYP), and the (IBDP). The IB's three programmes were not actually designed as a continuum. Each is a standalone framework and curriculum, developed at different times and stages of the IB's evolution. Increasingly, the IB organisation is moving to provide an overarching framework for children from 11 through to 19. Even with this, however, it is not necessary, or even usual for a school to offer all programmes.

The following schools offer the IB continuum:

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

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.

Most schools will offer extracurricular activities such as the Duke of Edinburgh's Award, which helps 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 more vocational post-16 alternative to the 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 it has have a more academic shell.

In the UK, T Levels were introduced in September 2020. Taught over two years, T Levels 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 private schools is still yet to be seen, 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.

Which UK schools perform best in the IBDP?

In May 2020, the top performing schools in the IBDP were King's College School - Wimbledon (average score of 41.7); North London Collegiate School (41.3); Godolphin & Latymer School (41.3); Sevenoaks School (40.1); and Whitgift School (40).

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?

Fees are typically higher at IB schools. Why? Because participating IB schools pay fees to become authorised by the International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO) as well as annual fees, and must provide regular training for staff.

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

There are several different pathways offered by private schools in the UK. The main choices are schools delivering the UK curriculum, IGCSEs and either A Levels or the IBDP; IB continuum schools offering all three programmes; 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 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.

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