IB Diploma and A levels: the key differences

We take a look at the IB Diploma in comparison with its more traditional British cousin, the A level

What's the difference between the IB and A-levels?

If you’re making the change from the traditional British curriculum to the International Baccalaureate (IB), it may feel like a big step. The IB is certainly different to what most teachers in the UK will be used to.

But how do you make the switch and where can teachers turn for support?

The IB diploma programme is an alternative to the A-level system used in England and Wales.  

The programme prides itself in its holistic approach to developing the learner, whereas A levels are designed to develop in-depth expertise.

Many schools that have moved from A level to the IB say it’s because they believe that the IB is better suited to the changing demands placed on the modern workforce.

Likewise, the high level of independence and autonomy that are at the core of the diploma programme are widely considered to be better preparation for university study.

But what are the main differences in delivery?

In the classroom

IB programmes are based on a pedagogy where learning is student-led, so if you’re used to leading the classroom from the front, you may find the change jarring.

The IB aims to produce students who are motivated to continue inquiry beyond formal study, so it’s important to let students take charge of their own learning.

The diploma programme curriculum is based on three core elements: the theory of knowledge, the extended essay and creativity, activity, service. There are six subject groups: studies in language and literature, language acquisition, individuals and societies, sciences, mathematics and the arts. 

Rather than choosing three or four subjects at A level, IB students study all six groups, at standard and higher level.

Exams and testing

IB diploma programme exams are taken in November and May, with students being awarded grades ranging from 7 (the highest) to 1. The total scores from the combined subject make up a student’s final diploma result score.

45 points is the maximum while 24 is the lowest score with which you can gain a diploma.

University admissions

According to a 2016 report from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, IB diploma students have a 57 per cent greater likelihood of attending one of the top 20 UK universities than students who take traditional A levels.

They’re also more likely to achieve a first-class degree and more likely to go on to further study, such as a master’s degree or PhD. 

In 2014, Ucas developed a new tariff system which pairs up IB and A-level grades. Using this tariff, three A* A-level grades would be the equivalent of 43 points from the IB.

Authorisation to teach IB

To offer the IB programme, a school must undergo an authorisation process. This involves adopting the IB philosophy and identifying a programme coordinator.

The school will then spend a year trialling the implementation of the programme followed by an application for authorisation and subsequent verification visit.

One of the key requirements is that teachers have the required expertise to deliver the IB programmes, so attending professional development workshops are a mandatory part of the process.

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