IB or A-Levels: The decision to shape a lifetime

With Mark Seldon – Director of Studies at Gresham’s School

Many parents will be under the impression that they know all about A Levels (as they are likely to have taken them themselves) but don’t know as much about the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme. Yet we are currently going through the biggest shake up to education in a generation and so, in order to equip parents to make informed decisions about supporting their children at 16 plus, it’s important that schools outline exactly what is involved in the less-familiar IB Diploma and also the much-changed A Level. I regularly meet with 15 and 16-year olds to discuss their plans for 16 plus too, and I still spend time ‘myth busting’ about the IB Diploma (“it is not too much work! It is not only for the very brightest!”).

How different will the experiences be for students taking the IB Diploma and A Levels?
An IB Diploma student’s timetable is much more similar to a GCSE than an A Level timetable; there are more subjects to learn about (six – three at Higher Level and three at Standard Level), alongside the IB Diploma core (the extended essay (EE), a theory of knowledge (TOK) course, and a creativity, activity and service (CAS) element), and so there is more contact time with teachers. Due to IB Diploma students having a fuller working day, there is also an added emphasis on developing positive learning habits, knowledge about how to work more efficiently, and techniques to manage their own learning outside of the classroom. The IB Diploma has internationalism inherently at its heart and so students are more likely to learn about topics in a global context, with a local focus, rather than about topics in a fixed curriculum.

With the recent loss of the modular AS elements of A Levels, we now see a return (for the first time in 20 years) to an end-loaded examination process in which A Level students are assessed on everything they have learnt at the end of two years. The IB Diploma has always had an end-loaded assessment process, so in this respect the two options now offer a similar experience.

Myth busting: the IB Diploma takes up too much time
The biggest myth is that the IB Diploma takes up too much time. The evidence against this is fairly obvious in that our students have been successfully completing it for the past 10 years, and going off to impressive university destinations and employment, as well as becoming well-rounded individuals.

Myth busting: the IB Diploma is only for the very brightest
The other enormous myth is that the IB Diploma is only for the very brightest. It is actually a programme that works really well for learners with a range of different requirements and learning styles. For instance, the additional contact time with teachers is beneficial to students who work better with more guidance. Additionally, thanks to having a dedicated IB programme co-ordinator who is responsible for ensuring each student’s programme has the right balance, each IB Diploma student’s experience is closely monitored to ensure the full benefit of the programme is being felt.

We encourage all students to consider the diploma, and we have never turned anyone down. The idea of the programme is that you can achieve whatever it is that you want to, and you will be rewarded for everything that you do. For instance, a student who might struggle to keep up with the work of three A Levels might receive three U grades – having nothing to show for their two years’ work. The same student undertaking the diploma will receive recognition for the work they have done, as each of the six subjects will be graded from one to seven, and the core elements of the programme – the CAS, TOK, and EE – will be awarded up to another three points. Why would we restrict access to this opportunity at a time when all students are required to remain in education until the age of 18?

The core elements of the IB Diploma also provide an opportunity for students to demonstrate a different type of achievement; many students credit their CAS experiences as being the most rewarding of their school careers. We have certainly had students who have been involved in education projects or overseas projects who have gone on to teach or work in the caring profession or in international development as a result of the extra things that the IB Diploma has enabled them to experience.

What’s the simplest way to choose between the IB Diploma and A Levels?
We usually reverse-engineer from where the student wants to end up. If they have broad horizons, are looking to work or study abroad, or are hoping to study a course that has multiple strands to it, we would suggest that they continue to demonstrate that they can achieve across a broad programme by opting for the IB Diploma. Similarly if they are aiming for a highly competitive course or university, we look at the entry requirements specified. The IB may well enable a student to stand out from a crowd of otherwise similar applicants: IB Diploma students have a 57 percent greater likelihood of attending one of the top 20 UK universities than students who study traditional A Levels according to research commissioned last year by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).

If you really can’t decide what to do next, what should you do?
If a student doesn’t know what they want to do beyond Sixth Form, we really do recommend that they opt for the IB Diploma – its broader offering enables students to keep their options open for longer. This is clearly a benefit for those who haven’t yet decided what they want to do, but it also provides flexibility for those who have resolved to pursue a particular path and for any number of reasons – such as being aged just 16 – have a change of heart. One former student, who was intent on reading Engineering at MIT, took Higher Level (HL) Mathematics, Chemistry and Physics, and Standard Level (SL) English, History and German. Six weeks into the programme he decided he had made the wrong decision – he wanted to study Law. We were able to drop his HL subjects to SL, and turn his SL subjects into HL. At the end of the two years he went to the University of California, Berkeley, to read Law, and is now a barrister in London.

By opting for the IB Diploma, students who don’t know what they want to do can simply enjoy two years of education, choosing to spend more time studying the subjects that they love most while keeping facilitating subjects on the boil too. Young people whose opinions are still changing benefit from the flexibility the programme offers while they refine their plans for the future. For students who are determined in their plans for the future, there is no better alternative to equip them with the tools they need to propel themselves forward. It is difficult to find any reason not to recommend the IB.
For more information:
+44 (0)1263 714500

Gresham’s School
Senior School
Cromer Rd
NR25 6EA

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