In the UK most students take GCSE or IGCSE exams aged 16 or 17. After this they may stay on at school for two years for the sixth form. In the sixth form students study A-levels or the International Baccalaureate (IB). These are the qualifications taken to apply for university.

With 150 British schools and colleges now registered to offer the IB – still a very small proportion of the schools in England – there is a very real alternative to the traditional A-level route to university entrance. So what are the differences?

An A-level is an Advanced Level qualification. The classic route to university in the UK, and recognized by many of the best universities around the world. At the moment an A-level is made up of two parts-the first year exams called AS and the second year exams called A2. The combination of points achieved at AS and A2 determine the A-level grade. However the system will change. Students will be examined at the end of the two years rather than in two parts. These new “reformed” A-levels are being introduced gradually – some subjects start the new system in 2015, some in 2016 and some in 2017. Most students study 4 subjects in the first year and then continue with their strongest three in the second year i.e. they end up with 3 A-level subjects. One of the values of the A-level system is the depth of study – this provides an excellent preparation for the demands and complexity of university study and many university courses would have been developed to build on A-level study.

Another major benefit is the ability to choose the subjects you really enjoy and are interested in. Students can have a combination of subjects developing different skills. The flexibility and choice is incredible for example subjects range from business to computing to drama to science to sociology to film to communication to psychology to philosophy to photography to politics. The end results is that students are likely to be passionate about their subjects because they can focus on the ones they want and not study ones that are less interesting or less relevant to them.

The IB is the fastest-growing, most respected qualification in the world, and a passport to the best universities. It is a qualification which challenges, encourages and inspires internationally minded students to become caring, critical thinkers, ready for university study and a global career.

All IB diploma students study six subjects; three at Higher Level and three at Standard Level. These must include the student’s own first language, a foreign language, a science, a humanity and mathematics. The sixth subject may be a second foreign language, a second science, a second humanity or an elective such as music, art or computer science. Study in these six areas is united by all students studying “Theory of Knowledge” (a course in critical thinking, essentially) and assessment of a 4,000 word extended essay on a topic of their choice.

Over the two years of the course students must also complete a log of a personal programme of activities covering Creativity, Action and Service or CAS (the third element, along with ToK and the Extended Essay, to make up the Diploma’s “core”). This recognizes the value of the diverse range of activities and experiences to be found in all boarding schools, and that education should not be confined to the classroom. All Diploma students have to complete fifty hours of creative work, of action (sport), and of service to the local or wider community.

The IB is favored by many international parents because it is transferable from one country to another if their job changes to another part of the world. Both A-levels and IB are valuable qualifications and both systems are aiming to develop your knowledge and understanding and your ability to think analytically and critically and to study and research.

Both are good preparations for university. In all good schools you will have the opportunity to develop your interests and be stretched academically.

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