Deciding on the right course of study for sixth form can be an important factor in choosing a school at age 11 or 13. Unless parents are happy to consider their child moving school at sixth form, it is advantageous to consider what is on offer at sixth form of the schools you are considering as part of your 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.

What are the benefits of A level?

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 much 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.

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 their studies in 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 international teenagers who have English as a second language, A Levels allow them to focus purely on the subjects in which they excel often maths, sciences or economics. It affords them the opportunity to avoid essay subjects which they may find harder to get to grips with.

A levels suit a student who prefers to follow more of a defined syllabus with more direct teaching, rather than individual study, investigation and project work.

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 as the A Levels.

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.

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 AS and A levels. Offering more breadth than A Level study, a student pursuing the full IB diploma will take six IB exams, including one literature course taught in the student’s best language, one foreign language, one social science, one experimental science, one mathematics and one arts course. The arts course can be replaced by a second social science, a second experimental science or a third language. This may appeal to a youngster who is, as yet, undecided on their chosen career path or has a diverse range of interests in terms of subject enjoyment and consequently wishes to retain as many open doors to possibilities as possible.

Of the six exams, three or four are taken at the higher level and the remaining two or three subjects are taken at standard level. IB students are expected to take their examinations at the conclusion of the two-year Diploma Programme. However, the IB permits students to take one or two standard level examinations at the end of the first year of the Diploma Programme. The remaining exams are taken at the conclusion of the second year of the Diploma Programme. Higher level exams can only be taken at the end of the second year. In many schools, all examinations are taken in the final year.

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 take written examinations at the end of the programme, which are marked by external IB examiners. Students also complete assessment tasks in the school, which are either initially marked by teachers and then moderated by external moderators or sent directly to external examiners.

The diploma is awarded to students who gain at least 24 points, subject to certain minimum levels of performance across the whole programme and to satisfactory participation in the creativity, action, service requirement. The highest total that a Diploma Programme student can be awarded is 45 points.

Students studying the IB Diploma course 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 application 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.

What is the Cambridge Pre U examination?

Studied over two years in the sixth form, the Cambridge Pre U offers a curriculum which can lead to either the Pre U Diploma or individual subjects can be studied in tandem with A Level courses.

Students usually study up to four Cambridge Pre-U Principal Subjects, which can be taken in combination with A Levels. A wide range of subjects are offered including Mathematics, History, Psychology, Sport Science, Literature in English, Latin, and Business and Management.

Students can complete the Cambridge Pre-U Diploma by taking any three Principal Subjects (or a combination of A Levels and Principal Subjects) in addition to studying Global Perspectives and completing the Independent Research Report.

All examinations are taken at the end of year 2, with the idea of allowing more time during the 2 years of sixth form study for teaching and exploring independent learning opportunities. Students have some flexibility within the curriculum to explore their own areas of interest. Enquiry, critical thinking and independent research are key skills that are encouraged throughout the course of study.

The Cambridge Pre U Guide for Parents offers detailed information about this qualification and can be found by copying the link below into your internet browser.

For advice of choosing sixth form options, choosing a school for sixth form or applying to university, please contact us.