The International Baccalaureate versus A-levels: which one will help your child shine?
Expat Anthea Rowan weighs up the advantages of traditional A-levels against new favourite the International Baccalaureate.
As one who witnessed her son struggle through the International Baccalaureate, and is presently watching his sister enjoy the same syllabus, I have to question whether there really is a superior choice between A-levels and the IB. Is one honestly better than the other? Is the IB, as some schools and heads of sixth form would have us believe, the “new black” in education? Are A-levels really a near-obsolete route to university?
Pat Jewitt, the registrar at Queen Ethelberga’s College in York, says: “Offering the IB gives us a competitive edge, and students a highly respected qualification.”
Universities apparently love it: the new gold standard to guaranteed entry, which seems appealing when you remember the rush for clearing places this summer.
On the flipside, Brian Hickmore, the former head of Mougins School, in France, says: “Contrary to what people think, when it comes to applying to university, there is not much difference between the IB and A-level programs. That’s an outdated way of thinking.”
As a result of the conflicting views, supporting a child through their choice can be very confusing. So allow me to present two case studies.
My son, 19, went to an international school where there was no choice but to do the IB, which was sold to us as the best choice. In hindsight, it was a mistake.
An IB student takes six subjects: three at higher level and three at standard, which must include maths, a science, English, and at least one foreign language. Words aren’t my son’s thing: science and maths are.
The language component (including the obligatory 4,000-word extended essay) pulled his final mark down. He believes that he should have moved school to take A-levels, where he could have concentrated on pursuing engineering, which is what he knew he wanted to do.
His sister, an all-rounder, copes competently with Spanish, biology, maths, English, art and anthropology. She has no idea what she wants to do: teach English? Become an art critic? An archaeologist, or an aid worker in South America? She’s left her options wide open, and her IB choice reflects and supports that.
David Miles is the deputy head at Gresham’s School in Norfolk, which offers both the IB and A-levels, so can offer an unbiased view.
He says: “The IB is more about an ethos of an educational style, while A-levels place more emphasis on individual subject knowledge.”
So what they say about A-levels yielding depth of knowledge, and the IB a broad education, is true? Partly. He continues: “This is not to say that the IB lacks academic rigour. The three higher-level subjects will be demanding, and will take the pupil to a high level of knowledge.”
He says that this is why top universities making offers to IB students place emphasis on the overall score, and on the scores attained at HL (higher level). My son’s experience would support this, but if the IB really hasn’t worked for a child, his or her overall score might be seriously compromised by low grades in one subject that drag down the whole result. And my son’s university offers were dependent on his achieving a five in English.
Mr Miles acknowledges that pupils aiming for degrees in the sciences, maths, or subjects with a high science content, such as engineering or medicine, might be better off doing A-levels.
How does one advise a student, such as my son, when faced with the arguments that one route is definitely the safer to a coveted university place?
“If we had a candidate who was heading in this direction, we would have to be fairly certain that they could cope with the extra breadth, as well as maintaining the highest standards in their science and maths HLs before we would recommend the IB route,” says Mr Miles.
So one choice is better for some children than others? Yes, says Gresham’s head, Philip John, for many reasons. Some pupils appreciate breadth, some like contact time in lessons, some are more indecisive than others.
“Some children might be better served by A-levels in order to get into their chosen university on their chosen course,” he says, but adds: “It’s important to bear in mind that a genuine Oxbridge prospect will have a better chance of ‘making the grades’ at A-level but a better chance of proving their worth at IB.”
The IB’s popularity with some universities is the result of several factors: it suffers less grade inflation than A-levels and prepares students well for university. Mr John says that IB students who have gone on to university tell him that they are better prepared and do not find it as difficult to adjust as their new friends with A-levels.
My daughter’s timetable requires a dedicated focus to very mature levels – the IB allows less timetable space than A-levels, by about five lessons a week. The curriculum, with its extended essay, world literature and theory of knowledge components, means that she handles an enormous amount of research across a broad spectrum.
Dr Geoff Parks, the director of admissions at Cambridge, commented last year that when it came to tutors making decisions on borderline applicants, students taking the IB stood a better chance than their A-level counterparts “Because the IB differentiates better than A-level; if we are hesitating about making an offer at all, we would be more likely to make an offer to an IB student than an A-level student” , he explained. But the recent introduction of the A* grade at A-level “has given us a mechanism by which we can resolve doubt in the same way that we have always been able to do for IB applicants.”
Mr Miles says that Gresham’s IB students last year received “1.5 more university offers than our A-level students – although the proportion who got their first choice was roughly equal”.
That statistic would seem to sustain the argument that, though universities increasingly rate the IB, schools that acknowledge and support different sorts of children through different syllabuses end up doing what pupils need: help them secure a place at university.
This piece was originally published in the Telegraph weekly world edition(http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/expateducation/8076313/The-International-Baccalaureate-versus-A-levels-which-one-will-help-your-child-shine.html)