A-Level or the IB – which of these qualifications provide students with the right skills for university? Mark Seldon from Gresham’s investigates
The post-16 qualification landscape has changed dramatically in recent years, with more pathways and certifications on offer than ever before, and the biggest shake-up of the more traditional A-Level pathway seen in over a decade.
It is fantastic to see such a breadth of opportunities now available to young people, allowing them to choose to prepare for life and work in a way that suits them. But with almost 700,000 young people applying to university this year, which post-16 qualification do admissions officers really think provides students with the best preparation for university?
The “which is better” debate between A-Levels or the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme is something that has been revisited many times. For those less familiar with the IB Diploma, it is an internationally-recognised course taken by students around the world. The programme is well respected by universities and is seen as providing an advantage for young people hoping to study or work abroad.
Access to higher education
In the UK, there is a misconception that universities do not recognise the IB Diploma or accept applicants with the qualification, but this is not true. All UK universities, and in fact universities all around the world, hold the qualification in high-esteem and accept many students with the qualification.
Admissions officers regularly support the claim that the IB Diploma provides an excellent preparation for university and the world of work. Leading universities appreciate the fact that IB Diploma results allow them to discriminate between the highest achievers and that, unlike other qualifications, there has been no grade inflation over the last 20 years.
“IB DIPLOMA STUDENTS HAVE A 57% GREATER LIKELIHOOD OF ATTENDING ONE OF THE TOP 20 UK UNIVERSITIES THAN THEIR A-LEVEL PEERS.”
Research commissioned last year by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) compares students entering the UK’s Higher Education system who have studied the IB Diploma, with students who have studied A-Levels.
The research found that IB Diploma students have a 57% greater likelihood of attending one of the top 20 UK universities than their A-Level peers – based on data collated from sources such as The Complete University Guide League Table, The Guardian University Guide 2015 and The Times University Guide 2015.
The University of Oxford states on its website that it does not show preference to A-Level qualifications over the IB Diploma, and that all applications are considered very carefully on individual merit.
The university also emphasises that the IB Diploma is “considered a good grounding for candidates who are interested in multi-disciplinary” subjects, whereas “students who wish to specialise in a particular science at Oxford may find that the concentration of three A-Levels prepares them better for an intense subject-specific degree.”
By no means does this mean that A-Levels necessarily have the “edge” for subject-specific degree courses such as medicine. In fact, the majority of top universities see the IB Diploma being on an equal footing to A-Levels, and while the two qualifications are structured differently, both are academically rigorous and work as excellent preparation for intense university study.
For degrees like medicine that require students to have studied specific subjects, universities set out their specific requirements for students to meet if they want to be considered for a place. For example, one university might specifically require an A-Level chemistry grade A, or an IB Diploma higher level chemistry level 6.
Research released last month by ACS Schools, in partnership with the IB Schools and Colleges Association (IBSCA), reveals that students are often not adequately prepared for the transition to university. But the IB Diploma is consistently rated as the best post-16 qualification in this respect, as it provides students with the skills they need to thrive in their new higher education environment.
The survey asked university admissions officers to share their views on different post-16 UK qualifications, including A-Levels and the IB Diploma, and just over half of participants rated both options as equally strong preparation for university, with 18% expressing a preference for the IB Diploma and 8% for A-Levels.
“THE BEST PATH FOR A STUDENT INTENDING TO PROGRESS INTO HIGHER EDUCATION LARGELY DEPENDS ON THEIR INDIVIDUAL PERSONALITY.”
Surveyed admissions officers rated A-Levels as just marginally better for developing in-depth subject knowledge expertise (81% compared to 79% for the IB Diploma), however, the IB Diploma was widely perceived as the better option for encouraging independent inquiry (by 87% of respondents compared to 37% for A-Levels).
Success at and after university
The HESA report also shows that IB Diploma students have a greater likelihood of earning a first-class honours degree compared to their A Level peers (23% versus 19% respectively).
Along with surveying university admissions officers and current university students, the research team also questioned students who successfully completed a full time undergraduate degree at a UK university, and found that IB Diploma students were significantly more likely to be engaged with further study, while A-Level students are more likely to have joined the workforce by this point.
In truth, the best path for a student intending to progress into higher education largely depends on their individual personality and goals. Both options take valid approaches, but have a different focus on various elements of a student’s education.
Some teachers and parents may argue over which path universities look more favourably upon, but the reality is that admissions officers will consider students who have completed both programmes, based on their individual merit.
It is for exactly this reason that we offer both the IB Diploma and A-Levels to our students at Gresham’s, allowing our own admissions team to provide unbiased advice to students and parents, helping them to make the right choice for each individual.
Mark Seldon is the Director of Studies at Gresham’s School, Norfolk.