By Sarah Turney
My husband, Tim, and I have lived in Geneva for 22 years, and both our children – Jamie, 21, and Issy, 19 – were born there. Tim manages a business and I’m a software developer and artist.
When the children were born we had no idea how long we would be staying in Switzerland, so we chose English-speaking primary schools in anticipation of a move back to Britain.
For the same reason, when the children moved to secondary school, we wanted somewhere they could sit GCSEs at 16, and then choose either the International Baccalaureate (IB) or A-levels.
That might sound straightforward, but in Switzerland the normal procedure is for pupils not to sit any public exams at all before the IB at 18. In the end we found a traditional French-speaking school which had a department for English-speaking pupils.
Our plan was for Jamie to remain until 16 and then decide between staying in Geneva and taking the IB, or moving to a boarding school in England and taking A-levels.
He was very happy at school and his GCSE results were good – so good that I found myself wondering if they were really my son’s results when he opened the envelope.
Parent/teacher meetings had always been fraught. But after he surprised us – and himself – with his grades it made sense for him to stay put and take the IB there.
Tim and I, educated in Britain, were familiar with A-levels – but the IB is a very different experience. Students have to take six subjects, including Maths, English, a language, a science and a humanity – and one other of their choice.
In short, you need to be an all-rounder. Three of the subjects are taken at Higher Level which is a similar standard to A-levels; the other three at Standard level – the equivalent, as far as I can see, of an AS-level.
There’s a full timetable of academic work to be covered at school, and in addition each student has to write an essay of 4,000 words on a topic related to one of the subjects they are studying.
Next comes the “Theory of Knowledge” essay, 1,600 words about the nature of knowledge. Finally there are the CAS hours to put in. That stands for Creative, Activity and Service. Jamie had to prove that he had completed 50 hours on each of these.
This was incredibly time‑consuming but it produces a well-rounded student and I do think Jamie ended up with an impressive qualification. So it came as something of a shock at the response when our son started applying to British universities.
Our children had always wanted to go to university in England and I had been led to believe that the IB was well regarded. But we found that the universities were asking for more IB points than the equivalent A-level grades.
The IB, you see, is marked out of 45 points in total. There is a general acceptance that 35 points is equivalent to AAA and 40 to to A*A*A* (Ucas tariff points corroborate this).
Yet to study history, Oxbridge colleges were asking for A*AA at A-level, but 42 points in the IB. Tutors seemed to underestimate the academic rigour of the IB.
Ultimately, it worked out well for Jamie. Durham offered him 38 points, which he achieved, and he was very happy there.
Just as my son was heading off in 2011, my daughter was starting sixth form. I hadn’t really given this much thought because she had always followed the same path as her brother.
Based on Jamie’s experience we knew the IB to be an excellent qualification and Issy, who had done well in her GCSEs, was another all-rounder. It would suit her perfectly.
However, she had other plans, reminding us that we had offered her brother two options. Surely she should get the same choice?
Issy had her heart set on boarding school in England to further her dream was of going to Cambridge. After her brother’s experience with admissions tutors, she believed that taking A-levels would give her a better chance. She had a point.
Issy took A-levels, in Maths, Biology and Economics, and the Cambridge French Pre-U – an exam which offers the possibility of a grade higher than an A* and was suited to someone who had grown up in a French-speaking environment.
On top of her academic work, she played lots of sport and spent one afternoon a week in an activity that provided a service to the community.
The fact that the school required her to do this, rather than the A-level board, meant that if the academic work became too much she could opt out of extra-curricular activities. But I don’t think she had an easier time than her brother.
Issy got an offer from Cambridge of A*AA to read Psychological and Behavioural Sciences. She is now in her second year.
Both our children are very happy with the different paths they took, and it’s a huge relief to Tim and I that they both achieved what they wanted. My conclusion based on their experiences?
The IB is a better all-round qualification and ensures that a student has plenty of interest on their CV. But if the goal is an English university, why complicate matters? Opt for A-levels.