A Level versus IB: Making meaning of the complexity

Education for pupils between the age of sixteen to eighteen is murky. There are multiple pathways through high school, sixth form or senior school, each with merits and distinctive features. For parents, unpicking the complexity of A Level, IB Diploma or AP courses can be challenging and often fraught with misconceptions. This article will briefly compare and contrast A Level and IB diploma and then set out the aim for pupils joining Wellington College Hangzhou.

A Level is the qualification taken by eighteen year old students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland but is also the most common in international schools across the world. Pupils typically study A Levels in three or four subjects. This allows pupils to specialise, study subjects deeply and genuinely prepare for the transition to university. For instance, pupils seeking to read medicine would typically study biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics, whilst others may express their passion for the arts by studying fine art, music and design at A Level. The wide range of subjects on offer at A Level is designed to allow for personalisation of learning.

The International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma was developed as a qualification that is authentically international. IB diploma students take six subjects, which must include a mix of science, languages and humanities, plus three other elements: theory of knowledge, which looks at how we know what we know; creativity, activity, service, which involves artistic, sporting and voluntary work, and an extended essay. The aim of the IB diploma is to establish a broad foundation of further learning and to promote an approach to learning that develops the pupil as an individual.

Both A Level and IB diploma are two-year programmes, acclaimed for their rigour and both serve as high value currency to access universities across the globe.

Scratch under the surface of each course and further differences emerge, for instance the IB diploma is assessed using a 1 to 7 scale for each subject studied and a total score out of 45 used to judge the overall performance. A Level uses a system of grades with A* the highest. Furthermore, A levels are distinctly academic and place emphasis on the subject matter, whilst IB promotes a way of learning that encourages application, reasoning and engaging with content from multiple perspectives. The University Admissions Officers Report 2017 identifies the biggest difference is in “encouraging global outlook” where 97 per cent of the admissions officers rated the IB as developing this “well or very well”, whilst only 7 per cent said the same about A levels which give students more “in-depth” expertise. The same report also notes the IB as “encouraging independent inquiry” with 94 per cent of the admissions officers saying that it did this “well or very well”, while only 49 per cent of officers gave the A levels a similar rating. However, A levels were considered to offer better “in-depth subject expertise” with 94 per cent stating that they developed this “well or very well”, compared to 56 per cent for the IB. A Level was considered superior in developing work place skills. Both qualifications proved equal in preparing pupils to complete a degree or to take on postgraduate studies.

Educators often present as advocates for IB or A Level. For instance;

“A-levels may be a UK qualification, but they are accepted by universities around the world and many students go on to study at Oxford, Cambridge and other Russell Group universities.  However, a significant number will choose to study in the United States, Canada and South Africa where A-levels are readily accepted. This is a result of the greater depth of study and the ability to specialise.” claims Mr Young, Headmaster of a leading school in the Middle East.

“The IB promotes critical reasoning, breadth of knowledge and recognises extra-curricular activities” argues Paula Baptista, leader of a school in Europe.

In conclusion, it may be summarised that the IB diploma is global in outlook, promotes critical reasoning and places emphasis on breadth of study. A Levels offer depth and specialisation. Both are rigorous and valued by the leading universities around the world.

Across Wellington College China schools, the focus is for pupils to develop the Identity, that is to be inspired, intellectual, independent, individual and inclusive. The development of the five aspects of the Wellington and Huili Identity is not a consequence of a specific programme or qualification, it is the product of a Wellington education and the learning and development opportunities that it affords. Preparing pupils for success in life at the college, university and beyond means that the excellent qualifications achieved at 18 are only a part of the product of an education at Wellington or Huili and not the only measure used to gauge success.

Excellent examination results are an expectation at Wellington and Huili. Both A Level and IB diploma are offered in our existing schools for the reasons listed earlier in this article whilst service, creativity and the action are inherent in all aspects of life in a Wellington or Huili school. Likewise at Wellington College Hangzhou, the intention is to ultimately offer pupils access to A Level or IB diploma qualifications in high school. We recognise that pupils will require support in transitioning from other systems and schools, so it will be necessary to offer flexibility to afford access to individualised support programmes; for example, additional English language support, individual coaching, study skills sessions or university application guidance. The peronalised support and pastoral care is what nurtures the Identity and prepares pupils for success at 18, 26 and 46. Excellent exam outcomes are just one necessary component.

Dr Ahmed Hussain is currently the Senior Director of Academics for Wellington College China. This position involves leading the Institute of Learning in addition to working across the Wellington College China group on all academic related issues and providing outreach support outside of the Wellington group. Before the appointment, Ahmed served as the Director of Schools at Wellington College China for three years since 2015. Following an initial career as a PhD student and then research scientist with University of Nottingham, Ahmed trained as teacher of science. Following a number of teaching and leadership positions, Ahmed was appointed as a Lecturer of Education at Durham University. Here he led on training and developing teachers, teaching on Masters and EdD courses as well as undertaking research in the fields of curriculum analysis, assessment and teacher professional development. Ahmed took up a number of senior leadership positions in schools in the UK and Dubai along with working in the education reform project in Abu Dhabi. Here he led projects on senior leader and teacher professional development along with supporting the development and rollout of national standards for school leaders and teachers in the UAE. Ahmed is a passionate educator who was drawn to the Wellington group because of the educational values, ethos and commitment to a truly holistic education. He is married with two young boys, and as a family they are truly embracing the rich heritage and culture of Shanghai and China.