Matthew Burns

A Levels or the International Baccalaureate?

Written by Sedbergh School Principal, Mr Andrew Fleck

Which to study – A levels or the International Baccalaureate (IB)? Both excellent qualifications which are held in high regard throughout the world, but vastly different. A few schools have successfully delivered both but they are rare, in almost every case a school must choose one or the other and Sedbergh is no different. We study A levels supplemented by a small number of vocational qualifications.

At the heart of this debate lies the question of choice. The IB requires that sixth form students take a wide range of subjects whereas A levels allow students to choose breadth or specialism. The breadth encompassed by the IB reflects its European origins and the higher cultural premium placed on education as a means of personal development and fulfilment. British education has evolved towards a more functional model whereby its value is measured through the individual’s employability so that depth of study is valued ahead of breadth. Successive Government policies have reinforced this.

The IB requires a pupil to study a wide range of subjects which encompass languages, sciences, the arts, mathematics and humanities. Much like Shredded Wheat, this may be good for you but that doesn’t make it enjoyable. The great majority of pupils who have progressed through the British education system to the age of sixteen have some preference for certain subjects and, not surprisingly, choose a course of study that allows them to exercise choice. Approximately 300,000 candidates in Year 13 sit A levels each year whilst just over 5000 pupils take the IB Diploma in the UK. This means that university admissions tutors are less informed about the IB.

Alongside levels of interest and specialism the question arises, “Does the International Baccalaureate provide any benefit when applying to university?” In theory, the answer must be “No” otherwise university access becomes fundamentally unfair. However, reality is never so simple. A level and IB results are translated into UCAS Tariff points which form the basis for some university offers so the question of equivalence arises. Do the points allocated for A level grades and IB results match up in terms of standard of performance? Whilst there is some anecdotal suggestion that the standards required of IB students are higher, the question is almost impossible to answer and it is important to remember that A levels are not equal either. Durham University demonstrated that there are 2 grades difference in difficulty between the “easiest” and “hardest” A level subjects.

So, where does this leave us?

  1. A levels remain the Gold Standard of British education.
  2. The IB is an attractive option to polymath pupils who truly enjoy the breadth of study it requires. For those who prefer a less restrictive choice, A levels provide a better route.
  3. There is no measurable distinction between IB and A levels in terms of difficulty or university offers but anecdote suggests that IB is the more demanding route.

A final note of warning. Beware – the Sixth Form is breath-takingly short. Anything which disrupts a swift and efficient start undermines the chances of success.

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