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Evaluating IB vs A Level for sixth form study

Updated 20th March 2019

Deciding on the right course of study is an important factor in choosing a sixth form or any school, even at age 11 or 13. Unless you are happy to consider moving school at sixth form, it is advantageous to consider what is on offer at sixth form as part of your senior school evaluation process. Some schools offer both programmes in tandem, but others only offer one or the other.

Here are a few pointers in terms of the benefits of the IB and A level

In general terms, the answer to this question is depth of study within the subject. IB has a focus on breadth, whilst A level allows for concentrated study in certain subjects.

If, for example, a teenager wishes to be an engineer, doctor or nuclear physicist studying Maths and Sciences at A Level will provide a deeper knowledge and understanding of these vital subjects, in preparation for study at degree level.

If, however, they wish to be a diplomat, politician or lawyer, a broader curriculum such as the IB Diploma in the sixth form, may lead to a better grounding of knowledge across a whole range of valuable subject areas, prior to university degree level.

To get a better understanding of IB and A Level, take a look at our other blog:

Let’s look at the two in turn:

What are the benefits of A level?

For most, academic attainment is linked to interest and enthusiasm for a subject. With many youngsters having either a Maths or Science bias or a flair for the Arts, A levels allow them to focus on their area of interest. For example, a student who gets most enjoyment from languages or literature may find the compulsory study of Maths within the IB a chore.

For those students with English as a second language, A Levels allow them to focus purely on the subjects in which they excel. It affords them the opportunity to avoid essay subjects, which they may find harder to get to grips with.

A levels will suit a student who prefers to follow more of a defined syllabus with more direct teaching, rather than individual study, investigation and project work. Many schools now offer an EPQ course, in tandem with A levels, affording teenagers the opportunity to develop research and analytical skills, more often linked to the IB programme, via a detailed project in any area of their choice.

The A level is still recognised around the world as the ‘Gold’ standard. The IB is becoming more and more popular but is still not as well understood by parents in the UK as the A Levels. With the move in recent years away from AS levels and back to a curriculum which follows a linear two year A level course, these qualifications have become more rigorous and exam-focussed of late.

Likewise, it is sometimes mooted that acquiring the points tariff for university at A Level is ‘easier’ than acquiring the corresponding tariff through IB score. It is certainly the case that teenagers should look carefully at their chosen university course and evaluate their stated entry ‘grade’ tariffs for both IB and A Level, as a pre-requirement for certain courses.

Some schools offer Pre-U courses in some subjects as an alternative to A Level. Cambridge Pre-U is a sixth form syllabus in individual subjects, which is designed to prepare learners with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed at university. It promotes independent and self-directed learning in preparation for undergraduate study.

You can read more about this and here on UCAS

Some schools also offer Level 3 BTEC courses, which are designed to be more vocational. They are more career focussed, so work well for those who know what they want to do post-school. These are often offered in subjects like Countryside Management, Business Studies and Computer Science, as they have a more practical nature. Extended Level 3 BTEC qualifications allow students to gain an equivalent of 3 A level subjects, by studying one subject in-depth. Areas such as sports science are covered via these qualifications. These enable students to apply to university via UCAs in the same way as other sixth form qualifications.

You can read more about this here

What are the benefits of studying the IB Diploma?

The International Baccalaureate Diploma (IB) offers curriculum and exams for study during the two years in the sixth form, in place of studying A levels. It is taught in 143 countries around the world, so can sometimes make transferring to a UK school from overseas more familiar.

Offering more breadth than A Level study, a student pursuing the full IB diploma will take one course in each of 5 groups, including two languages, a social science, an experimental science and maths. A sixth subject must be chosen from an additional arts group or another subject from the first 5 groups. Some subjects are studied at Higher level and some at Standard level.

When considering the IB Diploma as an international applicant, it is important to research which language will be studied and examined as a first language and which as second language, (e.g. non-native speaker). Most UK schools offer first language English only. However, some will facilitate a student taking first language German for example, if transferring to the UK from Germany.

In addition to the above, the programme has three core requirements that are included to broaden the educational experience and challenge students to apply their knowledge and understanding.

The extended essay is a requirement for students to engage in independent research through an in-depth study of a question relating to one of the subjects they are studying.

Theory of knowledge is a course designed to encourage each student to reflect on the nature of knowledge by critically examining different ways of knowing (perception, emotion, language and reason) and different kinds of knowledge (scientific, artistic, mathematical and historical).

Creativity, action, service requires that students actively learn from the experience of doing real tasks beyond the classroom. Students can combine all three components or do activities related to each one of them separately.

Students studying the IB Diploma course are encouraged to retain an ‘open mind’ and explore their own learning.

For very able students, who enjoy a challenging learning environment and independent research, the IB may suit them better than the more defined syllabus boundaries of A Level.

Life requires students to think for themselves and not be ‘spoon fed’ so the ability to think, challenge, evaluate as well as make decisions are all vital skills for life and the future world of work.

For those considering applying to university in the EU to try to save on tuition fee costs or to extend knowledge and experience of languages, the IB would be worth considering as a preferred choice.

You can read more about the IB Diploma programme here

Our advice on choosing a sixth form

Choosing a sixth form can be a very confusing process and there are so many subject and career elements to consider. Our team of friendly, experienced consultants would be very happy to help you by discussing your individual needs.

For advice on choosing a sixth form that best suits your child's requirements, please get in touch with our expert consultants.

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