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James Hole: "The reformed nature of the new A-levels is certainly another advantage of the qualification"

If I had a pound for every time someone asked...

James Hole tackles the big question: IB or A-level, which is the correct choice to make?

Posted by Stephanie Broad | March 17, 2016 | Teaching

IB or A-levels? Having been a Head of Sixth Form and Deputy Head Academic at two schools who have both offered dual curriculums, this is the one question which I have been asked more often than any other. The question is frequently raised in slightly hushed tones, as if it is somewhat irreverent to even table the query, quite possibly even putting the person that is being asked in a compromising position. Pupils, parents, fellow teachers, governors, admissions officers – everyone wants to know the answer. 

It is by no means an unreasonable question to ask, considering that the answer has a significant bearing on a child’s future. The debate raises all sorts of important issues, not least, educational philosophy, public perception, value for money, higher education and career aspirations. However, a public presentation on IB and A-levels doesn’t often make for enthralling listening, as inevitably one is conscious of avoiding anything that could be perceived as bias one way or the other and interpreted as a dastardly ‘hard-sell’. 

Often, parents’ concern emanates from a belief that certain universities favour a particular programme, as though one route gives candidates an inside track to those coveted university places. But this is simply untrue in the majority of cases. Sometimes IB workload is a concern, but there are plenty of industrious students studying A-levels who work far harder in their liberated time than some of their more indolent contemporaries studying the IB. 

The fact that A-level students have more time to pursue extra-curricular interests is also regularly raised, without appreciating the Creativity, Action and Service requirements that are an integral part of the IB Diploma. For many years, Theory of Knowledge and the Extended Essay set the IB apart, by teaching the sort of thinking and research skills that universities look for. But then the introduction of the A-level equivalent in the guise of Critical Thinking and The Extended Project Qualification redressed this particular balance.

The Government’s regular ruminations as to whether all pupils should study Maths in some shape of form post the age of 16 clearly indicates that the IB approach might be right

I’m afraid that the honest answer to the question, ‘Should my child sit the IB or A-levels’ is precisely as complex as the child themselves and defies a neat, pithy response. For what it’s worth, the closest I can get is to suggest that it is the respective breadth and specialisation of the two programmes and how this distinction appeals to an individual child, that is key to the decision-making process. While in many cases a child will thrive studying either programme, in some instances they really are better suited to one over the other and this could affect their academic performance. What is important is to make sure that the child opts for the right route in the first place. 

In many ways the IB is still regarded as ‘the road less travelled’ by many parents and pupils; however, it does provide a more wide-ranging education that resembles that of a number of countries. Those who really buy into the IB philosophy of education need little persuasion of its worth. They champion the holistic education it offers and are less preoccupied with university entry requirements and more focused on the universal education their child is receiving and the philosophy underpinning it. The unreservedly international emphasis clearly reinforces this and the subject curriculums. Some pupils are put off by the fact that IB students tend to have noticeably busier timetables and more lessons; whilst some parents will see this as an eminently good thing. 

The IB does require students to be particularly organised and whether they are to begin with or not, one way or another they have to acquire this skill swiftly. The performance of IB students in their first year at university often compares favourably with that of their A-level counterparts, as the independence, time management and self-sufficiency required by the programme frequently stands them in good stead. Sometimes the prospect of continuing with Maths, English, a science or a foreign language is off-putting, but frequently the fact that only three subjects are taken at Higher Level is overlooked and the accessibility of Standard Level forgotten.

The Government’s regular ruminations as to whether all pupils should study Maths in some shape of form post the age of 16 clearly indicates that the IB approach might be right. UK universities now undoubtedly understand the IB and if some of their offers are anything to go by, they positively welcome it; though I would say there are a tiny minority of universities who attach great importance to UMS scores from AS exams who tend to remain a little more lukewarm. I do feel that the IB curriculum lends itself well to applications to US and other international universities as the aforementioned breadth does seem to suit other countries’ educational models very well. 

For many, A-level represents a safer route, which is understandable given that pupils can pick their three or four favourite subjects. This is relatively low-risk as it allows pupils to specialise in their preferred areas and in terms of timetabling they will have more lessons each week studying these subjects than for Higher Level IB subjects. Though for the good all-rounder, this safer choice can lead to the odd wistful glance at fondly remembered GCSE subjects, which they would have performed well in at Standard Level. The loss of these extra subjects does allow for more time for students to pursue wide-reading in their favoured subjects and in the right hands these so called ‘free’ periods can be extremely well used to develop depth of understanding. Here, A-level students have a great opportunity to develop their subject knowledge and frame of reference as they have time to really pursue their interests. The reformed nature of the new A-levels is certainly another advantage of the qualification; since the new specifications which were rolled out in September 2015 it is clear that the content, structure and assessment of A-levels has really improved to become more rigorous and intellectually stimulating. The demise in the profile of AS-levels to enable the teaching of the new A-levels to be linear, without half-way examinations and the prospect of retakes, has been also been welcomed in many but not all quarters.

So, IB or A-level? You’re probably none the wiser as to which is ‘better’ and the reason being is that it entirely depends on the child concerned. Will the child in question thrive when faced with a busy, comparatively eclectic timetable or are they more suited to a tightly focused curriculum of subjects which play to an individual’s strength in fostering similar skills? When weighing all this up, it’s not really about the qualifications and their status at all, but about the individual child’s strengths and weaknesses and how they are likely to respond to two widely-respected but very different curriculums.

James Hole is Deputy Head (Academic) at King Edward’s Witley    

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