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A-levels or IB ?

Both the IB and A-levels are school programmes for students who wish to be well prepared to study in the UK. They are both broadly acceptable for entry to British Universities. Remember that British universities are free to choose their own students so there are many ways to get accepted at British Universities such as the apolytirion or one of the many foundation courses offered in Greece. However, the apolytirion (though acceptable by some universities for some degree courses at a grade higher than 18) is not a preparatory programme for study in the UK. Foundation courses, which are probably the most popular way to get admitted at British Universities, are not school programmes. So we will limit this comparison to the A-levels versus the IB.

The two qualifications are different in many ways. A-levels are the national English high school qualification whereas the IB is an international qualification that has no "country of origin". Because the IB is international it allows many countries, like Greece, to use it as an alternative to their national school qualification without losing face. The IB is quite strict as regards the breadth and depth of its curriculum. While students can choose their subjects there are restrictions. Students must take 6 subjects from specific groups in a two year programme while they should study three at a more advanced level and three at a less advanced level. With A-levels students are free to take any subjects they like over as long a period as they like. A-levels are all "advanced" level subjects but they also offer half A-levels known as AS-levels. The IB is a strictly school-based programme. A-levels are different. Although they are taught at schools over two years (like the IB) they are essentially final exams which can be taken in June every year (International A-levels can be examined twice a year). The IB was meant to have a broader international acceptance that A-levels in but in practice this has not been achieved. For example you cannot enter Greek universities with the IB! On the other hand many countries accept the A-levels for admission to their universities. In practice, of those that do the IB in Greece, 95% aim to study either in the UK and perhaps the other 5% aim to study in the USA or somewhere else in Europe. So one could easily choose to do either the IB or A-levels without limiting the reach to higher education internationally. Assuming that most readers of this page are looking to study in the UK we will limit this comparison to the context of studying in the UK.

So which qualification is preferred in the UK?

The A-level is preferred in the UK simply because it is the "home" qualification that everyone knows: students, teachers, admissions officers at universities, etc. Some argue that the IB is up and coming but bear in mind that, in the UK, the proportion of students doing the IB in 2010 was much less than 1% of the total (4500 students out of a total of about 700,000). This does not make the IB an inferior qualification! It is a good qualification which is acceptable by UK universities but it is not the preferred qualification.

Then why do universities also mention the IB in their entry requirements?

Because it is a good alternative qualification and it allows UK universities to portray an international image. When you visit the admissions requirements page of a British university you will notice that it will first mention A-levels because, expectedly, this is what most people who read their web sites have to offer! They usually mention the IB second, third or fourth and some do not mention it all - not because they would not accept it but because there are too few students offering it. If you live in Greece this reads strange but the fact remains that the IB represents a small minority among admission qualifications in UK universities. In fact, if you delve deeper into the admissions requirements of most universities you will find that most also routinely accept many national school qualifications such as the French Baccalaureate and the German Abitur.

Which one is harder to complete?

The IB is considerably tougher than A-levels. In the IB, students study six subjects plus extras whereas with A-levels students study three or four subjects. In the IB a student cannot take less than the 6 subjects of the programme. With so much workload, it is no surprise that so many students taking the IB end up with relatively low grades (24-30 points). About 10-15% of Greek students taking the IB fail to reach 24 points so they end up without the diploma! On the other hand A-levels do not specify how many subjects a student should take. Most students take 3 A-levels but some take more if they wish to show their academic strength. Nonetheless all UK universities ask for just 3 A-levels.

Does this make the IB a less attractive qualification?

It depends on the strudent's potential . The IB is an excellent qualification but it is much harder if you want to get a top grade. For those who can take all these 6 subjects and score, say, 38-40 points the IB programme is an excellent programme but this is not the case for the vast majority of students. Many end up taking 30 points or less when they would have been much better off with three A-levels at grades ABB. Scoring 30 points out of 45 (2/3 of the top score) does not look as good as scoring ABB. The flexibility of the A-level system means that you can always take A*A*A* or AAAAA or whatever you like. But this does not make ABB look bad because people will compare ABB to AAA (or A*A*A which is the highest practical offer to be made by Cambridge, Oxford or Imperial College - or a few more universities at the top of the rankings). The IB is also penalised because universities ask IB students far more (in UCAS tariff points) than corresponding A-level students for the same place. Let me give you an example: the admission requirement for Architecture at Bath University is 38 IB points (which is 567 UCAS tariff points) or A*AA in A-levels (which is 380 tariff points). Ironically, Bath University (indirectly) admits that it is asking for much more to accept a student via the IB than via A-levels. This is true for almost all UK universities. Their IB offer is much higher in tariff points than the A-level offer. Tariff points is a "convertor" of qualifications into a common currency that UCAS adopts to make sense of the hundreds of qualifications around the world.

Is the A-level a lighter qualification?

The A-level is not necessarily a lighter qualification (although A*AA at A-levels is lighter than 38 points in the IB) because a student can get 5 A-levels or 6 A-levels or as many as he likes (or can). However as the vast majority of students take just 3 A-levels we conclude that UK universities admit students with A-levels more easily than students with the IB. If you ask Cambridge students what grades they got in their A-levels to be admitted you will usually hear 4, 5 and even 6 As or A* at A-level. This tells you that many of the top students do more than three A-levels. However the fact remains that Cambridge asks for A*AA or A*A*A to admit students. It is as if consensus among universities recognises that all students should take three A-levels and therefore the standard is set at three A-levels. On the other hand IB students take 6 subjects and so universities ask for good grades in all six. Indeed a student with 30 IB points looks very mediocre because there are some that score 40 or more points. Putting it plainly, if you just study three subjects in your IB and you excel in each by getting 7 points in each (and simply don't bother with the rest) you will end-up with 21 points which is a failing IB grade and no university will admit you! If you get 3 A-levels with A* in each you are a superb student and you are likely to be admitted at all top universities! What irony!

Why do Greek schools - that wish to offer an alternative qualification - choose the IB ?

They cannot do otherwise. The Greek ministry of education will not allow them to offer A-levels or any other country specific qualification.So they have to offer the IB if they want something alternative to the apolitirion. As more and more students decide to study in the UK, a school programme that teaches its curriculum in English is undoubtedly desirable. So the IB has grown more and more popular among Greek private schools not because it is the best programme but because it is the ONLY programme (they can offer).

Comparing the programmes ( IB compared to A-levels as regards curriculum)

The IB is generally "loaded" and inflexible. It maintains the philosophy of a broad curriculum where students must do all sorts. As a result it does not allow a student to focus only on subjects of interest. In the IB you cannot avoid studying Literature or a Language and everyone must take Mathematics (though there are harder and lighter versions) and at least a science subject. In spite of forcing everyone to take 6 subjects an IB student cannot take Chemistry, Biology and Physics at the same time because they belong to two groups and you cannot take three subjects from two groups! Doing A-levels places no restriction on the subjects one chooses. This allows, for example, medical candidates to take Chemistry, Biology and Physics A-level if they prefer (which is impossible in the IB).

There are some advantages with the IB. The IB incorporates project work - extended essay and more - that helps students build research skills. If students do this project on their own (some don't) it is a good preparation for independent study at university.

What is the main advantage of A-levels ?

With A-levels you are much more likely to make it to a better university and be perfectly prepared for your degree. Also you can study for your A-levels while also completing Greek Lykeion. So you end up with both the Apolitirio and the passport to top universities in the UK. A-levels are better examinations than the IB. For a single A-level subject students may sit as many as six examination papers. This ensures that students are given a fair mark. A-level examination papers are true masterpieces. The papers are extremely well-designed and carefully structured. Exam scripts are all marked at the examination headquarters by a specialist team of examiners and grades are very consistent.

Doing GCE A-levels in Greece

There are a number of centres that teach A-levels in Greece. In fact A-levels are so flexible that you can do them without ever going to class although this is not practically possible for the vast majority of students. Usually students do their A-levels at dedicated teaching centre (such as Foundation College or Doukas) or at a school as a school programme (taken at one of the foreign schools that offer it in Athens such as St Lawrence and Byron). You can do them along the 2nd year and/or 3rd year of Lykeion. You can do them after you complete Lykeion or in the summer or whenever you like. Why are A-levels so flexible? Because A-levels are essentially exams which you can take independently of school. The actual exams can be sat at the A-level teaching centres or at the A-level schools but also at the British Council in Athens. All you need to do is register for the exams and pay the examination fee. A-level exams usually take place in May-June but international A-level exams are twice a year. On the other hard you cannot take the IB exams independently. This practically means that you cannot do the IB unless you spend over 20.000 euro see below.

What about costs ?

The IB, being a private school programme in Greece is rather expensive and students should budget a minimum of 20.000 euro for the two years of the IB at any Greek school (most charge significantly more). If you did A-levels at a private school such as St Lawrence or Byron the cost would be comparable to that of the IB but the advantage of the A-levels is that being exams you don't have to do them at a school! You can literally study on your own and just take the exams which means zero tuition fees. Or you can study at frontistirio-type institutions such as Foundation College or Doukas where the total (one or two year) cost would not exceed 10,000 euro for three A-level subjects. Compare 10.000 with over 20.000 and this makes A-levels a lot cheaper. While you can take A-level exams without having to pay a school you cannot do the same with the IB. To do the IB you must belong to a school. So the IB is generally much more expensive.

So, why so many people support the IB in Greece ?

This is a Greek peculiarity. In Greece, schools have no option but to offer the IB so schools will naturally recommend the IB. How could they recommend A-levels when they don't offer them ! (cannot offer them unless they teach them as after school extras)

What is the conclusion ?

This site believes that if you wish to study in the UK you are far better off doing A-levels. If you believe that we merely support our kind, ask the British Council in Athens which programme they recommend: the IB or A-levels? By doing A-levels you will not only secure a better place at university (because you will get a higher grade at A-levels than at the IB) but you will also have saved at least 10,000 euro in the process. And you can stay at the same Greek school because you can study for your A-levels in the evenings just like going to frontistirio. You can also be sure that you will be perfectly prepared for your degree in the UK because 90% of the students you have as classmates at university in the UK will have done A-levels (the remaining 10% are not IB students but student with all sorts of other qualificaitions including about 1% who will have done the IB - yes only about 1%).


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