To summarize:

  • A level is three subjects studied in depth, IB is six. IB also includes a compulsory core programme comprising of Theory of Knowledge, an Extended Essay and an evaluation of a student’s CAS (Creativity, Action and Service). You have to “pass”” this core as well as secure good scores in your six subjects to get a Diploma.
  • A level courses are discrete, while the IB is holistic.
  • A level is a pragmatic test of academic ability. IB (while highly academic) is unashamedly idealistic in its philosophy.
  • A levels are graded by letters, with A* being the top grade, while IB uses a points system (the perfect score is 45 points), where 24 points and above secures an IB Diploma. The Diploma is, effectively, a worldwide qualification.

What’s wrong with A levels?

  • The government’s Education White Paper (November 2010) acknowledges A levels to be “educationally inappropriate” in part because of the modules and re-sits. So the government is abolishing (to a very great extent, and maybe entirely) the offending modules and re-sits. This is big news. However, the White Paper says that even after these dramatic changes to A level, the government will decide “whether these and other recent changes are sufficient to address the concerns with A levels.” At IGCSE, for example, the government is now going to introduce an English Baccalaureate made up of a specified number of core GCSEs at high grades (the soft options won’t count).
  • Grade inflation is rampant, year on year. Top universities are now looking back at AS module and GCSE results to distinguish between the masses of straight A candidates. Originally, many universities said they would not countenance the new A* grades, but some changed their tune very quickly when confronted by a sea of straight A grades. A*s, however, are very difficult to achieve if you are bright but not necessarily exceptional in a particular subject. A*s demand still more specialisation at 16+.
  • Are three traditional, discrete old school subjects really appropriate for our children’s future? Our children’s will be a world in which a President of the USA will probably have Spanish as a first language, where Brazil, India and Russia will be challenging China for economic supremacy and where empathetic, global cooperation will be prerequisites for any nation’s success.

How come every school isn’t doing IB if it’s so good?

  • You can’t just start teaching IB: the IB organisation will only make you an IB World School if they think you are up to it. You have to become accredited and that means passing what is effectively an inspection. So, some schools have tried to introduce IB and failed at the first hurdle.
  • It can be expensive to introduce. You have to retrain teachers and – if you keep teaching A level – you actually need to increase the staff roll. Many schools simply cannot afford to do this.
  • It’s challenging and schools don’t want to be seen to fail. Unlike A level, there is no grade inflation so you can’t hide behind a wave of rising scores year on year. 40 points was a great IB score in 1970, and it’s a great IB score now.

Correcting some misconceptions

I’ve heard IB is for super intelligent pupils, while A level is for the rest.

Not true. This kind of comment is a huge insult to top A level pupils chasing the highest grades. And it’s a snobbishly demeaning slight to academically average, hardworking pupils who will do well at IB if they apply themselves.

But IB does tend to attract bright pupils?

True when it’s optional. But see below.

IB is more work. Everybody knows that.

An A level candidate aiming for three A*s will work every bit as hard as a similar IB candidate looking to achieve over 40 points. But an A level candidate looking for an easy three C’s in soft subjects could work less hard than a similar candidate trying to get the minimum IB Diploma score (24 points).

But IB takes up far more School time than A level.

Now this is true and much mythmaking comes from this fact. This is why some pupils, boys especially, find the lure of free periods (staff call them study periods) too great to resist and so choose A level. It sounds and is a dumb reason for choosing one course above another, but peer pressure at 16+ can be immense. Some sixteen year olds will reason that you must be a geek to voluntarily replace “free” periods with taught lessons: hence the fairy tale that everybody doing IB is super bright.

Isn’t A level about depth while IB is concerned with breadth?

You’d think three subjects versus six subjects (plus the core) make this an easy one to answer. But such comparisons are simplistic, even, in some subjects, fatuous. Take the English subject, for example. Here are two English past paper questions. The first is an A level question, the second from an IB exam. In A level you get a perfectly sensible question on your set book, whereas for the IB there is no set book: the student is being asked to do something very different.

  1. ‘Heathcliff is more hero than villain.’ How far and in what ways do you agree with this view of Brontë’s presentation of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights? (A level)
  2. “Often enough the novelist favors certain characters, even waxing sentimental about them, and becomes annoyed with others, even feeling contemptuous of them: one way or another, the reader detects bias in the portrayal of the society. How far have you found your chosen novelists to be biased or unbiased in their presentation of their characters and what has been the resulting effect in each novel?” (IB)

Why A levels then?

  • A bright pupil wanting, say, Maths, Further Maths and Physics is insufficiently well served by IB. You simply can’t do that much Maths in the IB programme, and I accept that some pupils are utterly set on a range of subjects such as this. So, this is a good example of why a bright pupil might still opt for the A level route. However, you have to be sure it’s what you want, because in making choices of this kind you are closing more doors than you open.
  • Academically weaker pupils can opt for only three AS levels in the Lower Sixth rather than the usual four and, in the Upper Sixth, two A2 levels and a further AS, say, rather than the usual three A2s. There is no such luxury at IB if you are doing the Diploma: an IB Diploma student can drop nothing over the two years. But again, the university choices afforded to an A level student with this profile will be limited.
  • Pupils with organisational issues certainly responded well to A level modules and resits.