Page last updated at 11:42 GMT, Thursday, 2 February 2006

Viewpoint: The problem with A-levels

After several years of debate surrounding the standard of A-levels, the government decided not to replace them with a baccalaureate-style diploma. Instead it plans to challenge the brightest with more demanding questions and extended essays.

Upper sixth form student Micah Smith spent last year studying for the International Baccalaureate, for which pupils take a broader range of subjects. But after moving schools he is now studying A-levels. Here are his thoughts on how the two compare.

Micah Smith
Micah is now studying for his A-levels over one year
Which system is better: the International Baccalaureate or A-levels?

The debate has been raging for some time and, as one of the few students in the country to have experienced both systems, I hope to offer a new perspective on the issue.

There are two key questions to be answered. Firstly, does the IB provide its students with a better education? And secondly, do IB results reflect students' abilities better?

The answer to both these questions is, I believe, a resounding yes.

Work at your weaknesses

IB students have to take six subjects from different areas of study. They therefore progress to the next stage of life with a foreign language, improved mathematical skills, and increased exposure to literary classics, all of which can be lost with A-levels, depending on the students' subject choices.

Taking A-levels, a gifted essayist can with much less work gain three As by choosing to study, say, English, history, and politics.

IB students, however, have to take subjects that they would not otherwise choose to study. So instead of neglecting their weaker subjects, IB students work at them.

The result: IB students learn to manage their time better - because they have to.

Essentially, the IB tests and rewards effort to a greater extent than A-levels.

The government has denied A-level standards are slipping
But this breadth of study is not at the expense of depth - students still specialise, studying three of their subjects at a higher level. From my experience, these "higher level" subjects were only marginally less work than a full A-level.

I am currently taking my three A-levels in one year, rather than the usual two, and - despite compressing two years of work into one, I have found this easier than when I was taking the IB in the ordinary two years.

In addition to their six subjects, IB students are required to study a theory of knowledge course and to write an "extended essay" in order to pass the qualification.

These help to develop a student's skills of critical thinking and independent learning. The extended essay is a 4,000-word essay on any subject, which students must independently research and produce.

A regular complaint among my fellow A-level students is that they do not feel they are studying the topics that really interest them.

IB students may moan about how much work their extended essays are, but they rarely complain about their essays being boring.

Friends of mine investigated subjects as diverse as the Masai tribe in Kenya and the physics of basketball.

Crème de la crème

When it comes to university interviews, these essays provide students with a fantastic chance to display and discuss their particular interests, and to prove their ability to work independently.

And this not only helps students, but admissions tutors too.

Admissions tutors will also be aware of the increasingly accepted suggestion that there has been grade inflation in A-levels.

How impressive is an A grade anymore? Not very, is the view of some of my friends
Students are aware of this too. In the last five years, the number of A-level students achieving an A in maths has increased from 29% to 40%.

IB maths grades, on the other hand, have remained fairly static, with around 10% of students achieving the top grade of a 7.

With the number of straight A students increasing every year, just how impressive is an A grade anymore?

Not very, is the view of some of my friends, who feel that in any case, A-levels are more a test of exam technique than of ability and understanding.

But the real problem rests with admissions tutors and employers. Whilst the IB enables them to discriminate between the crème, and the crème de la crème; A-levels obscure the differences, leaving admissions tutors with the monumental task of trying to discover the best students themselves.

Understandably, they sometimes get it wrong, and the top students end up the victims of this A-level confusion.

'Challenge yourselves'

IB students also suffer; how can admissions tutors fairly compare the IB to A-levels when, for example, last year 20% of students taking A-level English achieved an A, compared to only 3% of IB English students gaining the top mark of a 7?

Yet despite it being far more difficult to achieve a 7, Oxbridge seems to expect 7s just as it expects As.

Many friends of mine taking the IB were rejected from Oxbridge, probably on account of their predicted IB grades, yet these students would most likely have gone on to achieve three As had they taken A-levels.

Ultimately, the rewards of an easy A-level succeed in punishing the best students more than anything else.

A motto of Atlantic College, where I studied the IB for a year, was "challenge yourselves", and the IB certainly challenged me in a way that A-levels do not.

It is not that A-levels are easy, just that the IB is considerably more challenging.

If a more rigorous education is wanted, and if we want the ability of students to be more accurately reflected, then the IB should undoubtedly be the qualification of choice.

We asked for your thoughts on the subject. Here is a selection from the many we received:

I am an IB student in my last year of the course at a sixth form college which offers both. The IB is relentless - there is so much work to do compared to any of my friends doing A level who get their work done in frees. As well as studying more subjects, there is also the extended essay (which is awesome), the Theory of Knowledge Essay (which is terrible) AND you have to complete 50 hours of action, service and creativity over the 2 year course (just like Duke of Edinburgh) The IB is more challenging, more tiring, but definitely the better choice. Taking the lazy A level option - it really is a lazy option compared to the IB programme (I am one of few people who is in a position to actually compare the two on a day-to-day basis) - is a waste of time.
David, London

I could not agree more! The English system often lacks the breadth AND depth that is demanded in many countries on the continent, opting for tick the box skills instead. The government has lost a chance to improve education by rejecting the IB.
Kerstin Reichmann, Bristol, England

I am currently studying in the IB Programme of Thessaloniki and I believe that it is the best place to study for people who, in this case, cannot stand the Greek educational system. It provides us with information us Greek kids didn't even know could be taught in schools. However, due to the fact that I am half British and have attended school in the UK, I truly believe that the IB provides students with a magnificent educational experience and far more opportunities than any regular high school.
Rania Webber, Thessaloniki Greece

"Taking A-levels, a gifted essayist can with much less work gain three As by choosing to study, say, English, history, and politics."

I really resent this statement. I was, as Mr Smith calls it, a "gifted essayist", and opted to study English Literature, history and religious studies to A2, with an AS in government and politics. By the end of my two-year course I could write a well-structured, detailed essay about any subject you could care to mention, and ended up with AAB. I worked incredibly hard for these grades, and to suggest that because I chose three essay subjects at A2 that I somehow did "much less work" is frankly insulting.

Mr Smith does make some good points. However, he needs to rethink his ideas about whether a broader subject base necessarily means more work.
James Liddell, Buckhurst Hill, United Kingdom

You provide no convincing reason for a top student to take the IB when A-levels are on offer; the lazy would have to work harder for the same top result, the diligent would be obliged to study subjects they were not interested in when they could be extending their study in their chosen field.

Certainly, a good case is made for the present A-level system not suiting the most able students, but I see no compelling argument for the government having made the wrong decision in deciding to fix, rather than to replace, the system.
Tom Garnett, Cambridge, UK

I studied the IB at a sixth form that offered both A-levels and the IB. Whilst I believe A-levels are not easy, the rising pass rates seem to suggest that they are not challenging enough. Many of my fellow students studying the IB found that universities did not understand the IB marking system and would quite often equate a 7 to an A pass. With criticism coming from all corners, I feel the government has made an error in not implementing a baccalaureate-style scheme. I also feel universities should be made more aware of the IB system currently in place.
Carol, Shenfield, Essex

I did the IB in 1980-82 and to this day I think I would have achieved better results if I had been allowed to do two or three A-levels instead of spreading myself thin over six subjects. I am truly in favour of A-levels as I think they prepare you well for university.
Clare Oxley, Colleyville Texas USA

I did the IB, and I've swapped notes with friends of mine who did A-levels. I agree with Micah Smith completely. The IB is a better course of study, and leads to a qualification that is recognised by higher education worldwide as being more valuable than A-levels or indeed anything else.
Hugh Parker, Birmingham, England

I did the IB at Exeter College and loved it. It gave me a breadth of knowledge and an awareness of other perspectives, for example looking at the Eastern view of psychology, that I would not have got from A-levels. The extra work involved, such as theory of knowledge, and the "reactive, active and service hours" (similar to the Duke of Edinburgh award) helped prepare me for university. Although the challenge of getting sensible offers from universities was irritating, I am definitely a more rounded person as a result of doing the IB.
Ellie Christmas, Bristol

Comparing the IB to the A-levels is comparing apples to oranges. The IB model, where students study various subjects, has been addressed by GCSEs. The A-level model, on the other hand, gives students an opportunity to focus on a specific area of study that is more in tune with what they are going to encounter at university. Granted, A-level standards need to be raised, however, the focus is completely different to the IB.
Velma, Edmonton, London

As head of computing and teacher of A-level computing, I was interested in finding out the content of the IB syllabus for computing. This I did on the internet. Sorry, no way is it on par with the theoretical knowledge studied at A-level.
Boh, Manchester

Forget the IB and A-levels. People should try the European Baccalaureate. People who failed at our school often went abroad to take A-levels as they knew it was an easy option and would get easy marks.
Tim, Edinburgh

I'm not entirely convinced that effort and ability are the same thing. While both may lead to success and could be said to be equal, they are by no means identical. Different tasks reflect different strengths. An applicant for a maths degree should surely not be judged on how thoroughly they researched an essay topic.

That aside my only real sticking point is that forcing young people to do subjects they maybe can't wait to see the back of may convince them their only method of escape is to drop out of the education system at 16.
Steven, Durham, UK

There is no contest - IB is much the superior form of education. It enables students to have a broader education than the narrow focus of A-levels. It also has a scoring system that is more precise so enabling a better identification of how students have done and avoiding the problems resulting from the plethora of higher grades at A-level. However, the UK establishment is largely fixated on the belief that anything from overseas - especially Europe - is suspicious and that which is home grown is the "best of all worlds". Utter foolishness.
Trevor Soames, Brussels

This article has been a great insight. My children are currently studying the IB at a European school. It is reassuring to hear that a student having experience of both feels that the IB gives a better standard.

The UK should give our children the opportunities other countries take for granted. This isn't about how many results you can get but surely one about quality!
Sandra , Holland

Having completed the IB last summer, I would strongly advise people to seek another alternative to A-level. The IB is a poorly designed course with an uncompromising choice of subjects, utterly banal philosophy classes and a 150-hour community service order.

Essays are often assessed in the darkest corners of the globe and have a tendency to go missing en route. Moreover, the course insists on the continuation of several disciplines that may be completely redundant to that student's career; almost no one on my course required the modern language subject. Worst of all, the IB is often regarded with scepticism when it comes to employment; very few people have heard of it. It also serves as a handicap in applying to university, as the required grades for IB in no way correlate to the A-level equivalents. Although the IB is challenging course, it is also tedious and unrewarding.
David, Birmingham

If three A-levels offer a narrow breadth then why not study more? The usual number of A-levels is now four anyway. I studied 6 A-levels (and I had two part-time jobs as well as doing voluntary work at that time). My A-levels were in a breadth of subjects and I managed to get six straight As (yet was still rejected from Cambridge). Want to challenge yourself? Study more than the basic number of three A-levels.
Karen, Wigan

I took my A-levels three years ago, and I really resent the implication that they were easy and essentially worthless. A-levels are the hardest courses I've ever had to do, even though I played to my strengths. The reason we have GCSEs is for students to gain a broader education, and the whole point of A-levels is that students have the opportunity to specialise in the subjects that interest them or that they have ability in.

I'm sure that everybody who achieves an A grade at A-level thoroughly deserves it, and that they have the potential to attain the equivalent high grades in the IB.
Lucy, London

I teach A-level physics and maths and I say well done to Micah for a reasoned argument. A-levels would fulfil one requirement if results were graded by, say, only the top 5% getting an A, rather than by criteria. What value will an A-level have when everyone gets an A? The government would think it was wonderful because it would prove how fantastic their education policy was.
Chris Wills, Fareham, UK

After having left the Swiss Maturité Bilingue for the IB, I agree totally. The IB requires more hard work, literary analysis, scientific understanding and overall lost hours of sleep than anything I have ever heard of!
Nicholas Cérat, Geneva, Switzerland

I can not understand all these people who say that A-Levels are hard. They did nothing to prepare me for working at university. I am now in my fourth year of an Aeronautical Engineering degree. In comparison, it feels like each module is worth at least half an A-Level and I have to do 7 of these or more each year.

The only real skill I learnt from A-levels is to answer exam questions well and thanks to the modular system I got three chances for some modules to retake them. This was wrong. Had I been taught to think about problems and understand the subjects in depth I would have been much better off. I hope that the government does something about A-levels as in their current state they are unacceptable for developing the nation's education. I think the first step is to get people out of the hunger for As.
David Williams, London, UK

I firmly agree that A-levels are more about learning exam techniques than anything else, but I also feel that specialising in subjects you are good at and are going to go on and do at university, for instance, is better than struggling at ones you will never again use in later life.
Olivia, Portsmouth, UK

Surely the point should be not to only have one system or another, but allow students to choose. There are enough sixth forms and colleges to choose from so that each can decide which method suits them.

I know for a fact that had I been made to take the IB programme I would have suffered for it, as would my grades. I didn't want to study a wide range of subjects - I just wanted to study maths, and by doing A-levels I got to do just that. I took two maths A-levels and economics, and having this specialised knowledge in maths then helped me at degree level as I didn't have to waste time learning things I had already done at A-level.

In this day and age shouldn't people realise that everyone is different? What works for one doesn't always for another. Let students have the choice.
Katy Dobson, Leeds

UK baccalaureate plans announced
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29 Dec 03 |  Education
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