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.

IB vs A-levels: how my family put both to the test

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.