Updated: Oct 28, 2022
One of the most common questions we get asked by parents of Secondary-aged children is, "A levels or IB - what's the difference, and which is better?"
If you're the parent of a child in Year 10 or even Year 11, you've probably been pondering this question yourself.
The short answer to the question, 'Which is better?' is 'Neither'. Both are extremely rigorous, well-respected qualifications. They're just totally different.
Therefore, the choice of which might be best for your child is a very personal one.
However, the decision can be difficult when you aren't sure what the two qualifications are to begin with, and how they differ! So, we've put together a bunch of information that we hope you will find helpful.
Both qualifications generally take two years.
Some international schools, like Epsom College & Taylor's College, offer an 18-month timeframe for A Levels for selected students and with a limited number of subject choices. However, please be aware that completing A Levels in 18 months would be, academically, extremely demanding and we would only recommend it in exceptional circumstances.
Both are usually studied in Grades 11-12/Years 12-13.
And neither can be broken up - i.e. once you start either the Diploma or. A Levels, you really need to stay at the same school to complete your qualification. You can't 'chop and change' halfway through - you'd need to completely re-start.
Both are accepted by universities all over the world.
Most parents we've worked with don't realise this, and think that British Universities prefer A Levels, which is really not the case.
Both are academically challenging.
While they differ in many ways, both are rigorous qualifications.
Number of Subjects
A Level subjects typically study 4 subjects in Year 12 (AS Level) and 3 in Year 13 (A2 Level). IB Diploma subjects take 6 subjects that stay the same during their two year programme, and also have additional compulsory components that they must complete (see ‘Breadth’ below).
Choice of Subjects
A Level students have complete choice about which subjects they pursue. For example, they can focus only on Maths & Sciences, or just on English and Humanities.
In the IB Diploma on the other hand, students must study a wide range of subjects: a Language and Literature course, Maths, Science, a Foreign Language, and a Humanities/Business course (from the ‘Individuals and Societies’ subject group’). They can choose an Arts subject as their 6th choice, or pick a second subject from the other 5 groups.
In addition to completing six subjects, IB students must complete an independent research project, a ‘Creativity, Action, Service’ (CAS) component, which involves around 150 hours of service (schools set their own requirements based on IB guidelines) and pass a philosophy/critical thinking course called ‘Theory of Knowledge’, in order to be awarded the IB Diploma. None of these components are required for students sitting A Levels.
For most exam boards, A Levels are a a two-year course, with final exams taken towards the end of Year 13. Some exam boards still follow a split-phase model, AS level and A2 level. AS Levels are taken during Year 12 and serve as a “base” for Year 13. In these cases, a student’s performance in AS exams usually contributes towards their final A2 grade, which is what is published on their A Level certificate.
The Diploma isn’t split like this. However, out of the six subjects a student elects to study, three must be ‘Higher Level’ (HL) and three must be ‘Standard Level’ (SL). HL subjects go into more detail and depth & are studied for a minimum of 240 hours total, compared to a minimum total of 150 hours for SL.
A Levels are graded on a letter system (A*-E) whereas IB Diploma subjects are marked on a score of 1-7 (with 7 roughly equivalent to an A*). A total of 24 points overall is needed to be awarded the IB Diploma qualification, and a perfect Diploma score is 45.
Which one is right for your child?
This is the million-dollar question! Every child is different and it is difficult to give generic advice. Here are four key questions that might help you make the decision.
Is your child is an 'all-rounder'? If they enjoy a range of subjects - English, Maths, Science, Languages & Arts - then they'll probably thrive in the IB Diploma programme.
Does your child already demonstrate a clear preference and aptitude for some subjects? If your child already demonstrates a clear preference for particular subjects - say Maths & Science - then an in-depth study of those subjects at A Level may suit them.
Does your child struggle with organisation and time management? If so, the high levels of organisation and time-management required for success in the IB Diploma (given the breadth of the programme) may be a real challenge. Of course, a good school will support your child in building these skills - but it is still worth considering whether fewer subjects in A Level might be more manageable.
Does your child enjoy independent research and extended writing? If not, they may find the heavy written demands of the IB Diploma a challenge, and prefer instead to take 3-4 A Level subjects that don't involve extended writing.
International Schools offering the IB Diploma in KL:
Cempaka International School
Fairview International School
IGB International School
International School of Kuala Lumpur (ISKL)
Mont' Kiara International School
Nexus International School
Sri KDU International School
St Joseph's Institution International School
Sunway International School
International Schools offering A Levels in KL:
Alice Smith School
British School of Kuala Lumpur
Epsom College (Boarding)
Garden International School
HELP International School
King Henry VIII College
Kolej Tuanku Ja'afar (Boarding)
International School of ParkCity
If you would like some personalised guidance about which qualification might be the 'best fit' for your child, or which international school might be the best place for them, please don't hesitate to get in touch.
Our expert advice is 100% independent, objective and honest.