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IB or A level? - A Personal View from the Headmaster

I don’t propose to describe the courses in detail. Most UK parents are familiar with A level (though it’s all about to change again: see below). Please click on The IB World School logo on the bottom right of our homepage to find out details about the International Baccalaureate.


In a nutshell:


• 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.


I’ve taught A level and IB in top academic schools, and done a tour of duty as Head of Oxbridge, so while I’m shooting from the hip in what I say below, the comments are based on experience as well as observation and research.


What’s wrong with A levels?
• The government’s new 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 GCSE, 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). Don’t be surprised if something similar happens at A level.

• Last year, eighty seven pupils in Bromsgrove’s Upper Sixth achieved three or more grade As at A level. When I was at School, three grade As got you a telegram from the Queen (or at least a picture in the local rag). 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? I was born into a world where Britain was the world’s second biggest car exporter and rice was in puddings rather than under a curry. 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. It’s not the jetpacks and Bacofoil space suits I was promised.

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. Tony Blair and Ed Balls had a long look at IB and the state sector. Cynics would say that they realised IB would simply increase the state/independent divide as many state schools simply could not deliver IB Diplomas. (Of course some top state schools teach the IB brilliantly).

• It’s got the word “International” in it and, by Gad sir, we’re British. I merely remind British readers that, back in the year I was born, “Made in Japan” meant treat product with caution. We in Britain went cheerily on to build and buy Leyland cars. Quite. Now, of course, if something doesn’t have “Made in Japan” on it, we fear it may fail or fall apart. Took us a while to suss that one.


Isn’t IB some new fangled craze?
It’s over forty years old. Close to one million students are studying on the programme in one hundred and thirty nine countries. Some of Britain’s greatest independent Schools are now wholly IB Schools. It’s merely new to Bromsgrove.


But in IB you have to do Maths and a Language. That’s a huge turn off for many British teenagers.
Indeed so. And that’s one of the reasons why Britain is in free fall in the world education tables. The nations of the earth are not cowering in terror as we plucky Brits prepare to unleash yet another cohort of innumerate, monolingual anachronisms (I am one). The point is, you don’t have to opt for an especially difficult maths or language course. Weaker GCSE mathematicians can and should choose Maths Studies which is the easiest of the three IB Maths options. It is designed to keep your long division ticking along while you are trying to get into a top university to read History or whatever. Students who struggled with a language at GCSE can actually start a new one at IB from scratch (ab initio Spanish for example). Obviously, students wishing to study a language at university will select a more challenging option in this area. Pick your level, says the IB, but don’t give up on these crucial skills when you are only 16 years old. An international future beckons and you need to be ready for a different world.


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. I’ve taught many such pupils. (Interestingly, this kind of comment has led to a rearguard action from some parents in the car park who defend their child’s choice of A level as the informed option for those not blinded by IB propaganda. Wow! “A level is the Saab to IB’s BMW. Discuss.” Now there’s an IB Extended Essay question....)


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 my degree 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 keep A levels at all?
• In my view, 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 but please note again that the argument everybody can do well at A level because you can resit modules to your heart’s content is about to be blown out of the water by the government. Only time will tell whether terminally examined A levels should be the preferred option for disorganised pupils.

Conclusion – A personal view
The government knows A levels are an anachronism and is quite rightly changing what they are, so let’s keep a wary eye on what happens. For the moment, I think the examples I give above as to why pupils might want to opt for A level are valid and so we will continue to provide A levels at Bromsgrove.


But the default position of a typical Bromsgrove pupil should, increasingly, be the IB. The world has changed.