IB vs A-Levels – Which Qualification is Better?

We take a closer look at the two popular secondary curriculums.
Monday 28 January 2019
If only the signs to picking the best qualifications could be this clear. Photo: iStock

The world of education is full of intriguing rivalries: Oxford vs Cambridge, Eton vs Harrow, Oxbridge vs Ivy League, to name a few. One of the most contentious must be whether A-Levels or the IB diploma is a better qualification.

This competition has launched parents into fiery debates as they decide on which educational path their children should take as they head into sixth form. While A-Levels is still the most in-demand option in Malaysia, the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma is becoming increasingly popular among local and international schools.

In a nutshell, A-Level students typically take three or four subjects which can be exclusively science or the humanities. IB diploma students take six subjects, which must include a mix of science and humanities, plus a compulsory core programme comprising a Theory of Knowledge essay about the nature of knowledge, a 4,000-word extended essay on a topic related to one of the subjects they are studying and an evaluation of a student’s creativity, activity and service, which involves artistic, sporting and voluntary work.

Students have to pass this core as well as secure good scores in their six subjects to get a Diploma. 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. While both options are highly regarded and widely accepted for entry into universities worldwide, both have their supporters and detractors.

Edu 1 - IB,a levels
The struggle is real. Photo: iStock

Those who are firmly in camp IB claim the qualification is better as it offers a more rounded education. “It’s incredibly time-consuming but it really helps students develop a broader world view,” says a parent. “It also prepares them better at independent learning as they have to up their skills on time management and organisation.”

IB students sigh happily at the variety of subjects they are allowed to take. “It really kept me motivated,” says one. “If I was fed up with revising for languages, or maths, I could work on art or literature instead.” They talk enthusiastically about how the Theory of Knowledge component makes them think more critically and analytically. “It makes you ask things like ‘What is science?’ or ‘How can I apply logic?’” adds the student.

The UK Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) published a study in 2016 with results that are very flattering to the IB. It analysed the educational performance of 1.2 million pupils who sat A-Levels and 48,700 pupils who took the IB diploma between 2007 and 2013, and found that IB students have a 57% greater likelihood of attending one of the top 20 UK universities than students who study traditional A-Levels. IB students also have a larger probability of achieving both a first and second class degree compared to their A-Level peers with 23% of IB students achieving a first-class degree compared with 19% of A-Level students.

While these figures have to be read in the context that IB students are more likely to be middle class, have probably been selected from a pool of high-achieving students and have been privately educated, they are still impressive. With such raw statistics, it is no surprise that the IB is gaining popularity in Malaysia, with the list of schools offering this qualification increasing every year as demand rises.

Top choices include International School of Kuala Lumpur (ISKL), Sri KDU International School, IGB International School, UCSI International School, Cempaka International School, Marlborough College Malaysia, Mont’Kiara International School, Nexus International School, The International School of Penang (Uplands) and Excelsior International School.

A word of caution though: it is sometimes easy to underestimate just how difficult the IB is, and this includes universities where the IB offers can be slightly tougher to meet than A-Levels. A parent concurs, “We found that the universities were asking for more IB points than the equivalent A-Level grades.” The IB is marked out of 45 points in total with a general acceptance that 35 points is equivalent to AAA and 40 to A*A*A*.

However, offers for students studying A-Levels at Oxbridge range between A*A*A and AAA depending on the course but IB students are expected to achieve 38–40 points, depending on the course, with 6s and 7s in the higher-level subjects. As can be expected, teaching the IB is challenging for schools. It is expensive to introduce with teachers having to be retrained and if it is offering A-Levels as well, substantial increase in the number of staff and equipment.

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Some schools simply cannot afford to do this well, which will have an impact on results. “There are definitely schools offering IB-lite, so do your research,” advises a parent. And of course not everyone is a fan of the IB. Advocates of A-Levels point out that four out of 10 international schools worldwide still teach the English national curriculum, more than twice as many as its nearest competitor the IB. “A-Levels is an excellent qualification and is recognised as such worldwide,” says a teacher at an international British school. A-Levels can also suit those who are clear about which academic direction they would like to take.

For instance, for students looking to go into a maths or science-related subject, the depth of study at A-Level is probably better than it would be at IB as it allows students to explore a smaller range of fields in more depth, providing more specialised preparation towards further study. “For students who want to study medicine for example, A-Levels is still the way to go,” adds the teacher.

Another parent points out that while the IB might be a better all-round qualification, she questions why a student whose goal is to go to an English university should spend so much time and effort on such a labour intensive qualification. “Unlike most IB students, students sitting for A-Levels have sat for a huge variety of subjects for GCSEs. They are ready to specialise, so opt for A-Levels,” she suggests.

Obviously many parents and students agree as schools offering the A-Levels in Malaysia remain very popular. They include Alice Smith School, Bestari International School, Cempaka International School, ELC International School, Garden International School, GEMS International School, HELP International School, Kingsgate International School, Sri KDU International School, St Joseph’s Institution International School, The British International School of Kuala Lumpur and The International [email protected]

While many people argue over which path universities look more favourably upon, the reality is that admissions departments will consider students from both programmes based on their individual merit and the suitability of their preparation for their chosen pathway. Most universities now offer details on their grade requirements for students from both programmes, making it easier to evaluate which option offers the best chance of success.

Related: 10 International Schools in Malaysia Worth Considering