What is the IB (The International Baccalaureate) – Is it better than the A Level

The IB – or International Baccalaureate – is a qualification available as a two year course, much like the A Level. However, it is widely distinguished for its academic breadth and complexity and is often said to be more revered than A Levels. I am going to look at the key differences between these two systems of pre-university study and highlight some increasingly popular arguments in favour of the IB.

As A Levels receive mounting flack over issues ranging from a simplicity of the course content, an ineradicable ‘re-sit’ culture and the handing out of A and A* grades like candy, the stellar IB is affirming its place as a far more respected alternative, and is celebrated more now than ever before. The way the IB course works renders it intrinsically more demanding, with all students taking six subjects, three at higher level and three at standard, which each being from a different discipline. For example, every student is obliged to take a foreign language, a natural science, maths, a social science, English and an art subject. This stretches students to multi-focus and tests versatility. Although excellent for an adaptable and academically adept individual, where does it leave students who are not superbly proficient in every single field of study? The greatest liability of the IB is that entry to university is based on results in all of the six subjects combined, leaving no room for slip ups or mistakes. Comparatively, the modular make up of A Levels gives enhanced breathing space and full independence in subject choice.

Arguably the practice of making infinite re-sits disposable to A Level students may be instilling a negative culture in kids, suggesting that life will be rife with second chances – albeit this could be an extreme view. Some might say A Levels have been a recognised system for decades so why meddle. Top universities still consider them an esteemed way of entering higher academia and the recently introduced A* grade has meant standards of competition have risen with haste. Let’s consider what the IB has to offer beyond the A Level and how this has set it apart.

The IB is not like regular sixth form college. Far fewer free periods are timetabled during the week and three compulsory additional ‘projects’ are assigned to all. These are: the Theory of Knowledge, which can be likened to its A Level cousin, Critical Thinking (although some IB veterans would take offence to this) or is also similar to studying parts of Philosophy. This is a course whereby skills of analysis and argumentation are taught, an asset to any university-bound student. Creativity, Action and Service – kids get involved in extra-curricular life be it musically, through sport or charity work. And then there is the Extended Essay, which can again be compared to the Extended Project Qualification at A Level. This is where students pick a chosen topic of research and produce a 4000-word essay on it, very similar to the EPQ which is equivalent to an AS Level qualification. Perhaps the differences become clearer here. The EPQ is substitute for a whole AS Level whereas the Extended Essay is no such thing; it is merely a compulsory project which may win you a couple of IB points if deemed outstanding. Drawing from this, it is clear that the IB is characteristically more demanding.

However, just because it is ‘harder’, is it right for everyone? Apparently not, according to a mother of two who has experience of pulling two children through the tough IB system. Children inclined to Science and Maths subjects or conversely to Language or Humanities subjects can be disadvantaged through the compulsory element of broad study. This particular mother’s son knew he wanted to become an engineer from the word go, meaning English Literature, a foreign language and the Extended Essay were a massive liability to him. His sister, on the other hand, a more multifaceted student excelled courtesy of her shining IB diploma.

In this article, Mr Philip John, head teacher at Gresham School (where both the IB and A Levels are offered to sixth form students) makes this vitally important point:
“Some children might be better served by A-levels in order to get into their chosen university on their chosen course… It’s important to bear in mind that a genuine Oxbridge prospect will have a better chance of ‘making the grades’ at A-level but a better chance of proving their worth at IB.”

If you are trying to decide between the IB and A Levels, are unsure or would like to talk to one of our educational advisers, leave a comment below or alternatively call or email us via our contact details. We’d love to hear from you.

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