The International Baccalaureate or A-levels?

by Anna Michaelidou

A debate that has recently caught my eye is the difference between the International Baccalaureate (IB) and A-levels, and which is a better option for students. With my eldest child now in secondary school it is definitely something I have become more aware of although, in truth, I know very little about the IB, which is why I have chosen to explore this topic.

What is the International Baccalaureate (IB)?

International Baccalaureate

The International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP) is a 2 year educational programme aimed mainly at students aged 16 to 19 and is usually in place of A-level exams. The IB gives students an internationally accepted qualification that is recognised and accepted by many universities worldwide.

Students are required to complete assessments in six subjects; three higher level (equivalent of A-level) and three standard level (equivalent of AS level) and these must include a maths, a science, an English, a humanity and at least one foreign language. They are evaluated using internal assessments that may include oral presentations and written and practical work, varying by subject. They will also be required to complete a series of external assessments, both during the course and as their finals.

According to the IBO, students that take the IB are given a unique education. They state that students will:

  • be encouraged to think independently and drive their own learning
  • take part in programmes of education that can lead them to some of the highest ranking universities around the world
  • become more culturally aware, through the development of a second language
  • be able to engage with people in an increasingly globalized, rapidly changing world.

The same website also makes this statement about the IB programme:

IB World School students develop strong academic, social and emotional characteristics. They are also likely to perform well academically - often better than students on other programmes.

What are the main differences between the IB and A-levels?

Having read various different articles and views about the differences between the IB and A-levels, my understanding is that the IB is more for all-round students that are maybe unsure about the path they would like to follow whereas A-levels are for students that have a good idea in their heads about what they want to study at University.

A main difference is of course the grades. A-levels are graded A, B, C etc. whilst the IB is marked on a points system. Points are awarded from 1 to 7, with 7 being the equivalent of an A*, 6 equal to an A and so forth. The maximum possible point total in the IBDP is 45, considering that up to three additional points can be awarded on the three core subjects, with 24 being the minimum required for the award.

An article in The Telegraph explains:

We found that the universities were asking for more IB points than the equivalent A-level grades.The IB, you see, is marked out of 45 points in total. There is a general acceptance that 35 points is equivalent to AAA and 40 to to A*A*A* (Ucas tariff points corroborate this).

Yet to study history, Oxbridge colleges were asking for A*AA at A-level, but 42 points in the IB. Tutors seemed to underestimate the academic rigour of the IB.

Another difference is that IB students are generally taught 26 periods per week whilst A-level students studying for 4 A-levels will have 24 taught periods per week. Also, the IB course is completed around 6 weeks earlier so the actual total number of lessons is roughly the same.

What do Universities prefer?

The University of Oxford states clearly on their website that:

A-levels and the International Baccalaureate are both eligible qualifications for entry to our undergraduate degrees. We do not weight either of these qualifications as 'better' than the other, since both are eligible for entry, and all applications are considered very carefully on their individual merits.

In general, the IB could be considered a good grounding for candidates who are interested in multi-disciplinary humanities subjects, whereas students who wish to specialise in a particular science at Oxford may find that the concentration of three A-levels prepares them better for an intense subject-specific degree.

Universities in the UK seem to generally accept both the IB and A-level equivalent scores as equal, so it seems the decision on which to take is left greatly to the students; with of course a little help from their parents.

So what do student's say?

I did some research into what students have to say in regards to the IB or A-levels and found some interesting comments. Here are what some students had to say on The Student Room forum:

  • Unless you're unsure about your degree choice for uni, go for the A-levels most relevant to your desired course. If you're unsure, do the IB as it has a wider range of subjects (so possibly more work?) leaving you more options open.
  • I am currently in my first year of IB, and my sister is in her AS year. So far, I have definitely had more work than her, although it hasn't been overwhelming. In terms of the subjects we take in common, so far the level is pretty similar. I, personally, am really glad that I chose to do IB. While my sister only studies Bio, Chem, Maths and Business, I get to study bio, chem, maths, english, french and history. My school days are more varied and I find this more interesting.
  • I would say that IB is more challenging in terms of timing - especially the second year (which I'm in now) - but if you gauge each it against A Levels for each separate subject, you could probably argue that A Levels go into further depth (it depends on the subject - Maths wise, Higher Level Maths is the equivalent to Further Maths at A Level, so I can't even imagine what IB Further Maths would be like).
  • the A-levels that I have done (sciences) didn't require any "thinking skills" at all. It was all based on memory and rote learning, memorising mark schemes and key words, and trying to decipher what the examiner may look out for. Nothing intellectually difficult for those who have a good memory.

There are definitely some mixed opinions about which is better. As long as students have all the knowledge and information they require they should be capable of making this decision.

To Conclude

The IB programme seems to be on the rise, both here in the UK and internationally. The choice whether the IB or A-levels is better for a student should be mainly in the hands of the school they attend. Schools should be open to addressing a students needs and working towards a path that would most suit them based on each individual student's academic abilities and ambitions.

As The Telegraph states:

The IB is a better all-round qualification and ensures that a student has plenty of interest on their CV. But if the goal is an English university, why complicate matters? Opt for A-levels.