When it comes to deciding on the best educational path for students post GCSE, the choice between A Levels and the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme is a topic of debate for many families. Both qualifications offer unique approaches to learning and present opportunities for children to excel academically at school and beyond.
In this article, Ed Richardson, Keystone's Managing Director explores some of the key differences between A Levels and the IB Diploma, looking at their structures, grading systems, and overall impact on university admissions. Whether you are a student considering your options or a parent seeking guidance, this article aims to provide valuable insights to help you make an informed decision on the right educational qualification for you. .
What is the IB Diploma?
The IB formerly known as The International Baccalaureate Organization or IBO was founded in 1968 and offers international recognised qualifications for students from 3 to 18.
The Diploma Programme, aimed at students between the ages of 16-18, was devised to "provide an internationally acceptable university admissions qualification suitable for the growing mobile population of young people whose parents were part of the world of diplomacy, international and multinational organizations."
Whilst A Levels are typically sat by most sixth formers at UK schools, some schools offer the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme (DP) either alongside or instead of A Levels.
Despite being first taught in a UK school in 1971 the IBDP is only currently available in 23 state and 27 independent schools. Nevertheless, it offers students and their parents a choice when it comes to their sixth form study options.
How is the IB structured?
IB students are required to select six subject courses to study. Students select their six subject courses from the following groups:
- Studies in Language and Literature
- Language Acquisition
- Individuals and Societies
Whilst students must study at least one subject from groups 1 to 5 they can opt to study an additional Sciences, Individuals and Societies, or Language Acquisition course instead of a course in the Arts.
Three subjects will be studied at Standard Level (SL) and three at Higher Level (HL). SL courses require up to 150 hours of teaching whereas HL courses comprise of 250 teaching hours. Consequently, HL study requires students to demonstrate a greater level of subject understanding and skill.
In addition to the six subjects IB students must complete and pass the DP Core which is composed of 3 parts:
- Theory of Knowledge (TOK): in which students reflect on the nature of knowledge and on how we know what we claim to know.
- Extended Essay (EE): in which is an independent, self-directed piece of research, finishing with a 4,000-word paper.
- Creativity, activity and Service (CAS): in which students complete a project related to those three concepts.
How is the IB graded?
Students studying the DP receive grades between 7 and 1 for their six subject courses with 7 being the highest score. Furthermore, theory of knowledge (TOK) and extended essay (EE) components are awarded individual grades and, collectively, can contribute a further 3 additional points towards the overall diploma score. Thus, the IB is out of 45 overall and students have to score 24 or more to pass.
How are the IB subjects assessed?
Each subject will have a combination of externally marked examinations and internally marked assessments, often called IAs. The percentage weighting of each of these components depends on the subject. The nature of internal assessments means that students are often working on assignments throughout the two years.
What are A Levels?
A Level stands for Advanced Level and they were introduced in 1951. A Levels are the nationally standardised qualification most UK educated students complete in Years 12 and 13, i.e., the final two years of school. There are International A Levels offered by exam boards for students studying outside of the UK.
How are A Levels structured?
Typically, students select 3 or 4 A Levels to focus on during their sixth form (i.e. Years 12 and 13). There are over 80+ subjects to study at A Level and no one subject is compulsory. Each A Level course is discrete and the breadth of subjects on offer will vary from school to school. Typically, students will be able to choose from:
- Those subjects they have studied before (e.g. Biology)
- Variations of subjects they have studied before (e.g. Further Maths)
- Completely new subjects (e.g. Psychology)
Students will often select A Level subjects which relate to or prepare them for what they wish to study at university. For example, students wishing to study Medicine at university will often choose Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Maths or a combination of.
How are A Levels graded?
A Levels are graded A* to E, although it is possible to receive a U, which stands for ungraded or unclassified. Although grade boundaries are liable to move year on year the correlation between % mark and overall is approximately as follows:
- A* 90%+
- A 80% -89%
- B 70% - 79%
- C 60% - 69%
- D 50% - 59%
- E 40% - 49%
How are A Levels assessed?
Most A Levels are assessed by externally set examinations at the end of the two year course. Some subjects will also have coursework components and the percentage weighting will vary by subject. This tends to be higher for practical subjects such as Art or Design and Technology whereas for subjects like Maths the final exams will account for 100% of the grade.
What are the differences between the IB and A Levels?
- The IB Diploma offers students a broader education than A Levels requiring them to study 6 subjects from across the subject range (Language and literature, Language acquisition, Individuals and Societies, Sciences, Mathematics, Arts).
- A Levels offer students the opportunity to choose the 3 or 4 subjects they wish to study without restriction.
- The IB’s more holistic approach also requires students to complete the DP core (Extended Essay, Theory of Knowledge and Creativity, Activity and Service) alongside their chosen subjects.
- Studying A Levels does not require this of students, although they may wish to complete an Extended Project Qualification, which is much like the Extended Essay.
Do universities prefer A-Levels or IB?
UK universities recognise both A Levels and IB qualifications equally. Whilst the A Level may be more common in UK schools, UK universities appreciate the depth of study, development of independent research skills and academic rigor of the IB Diploma. Looking further afield, European and American universities also recognise both qualifications.
Many parents are often stuck between choosing A-Levels or IB for their child. Here is a nifty table that clarifies the key differences.
If you want to find out more about A Levels and IB, watch our webinar below.