Deciding Between the IB Diploma or A Levels

Despite the learning journey and child development holding an overweighing importance over the aim of tertiary education, a University is often the goal held in the distance. But, several strategic steps need to be taken in order to reach the right place, offering the right course. Deciding which secondary education route to take can be very confusing. Besides a local school system and qualification, two common paths offered to students in Hong Kong, are the IB Diploma and A-Levels. Read our guide to help work out which direction you and your child should take.

 Firstly, what is the IB?

The International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma (DP) is a two-year programme aimed at students aged 16-19. The curriculum consists of six subject groups and the DP core.

The six subject groups are relatively broad, allowing students the opportunity to experience and challenge themselves in several areas of learning. It is compulsory for students to take at least one course from each of the following subject groups:

  • Studies in language and literature
  • Language acquisition
  • Individuals and societies
  • Sciences
  • Mathematics
  • The Arts

It is possible for students to choose an additional science, language or individuals and societies course instead of one from the arts.

Students consider which subjects to be taken at higher level (HL) and which at standard level (SL). Students undertaking courses at a higher level are expected to demonstrate a more in-depth understanding and ability. There is a requirement of three subjects at a higher level with three subjects to a standard level.

There are three compulsory elements to the DP core. Firstly, is the Theory of Knowledge (TOK). This is designed to allow students to question the nature of knowledge. They are asked to examine how it is we know that which we claim to know. The DP core also consists of an extended essay. This is a self-directed, 4000-word task, encouraging self-research and independent study. In addition, students are asked to complete a separate projected, related to the three concepts of Creativity, Activity and Service (CAS).

And A-Levels?

In the U.K. students aged 16-19 are given the option to take Advanced Level Qualifications, otherwise known as A-levels. A-levels follow after the GCSEs and usually focus on traditionally academic subjects as opposed to vocational qualifications such as BTEC.

Admission into A-levels is dependent on GCSE results and students usually choose their four A-level subjects for Year 12, to work towards AS Level. After the AS examinations, the students proceed with their strongest three subjects to A Level in Year 13. They are assessed after the two years by a series of written exams, though some arts and sciences may assess practical skills too. Prerequisite grades can vary from school to school so it is important that students are aware of this.

But which one is “better”?

The IB and A-levels are both highly academic programmes aimed at students who are committed to a two-year course, pre-university education. Both are internationally recognised university entrance qualifications designed for students between the ages of 16-19.

A-Levels are most commonly accepted in the U.K, they can be internationally recognised, but not as widely as the IB. Countries such as Australia and New Zealand have more difficulties equivalating A-Level results with their own qualifications.

Whilst the IB demands variety and depth in the subjects, A-levels are usually more specialised. So, parents may see advantages and disadvantages to both.

A-levels are useful for those who do not consider themselves all-rounders. They have only a maximum requirement of 4 subjects and for some this allows them to capitalise on their strengths. They do not have any compulsory subjects, so those who struggle with maths can discard this and focus on excelling in other areas.

For those who do not know what to do, and want to keep their tertiary options as open as possible, the IB wins a point. Students sitting the IB do not have to specialise in any particular area and are able to explore a number of areas of their learning before university. Specialising so early on may actually limit a student’s choices if they decided later that they have changed their minds.

We understand that these are only two options and not every child will fit these. There are a number of vocational qualifications and foundation courses offered to students who perhaps prefer a more practical approach to learning.

Why have schools chosen to offer the IB?

The IB Diploma Programme promotes independent thinking with its Theory of Knowledge unit. Students are therefore learning how to learn. They are taking responsibility for their own understanding and asked to drive and direct their own learning through the final research paper. With these skills, students are being correctly nurtured for their next step, university!

By completing the IB, students have been equipped with a wide knowledge base. They can keep many options open by studying such a varied selection. It is rare for a person as young as 16 to know exactly what they want to do later. Students can feel at ease knowing they have not closed any doors in their futures.

Not only are IB students independent thinkers, they are also culturally aware. A compulsory second language for all students undertaking IB allows for students to develop a cultural sensitivity in today’s diverse marketplace. Being able to communicate in another language is a highly sought after skill, not only in university but in further employment. A recent UK report noted that 31% of international executives are bilingual. (source: Business Language, UK)

Young people finishing the IB are able to engage critically and socially with others and be aware of our increasingly globalised world. Universities find this to be highly attractive, as IB graduates are being prepared for life as well as tertiary education.

YCIS was one of the first international schools in Hong Kong to successfully launch the IB Diploma Programme.