What are A-Levels?
‘A-Level’ stands for Advanced Level. It is a subject-specific qualification in the UK that students in their last two years of school work towards. Students will often work towards 4 A-Levels in their first year of sixth form and 3 in their final year. A-Levels were introduced in 1951 as a standardised school-leaving qualification; they replaced the Higher School Certificate that came before them.
When choosing which subjects to take at A-Level, students are advised to select ones that will provide an introduction into their specific area of interest for university or the workplace. For example, if a student wishes to study Biochemistry at university, they would likely choose Chemistry, Biology and Maths at A-Level. There are other equivalent qualifications, but A Levels remain the most common in UK state and independent schools.
What is the IB?
The International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme is another qualification that students aged 16-18 can work towards during their time in the sixth form. It was designed specifically to provide an internationally recognised qualification that universities across the world can view to assess a student’s potential for further study. Unlike A-Levels, which are UK specific, the IB is recognised in many other countries in Europe, Asia and the USA.
The IB was developed later than A-Levels in the mid-1960s by a group of international educators in Switzerland. Teachers have praised the IB for introducing interdisciplinary thinking to students and some regard it as more academically challenging and broader than three or four A Levels.
The IB program allows students to study a wide range of subjects throughout their Sixth Form while giving them the freedom to choose which subjects to study in greater depth. Several opportunities exist for students to develop specialised knowledge and skills in topics that interest them the most
There are currently 99 private and state UK schools, which offer one or more of the International Baccalaureate programmes.
There are four programmes
1. The Diploma Programme (DP) for students aged 16 to 19
2. The Middle Years Programme (MYP) for students aged 11 to 16
3. The Primary Years Programme (PYP) for students from 3 to 12.
4. The IB Career-Related Certificate (IBCC) for students 16 to 19
The IB is favoured by many international parents because it is transferable from one country to another if their job changes to another part of the world. The IBDP is regarded highly by universities everywhere. However, because the IBDP has 6 mandatory subject groups including maths, science and modern languages it is not always suitable for students who want to specialise or drop certain weaker subjects when they get to 16+.
Differences between these two qualifications?
There are several differences between the IB Diploma and A Levels; IB students take six subjects which are selected with their university and career plans in mind, three at a higher level and three at standard level. These subjects are studied for two years and are examined at the end of those two years. In contrast, A-Level students usually take 4 subjects in their first year, reducing to just 3 in their final year — the full two-year course of study is known as A Levels.
Schools that offer the IB curriculum believe that the course offers an alternate philosophy for studying during the sixth form. The IB is said to give students a broader education in comparison to A Levels. They are encouraged to take their mother tongue language, a Foreign Language, Mathematics, a Science, Humanity and an additional choice.
It is also possible to study unusual subject combinations, which would be difficult to do if you were studying A Levels.
Is one harder than the other?
The courses are very different and so stretch the individual student in different ways. An A-Level course follows the general standard of coursework and examinations, very similar to GCSEs and IGCSEs. However, the IB demands further study alongside a student’s chosen subjects.
Students have to write a 4000-word research Extended Essay (EE) and take part in the Theory of Knowledge course (ToK). They also have to prove that they have been involved in an activity for 150 hours for the final compulsory Creativity, Action, Service module (CAS).
The IB diploma can only be awarded in full when all elements of the course are complete. Teachers have been disagreeing over whether the A-Level course or the IB is more challenging for students for years. Unless a student goes through both, it will be impossible to ever know.
In terms of results, the IB and A-Levels have different scoring systems. The average IB diploma score worldwide is 28.51 in 2019. The best possible grade to achieve for an IB student is 45 points and only 0.36% of students across the world achieve this in 2019.
What do universities prefer?
Universities like the IB programme. Many universities seek to recruit IB students because they offer both breadth of knowledge and depth, particularly in their higher level subjects.
The British Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) has developed a tariff system that now gives greater currency to the IB scores over A-levels. An IB score of 38 points out of a maximum of 45 is equivalent to five A grades at A-level. A score of 30 IB points reflects three and a half A's at A level, which is enough to gain admission to most good universities in the UK (Oxbridge would require higher results).
However, having said that, UK universities won’t favour a student over another depending on whether they took A-Levels or IB. Both courses receive the same treatment by admissions panels. Oxford and Cambridge, in particular, will look beyond the classroom at a student’s dedication to further study and extracurricular activities.
While A-Levels are the obvious choice if your goal is to study in the United Kingdom, they are accepted by universities around the world. It’s also true that studying three to four subjects might allow a student to develop more in-depth knowledge in their areas of interest.
However, the A-Level program is not internationally recognized in the same way as the IB. It also requires a student to have a strong sense early on of their preferred career or course of university study. A-Level students will not experience the same breadth of topics as on the IB, and they will be required to specialize or narrow down their areas of interest far sooner.
Another school-leaving qualification that some students may take is the Cambridge Pre-U course. Similarly to A Levels and the IB, it is aimed at students aged between 16-19 and is recognised by UK universities for entrance. The qualification was launched in 2008 to offer students a more in-depth and challenging look at the subjects they want to take for A-Level.
Many independent schools across the UK have adopted this qualification such as City of London School, Westminster School, Winchester School, Eton College, Charterhouse School and Oundle School. Over 120 schools offer Cambridge Pre-U and over 300 further schools have registered interest.
The course is a linear one, similar to an A-Level subject. A student can choose 3 subjects to study over the span of two years. A student may choose additional subjects, but these won’t count towards the final diploma that is awarded.
Cambridge Pre-U also offers short courses for students. These are studied over a year and there are subjects such as Further Maths and Modern Foreign Languages to choose from. Students must complete an “Independent Research Project” and a “Global Perspectives” portfolio in addition to their 3 “Principal Subjects”, they are then eligible for the award of the Cambridge Pre-U Diploma.
As well as UK universities, many universities in the USA and other countries also now accept the Cambridge Pre-U course as an entrance qualification.
A-Levels, IB and Cambridge Pre-U all have their own merits. Each qualification offers something different to the individual student. A-Levels have been shown to offer more in-depth subject expertise, the IB a more global outlook and understanding of the world and Cambridge Pre-U a more rigorous course for top students.
Ultimately, it is down to the individual schools and the course (s) they want to offer their students. When selecting a school, you should carefully consider the type of subjects that will be most suited to you based on your strengths, university course choices and future career prospects.