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The International Baccalaureate vs. A levels

Which is more likely to lead to a good degree?

17 March 2018

9:00 AM

17 March 2018

9:00 AM

The International Baccalaureate (IB), which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, has — like its home town of Geneva — a slightly goody-goody reputation. Although not founded until the 1960s, it grew out of efforts to build a liberal infrastructure for postwar Europe.

It was inspired by a pamphlet written in 1948 by the French pedagogue Marie-Thérèse Maurette called ‘Do Education Techniques for Peace Exist?’ We don’t want our schools and universities creating swots who might just turn out like Josef Mengele, the IB seems to be saying, but well-rounded citizens of the world.

Nowadays, the IB is often sold by schools as a kind of academic Duke of Edinburgh scheme, involving a wider range of study than A-levels and including elements of culture and public service — though the latter is not formally assessed. IB pupils specialise less than A-level students do. They must carry on studying maths and science to some degree throughout the sixth form, and must complete a written assignment on a subject of their choice.

It is all very well selling the IB on its claimed character-building properties, but pupils who find themselves in the position of having to choose between the IB and A-levels might be motivated by more hard-headed questions: is it likelier to get me into a good university, earn me a better degree, and win me a higher-paying job at the end of it?

The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) published a study that sought to answer these questions, and the results were flattering to the IB. It analysed the onward educational performance of 1.2 million pupils who sat A-levels and 48,700 pupils who took the IB diploma between 2007 and 2013, and discovered distinctly better results among the latter. Of the IB pupils who went on to university, 40.1 per cent won a place at a top 20 university — compared with 23.7 per cent for A-level students.


The raw figures also suggest that you’re more likely to earn a first-class degree if you’ve taken the IB: 24.4 per cent of IB students managed this against 20.7 per cent of those taking A-levels. IB pupils are also more likely to go on to further study: 21.1 per cent against 15.4 per cent. Among students who go straight into work after their first degree, IB students earn a little more too — a median of £21,000 in the year after graduating, compared with £20,000 for A-level students.

These figures, however, have to be read in the context that IB students are more likely to be middle class and to have been privately educated — factors which are themselves associated with a greater chance of making it to a better university. While the IB is broadening its reach among state schools, it remains stubbornly concentrated among private ones. There’s a good reason for this. It’s hard for a state school with fewer resources to offer parallel A-level and IB courses. Of state schools that do offer it, some — such as St Benedict’s Catholic High School in Alcester, Worcestershire — have made the IB the only option in their sixth forms.

The HESA study does attempt to correct for students’ backgrounds — and still the IB comes out favourably. Of pupils in socio-economic school years 1 to 3, 24.1 per cent of IB students got a first, compared with 21.7 of A-level students. Among years 4 to 7, the figures were 27.6 and 19.3 per cent.

Taking school background into account, 21 per cent of privately educated IB pupils scored a first, compared with 19.7 per cent of privately educated pupils who took A-levels. Among state pupils, it was 27 per cent, compared with 21.1 per cent.

Yet there is still a complication in that IB and A-level pupils study a different mix of subjects at university. The former are a little more likely to take vocational subjects such as engineering and law, and a lot more likely to study social sciences and humanities — 14.8 per cent of IB students take these compared with 10.5 per cent of A-level students. A-level pupils are more likely to study pure sciences, but the biggest difference is in maths: 3.7 per cent of A-level pupils go on to study it at university, compared with 1.3 per cent of IB students.

It’s a matter of concern over the IB: at a time when the government is trying to encourage more pupils to take courses in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), IB pupils seem to be avoiding them. Or is it a case of students who have aspirations to study STEM subjects at university avoiding the IB? Stephen Jones, Warden of St Edward’s School, Oxford, where 60 per cent of sixth-form pupils take the IB rather than A-levels, believes the latter. ‘Pupils doing hardcore science subjects are tending to take A-levels rather than the IB,’ he says — partly because university mathematics departments are lagging behind others in recognising the IB. Yet there is also a perception among pupils that it is harder to get a top grade in IB maths than it is to get a top grade at A-level.

This raises a familiar issue about having competing examination systems and examination boards: does it encourage a drop in standards as schools and their pupils seek the easiest route to a top grade, and boards adjust their exams to attract them?

It isn’t just a case of wanting the best A-level results, though. Anyone making a choice between A-levels and the IB has to consider which is going to prepare them better for a degree course. Of pupils who do plump for IB and go on to study maths at university, more come out with a first: 45.2 per cent compared with 34.6 per cent.

Interestingly, given the frequent claim that the IB allows creativity to develop, two subject areas where students seem to perform better at university if they have taken A-levels are ‘architecture, building and planning’ and ‘creative arts and design’. These are factors that certainly don’t make the choice between A-levels and the IB any easier.


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