Comparison between IB and A-level

By Caroline Drewett


Finding the right school often seems like an impossible task, especially for those new to Hong Kong. Places are as competitive as ever, and there’s rarely much time to decide which school, and which style of education, will suit your child before the academic year starts. A decision that could affect your child’s engagement with the curriculum, as well as his or her university life and early employability, is whether to select the traditional GCSE and A-level system, or choose the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP).

The differences between the two systems seem vast. The IB has a core of six compulsory subjects as a minimum, including a language and an essay-based field, while A-levels require candidates to study a minimum of three ones, with no restriction on which subjects can be taken.

When it was first introduced, the IB received mixed reactions from parents in Hong Kong. Many acknowledged that it allowed for a wider selection of subjects, fostered a broader range of skills, and placed considerable focus on independent thought. But even so, top students were losing out on university places to rival A-level candidates.

But increasing global recognition for the qualification has prompted some schools in Hong Kong and in the UK to switch to the IB. Even though the A-level continues to be successful, some feel that the IB provides the best pathway through secondary education.

One example is the English Schools Foundation (ESF), which switched to the IB in 2009. ESF follows an IB curriculum from Year Five. Chris Durbin, senior school development officer, ESF Secondary, believes it benefits students throughout their schooling years, and prepares them for life beyond the classroom and in their first job. University acceptance rates are important, but how students fare after university also needs to be considered. Durbin believes starting salaries are much higher for IB students than for A-level students, something he puts down to “preparation through independent thought which students develop through the theory of knowledge”.

Independence and creativity have become crucial to university applications, and top universities now look for how you learn and how you think, rather than what you know. The idea is that anyone can regurgitate information, so this had led to critical thinking becoming a more desirable attribute. Such qualities are fostered by the IB, Durbin says.

Dr Judith Guy, head of academy at Victoria Shanghai Academy, stresses the benefits that arise from the IB’s focus on time management, research techniques, and analytical writing. The IB Diploma is a “strong predictor of success at university enabling students to develop the key cognitive strategies, content knowledge and academic behaviours that are necessary for success at university”, Guy says.

For instance, first year essays will not daunt students who have practised writing within the supportive environment of their school. Being taught to “question and doubt the current boundaries of knowledge” is what university is all about, whether studying maths, philosophy, or French poetry. So the earlier that students can begin to engage with these principles, the better. Guy believes that the IB’s success lies with the programme’s “holistic development as well as academic rigour”. Practically speaking, there is no grade inflation, either: “Pass rates are consistent year on year, and they are understood all around the world,” comments Guy.

In spite of the increased interest in the IB, many parents still prefer the A-level system. James Martin, director of studies at Harrow International School Hong Kong, notes that A-levels are “established qualifications” and have been used by universities and employers as “a benchmark to judge student ability for more than 60 years”.

They are especially well understood by those in tertiary education and beyond. At AS-level, students can still select four subjects, and the more able students can take five through to their final A-level year, if they choose. The key strength of A-levels is that students can specialise, and therefore study subjects in depth. They do not have to continue working on subjects they prove weak at.

The three subjects taken at A-levels are specific and related, and there is no doubt that A-level courses examine subjects in more detail, which, as Martin says, “is a definite advantage prior to studying specialist academic subjects at university”. Achieving the breadth of study that an IB offers can be achieved in A-level schools by complementing the qualification with other academic opportunities and pursuits. Harrow, for instance, offers the Extended Project Qualification, a separate International Perspectives course, and a very comprehensive extra curricular programme, to ensure “students have a very broad and well-rounded education”.

The changing world of work makes it critical for students to develop holistically, and cultivate skills beyond their academic abilities. Today’s employers want their workforce to be open-minded, socially responsible, and willing to take risks, and they must have an ability for critical thinking. Both A-levels and IB can offer these qualities in theory, so much depends on the actual teaching that takes place.

Remember that schools will have a staff body that specialises in the system they offer, so the quality of an institution should not be judged on whether it offers an IB or A-levels. An excellent school should deliver an excellent curriculum, regardless of the exam board.

The IB and A-levels will suit different people differently at different times. If your child is entering a new school with the immediate task of facing public exams, the closeness to their future education or career choice may make one option stand out. Ultimately, it’s a personal choice.