IB results day: how do A levels compare?

“Are A levels better than the IB?”

This is perhaps the question parents who come to meet us at Greene’s most frequently ask. A very good argument can be made for either answer, and given that the decision between one or the other will have such a great impact in their children’s lives, there is an understandable desire to collect as much information as possible on both so as to guarantee that it will be made on the basis of whatever answer is “correct”.

Since Greene’s offers A levels, the usual expectation is that our “pitch” will be the exact opposite of what was heard at educational institutions offering the IB. However, at the core of everything we do at Greene’s is the belief that education should be targeted at individuals, and that one model does not fit all. Therefore, the right question to ask is really this: “Are A levels better than the IB for my child?

Students who opted for the A level programme thrive at Greene’s because their personal and academic profiles share a few key common traits. The IB has a holistic approach, comprising subjects in the humanities, the sciences and languages, along with diverse extracurricular activities. This approach makes for a very academically well-rounded student, with the added advantage of opening into a wide array of academic careers.

For students who have already chosen the field of study in which they wish to specialise, or who find themselves excelling in one subject category whilst struggling with another because their interests and aptitudes lean heavily towards one side, A levels are a much better fit. A student who wishes to focus exclusively in the humanities, for instance, can do so without having to worry about their overall grade being negatively impacted due to underperforming in Mathematics – a compulsory subject in the IB.

Tomás, a student at Greene’s in Estoril, has always had his mind set on studying Medical Physics, and he recounts how the broad-ranging spectrum of subjects in the IB programme became a hindrance:

"I felt great pressure in terms of the workload. Aside from the regular subjects you have the CAS and TOK. These were all interesting but took up a lot of the time I could be devoting to the subjects that were the most important for me."

Since he started his A levels at Greene’s, Tomás’s academic performance has improved dramatically. In his words:

"With A levels I don’t have to deal with the enormous pressure of meeting a lot of deadlines. I can focus only on the subjects that interest me, and having individual tutorials instead of classroom lessons made everything a lot easier."

The greatest source of pressure Tomás now faces is the necessity of choosing from the three top UK universities that have already offered him placements in his field of choice.

IB vs A levels: the facts

IBA levels
Internationally recognised qualification for university entrance
Offers the opportunity to study several different subjects at a high level
Exams can be taken at different stages of the two-year programme to spread the pressure
Students can specialise in a particular academic area and study individual subjects in depth (e.g. humanities, sciences, languages)
Allows any combination of subjects

Bela Mendonça has a particularly interesting viewpoint. As a member of staff at Greene’s, she deals with A levels on a daily basis, but she also has a parent’s insight into the IB programme: "As a mother of four children, all of whom completed the IB Diploma programme, I observed three go through it with varying degrees of success. Juggling two languages, Mathematics, as well as subjects from both the Sciences and Humanities, is a challenge. One of my children was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work and struggled with Sciences, but at the time there was no alternative available."

"A weak result in the IB Diploma impacted applications to university. I would have welcomed the option of an A level education, as three strong A levels would have led to better university prospects."

Whether students choose to specialise in a category of subjects or opt to combine A levels from more than one to keep their options open, they will always be focusing exclusively on the subjects that are meaningful to them, and in studying them in depth.

The IB programme, being very prescriptive, produces good students in some respects, providing them with a solid foundation in several unrelated academic fields. The A level programme, coupled with the Greene’s Leadership course and the personalised tutorial methodology, endows students not only with in-depth knowledge of their chosen subjects, but with the soft skills they will require to excel at university as well as throughout their future professional lives.

If you did not achieve the results you were looking for on the IB programme, that does not reflect negatively neither on the IB nor on you as a student. It might just be that A levels would be a better fit for you.

Daniel Ramalho, Deputy College Principal

5 July 2019