Why Choose A Levels?

Decisions regarding post 16 education have never been easy and have arguably been made more complicated by the advent of the International Baccalaureate Diploma (IB). I firmly believe that A Levels are the Gold Standard of the British education system and will remain so, and you may find the following thoughts useful. 

In short, the IB involves a core which all pupils must follow. It comprises:

  1. The Extended Essay
  2. Theory of Knowledge
  3. Creativity, Action & Service (CAS)

In addition, pupils must choose one subject from each of the following six groups:

  1. Studies in Language and Literature
  2. Language Acquisition
  3. Individuals and Societies
  4. Experimental Sciences
  5. Mathematics and Computer Science
  6. The Arts

Three of these must be studied to Higher Level and the other three to Standard Level.

Source: http://www.ibo.org/diploma/curriculum/

The IB doesn’t suit all pupils. For example, those wishing to study three sciences are unable to do so. Clearly, this is possible with A Levels.  Our A Level options structure is extensive and extremely flexible and very few combinations are not possible as long as pupils have the required GCSE grades.  

Unless the core and all six subjects are completed the IB Diploma is not awarded. At A Level, a pupil in difficulty, whether personal or otherwise, or heavily committed to co-curricular activities has the option to drop a subject and still complete A Levels in the remaining subjects (within the guidelines laid down by the School).

Given that pupils have to study the core and a further six subjects, the IB may be thought of as containing too much breadth and not enough depth. As an example, many highly selective universities are keen for Mathematicians and Engineers to have studied A Level Maths and Further Maths. Moreover, the University of Cambridge recently rode to the defence of AS Levels in response to some of the Government’s highly publicised suggestions for reform.

One mustn’t believe that breadth of study is missing from A Levels. There is more breadth than there used to be; the fourth subject at AS was introduced for this very reason and there is also now more stretch and challenge, reflected in the introduction of the A* at A Level, which is hard to achieve and a very successful differentiator. We do well in this regard. Indeed, some of our pupils leave us with five A Levels and six is not unheard of! Similarly, A Levels can be supplemented by the EPQ (Extended Project Qualification), which is an independent piece of research (similar to the IB Extended Essay) on a topic of choice. This allows pupils to hone university style research skills and broaden their horizons. In other words, today’s A Level programme is very different from that of 20 years ago, offering pupils stretch, challenge and breadth. At a school like ours, breadth is further provided for by a rich and varied programme of curricular and co-curricular activities which all pupils are encouraged to take advantage of.

Admittedly, A Levels have come under criticism for the retake culture and grade inflation, but recent changes and proposals for more linear assessment, as is the case with the IB, have dealt with this particular concern.

Clearly, the IB is demanding of pupil time and whilst some relish this opportunity and pressure, my fear is that for others it eats into time set aside for co-curricular activities such as drama, music, debating and sport, etc. Perversely, an exam system designed to create a broader education can, for some pupils, have the opposite effect.

A Levels, of course, are a very well established currency and the large majority of Sixth Formers sit them. In addition, universities and employers understand them and I am yet to be convinced that all universities are sure of the UCAS tariff appropriate for the range of IB scores.

This can be a very difficult and complicated decision for families and as a school we retain a watching brief on this and other developments in education, such as the growth of the IGCSE.  However, I have no plans to introduce the International Baccalaureate Diploma here at Solihull School.

If you would like to discuss the matter further, please do not hesitate to ask.

- David EJJ Lloyd