To IB or Not to IB? That is the question.
Whilst the reform of GCSEs has been the talk of the town for the past month or so, students sitting them in their present incarnation must be wondering whether it’s time for their own academic trajectory to change. Since the reputation of the A-level has plummeted, more and more (largely private) schools have converted to the infamous IB (International Baccalaureate). Infamous because most who have been through the system testify to its rigour – over and above the somewhat softer material pitched over the course of the two-stage A-level system, in which two separate sets of exams are taken in consecutive years – the AS papers and the A2s.
the IB requires 15% more time dedicated to teaching and studying than do the A-levels. - Hugh Carson, Headmaster of Malvern College
In light of this trend, here are some of the latest figures about UK schools:
(A) The Top Three Performing Schools for IB of 2011 were:
(3) Sevenoaks School
(B) The Top Three Performing (Selective) Schools offering A-levels of 2011 were:
(1) Colchester Royal Grammar School
(2) King’s College School (Wimbledon)
(3) Altrincham Grammar School for Girls
Given that the two systems are mutually exclusive (no student can take on both), it might seem very difficult – if not impossible – to know which is the best or most appropriate course to follow. To help you out, here are what I see to be three key differences between the two, as illustrated by Hugh Carson, the current Headmaster of Malvern College – presently the only school in the world to offer both systems to 16+ students:
If your grades are consistent[ly high] at GCSE level then taking the IB, with its wide range of subjects, might be for you.
- The IB requires both more staff input and lengthier prep sessions: Mr. Carson’s school has estimated that the IB requires 15% more time dedicated to teaching and studying than do the A-levels.
- GCSE Patterns are a Good Indicator: If your grades are consistent at GCSE level (preferably consistently high, of course) then taking the IB, with its wide range of subjects, might be for you. If, on the other hand, you triumphed in some subjects but found yourself somewhat dispirited with others, then it could be advisable for you to follow a more narrow but specialised structure – as offered by the A-levels.
- Results in each respective system can be equivalenced, but only roughly: It is suggested that a student who would ordinarily achieve a set of ‘B’ grades at A-level is roughly on par with an IB candidate likely to score 33 points out of the maximum 45. Applicants to top academic universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, on the other hand, can expect a string of ‘A’ grades to merit the same attention as 39 IB points would. This does therefore make it seem that the IB can better distinguish between the impressive and the exceptional – since marks over 40 have no apparent direct equivalent in the old system. Overall, however, to draw parallels is to miss the point – students coming from the two different backgrounds will be suited to different undergraduate courses, with the A-levels arguably catering better for the English structure (in which one subject is studied for three years), and IB students being more comfortable in American or Scottish institutions (where a range of subjects are taken as ‘credits’ before a ‘major’ is settled upon in the final two years of four).
Whatever the trends of the near future, it will be interesting to see how the new proposed ‘English Baccalaureate’ prepares students for these two alternatives – might its scope cause a resurgence of faith in the A-levels of old? Or perhaps it will act as a further stimulent to the increasing number of schools crossing over to the modern diploma.