Preparing for sixth form – Choosing IB or A Levels?

A Levels tend to be universally understood by both parents and students alike when it comes to considering subject choices for sixth form study. However, some schools also offer IB or the International Baccalaureate Diploma to give it its proper name. This lesser known international qualification has merits which are well worth considering for certain types of sixth form student. To assist in this process, this week’s blog outlines the basics of the IB and why it might be worth considering as an alternative to the more trodden path of A Level.

Whilst A Levels lead students to specialise in three or four subjects which they study in depth, an IB diploma student continues with a wider spectrum of subjects. Taking six subjects over two years, alongside an extended essay, allows those who find it tricky to narrow down their subject strengths at age 16, to continue with a breadth of subjects for longer. At least three (max. four) subjects are taken at Higher Level, with the rest studied at Standard Level.

Similar to GCSEs, students must select subjects from across all curriculum areas. These must include subjects from all of the following categories, Maths, Sciences, The Arts, Individuals and Societies, Language acquisition and Studies in Language and Literature. It’s easy to appreciate why the IB diploma appeals to those who are talented in a wide range of subjects.

An IB Diploma offers a different application of learning skills through extended essays, theory of knowledge, creativity and service elements which broaden the learning experience, outside of the structure of lessons and homework. For capable students who enjoy applying themselves through independent learning, this allows them to explore areas of personal interest through community and individual research. It can aid the development of skills such as time management, decision making, research and presentation – all vital skills for further study at University and the working world. On the flip-side, this method of learning is challenging and can place a lot of pressure on a student who might find the boundaries of a more defined A Level syllabus more appealing.

An International Baccalaureate Diploma allows the student to focus on a broad range of subjects, whilst A Level concentrates on in-depth study into selective subjects. For career paths such as engineering, medicine, physics or design, A Level provides the vital knowledge and understanding of these key subject areas in preparation for Higher Education study. However, for less specified careers such as politics, law, media or for those who still don’t have an inkling of what career area they wish to pursue, choosing the broad curriculum of the IB diploma could build a strong foundation of valuable subjects, in preparation for any number of degree subjects.

Schools have extended their sixth form offering significantly in latter years, offering elements of the IB course in tandem with A Levels. For example, it is now fairly common place to offer the opportunity to undertake an EPQ in tandem with A Levels. Where career and uni. course pathways allow, maintaining some breadth within choices of A Levels is often encouraged. With recent amendments to the assessment of A Levels meaning many courses are now examined at the end of two years, instead of taking modular exams on a more regular basis. Bearing all this in mind, some of the differences between A Level and IB are perhaps becoming less pronounced.

For so many students, in tandem with outstanding teaching, success in the sixth form is directly related to the teenager’s enthusiasm and passion for the subjects they are studying. For those keen on Maths, Sciences or the Arts, A Levels can provide the focus that they need to pursue these passions, without the distraction of subjects they are less interested in. For example, for some, the compulsory study of Maths in an IB diploma might feel like a chore. However, for those who wish to maintain subject breadth, who have a talent for independent learning and who place value in the development of wider employability and study skills, IB could well be the course for you.

When it comes down to it, the right choice of sixth form course depends entirely on the student. Be sure to understand all your options, when supporting your child in choosing the right pathway.

For more information on the IB, visit

Some UK schools with a proven track record in the IB are listed below, in random order.
Sevenoaks School, St Clare’s, Oxford, Oakham School, Cheltenham Ladies College, King’s College, Wimbledon, Headington School, Whitgift, Wellington College (Berkshire) Bedford School, Ardingly College, Haileybury College, Bradfield College, Worth School, Charterhouse, St Edward’s, Oxford.

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