Friday, 9 October 2015

A level or IB.

There are many opportunities available for our children in terms of schools and curricula here in the UAE. The Indian CBSE/ICSE, The British Curriculum, IGCSE and the GCSE, the American Diploma program and then there is the IB.  Of course there are also the Russian, French German and Japanese  and Pakistani schools as well. I hope I have not missed any.

Parents looking for an international education for their children often ask us – “Which curriculum is better for my child; IB or A Levels”
Its often a tough decision especially when the child is already a senior at school and one has to think about the non academic implications, making new friends, leaving familiar faces at the old school and so on.

I thought I’d look at the most common question we get at work, which is the big debate about the IB and the GCE.  Let’s navigate through both of these and understand them a bit more.  And here Id like to reiterate that it VERY IMPORTANT to understand it well and not be taken aback later at a critical juncture.
The International Baccalaureate Diploma Program or the IBDP is a 2 year program (Year 12 and 13) where students are examined on 6 subjects, 3 taken at a higher lever and 3 at a lower level or standard level.  Students choose one subject from each of five groups –
Group 1: Language and Literature,  
Group 2: Language acquisition (a Second language(French, Spanish etc)
Group 3:  Individuals and Societies (Geography, History, Psychology or Anthropology),
Group 4: Experimental Sciences (Biology, Chemistry, Physics), Math  and computer science (Math is compulsory)
Group 5: Arts (Visual Arts, Theatre, Music) and finally   
Group 6 : An additional subject from Groups 2 to 5 .
Students also need to carry out an independent research on a topic that interests them, link it to topics that they have learnt and submit a 4000 word essay. This Extended Essay as it is termed, is a compulsory component of the IB program. Another compulsory component is the Theory of Knowledge(TOK) where they are expected to complete an approx 1600 word essay as well as an oral presentation on an inquiry based topic that can be related to topics that they have studied. Finally all IB students must put in 150 hours of CAS: creativity, action and service . All this over a 2 year period and the final exams are taken at the end of 2 years. (Year 13)   
Grades range from 1 (Low) to 7 (High ) So the final diploma is the combined score  for each subject and additional 3 points for the TOK and extended essay . There are no points awarded for CAS but it is a required component in the final awarding of the diploma.
A levels
The A levels is also a  2 year program where the year 12 program is referred to as the AS or A1 level and the Grade 13 program A2 or A level.   There are 2 qualifications that are seen here in the UAE. The International GCE (IGCE)and the UK GCE. (GCE) Both of these require students to take 3 to 4 subjects at an advanced level . There aren’t group rules in this system. . Each subject is separate and the multi disciplinary approach or integration of subjects(as seen in the IB) is not evident.  There is no requirement for an Extended Essay or TOK and CAS is not compulsory.   Students  are graded on the final exams at the end of the 2 years i.e in Year 13 with the necessary course work if they are following the UK GCE.  If the school follows the International GCE or the IGCE, then students can opt to take the A1 assessment at Grade 12 followed  by the the A2 exams  in Year 13 along  with necessary course work. Grades range from A* to E but  will soon have a 1-7 grading in the future according to recent reports online.

So lets break this down further.  Universities world wide recognise both these qualifications so no worries on that account.   Both are extremely good. The IB is the newer curriculum and increasingly looked at very favourably by Universities because of the holistic nature of the curriculum and the broad based subjects on offer.  A number of A level schools worldwide now offer the IB option as well.

To understand which of the 2, our children are more suited to, we need to understand them: how they work, what their interests are, if they are well organised, self-driven, more inclined towards language and the Arts or more towards Science and Math. Or do they have a specific Learning  Issue that requires support.

If we can identify definite abilities and interests, it becomes easier to decide.  If the student is not sure about career pathways and what to study at university (which many of them aren’t at age 16) , then the IB would suit the child  as they may not want to specialise early on and be boxed in.  

For students who have definite likes, hates and challenges, the A levels may suit better as they  have the option to drop  those challenging subjects and concentrate on the ones that they  like and in the end get  the high scores that Universities look for. 
So if your child is headed for a specialised degree program , and very clear about what she/he wants to learn (and clear about what he/she doesn’t want to learn) then  it might make sense to opt for the A levels and choose a set of 3 specific subjects that can help him/her be able to transition beautifully into a challenging specialised degree program.

In the IB, a child who is facing challenges in coping with the mandatory subjects from the 6 areas may see  overall grades drop just because of a poor score in one subject. (Having said that, Universities not only look at overall scores but also  the Higher level subject scores.)
Another point to remember with the IB is that the assessments are not linear and are based on criterions as well as test scores. Yes, its is a very demanding course program and students need to work extremely hard and be very organised from day 1 in order to maintain good grades across the 6 subjects. Both the TOK and extended essay teach the students independent research skills that will certainly help them at University and beyond.

Personally I am inclined towards the IB. The breadth of subject knowledge, the inter disciplinary approach, emphasis of independent research, their relevance to the present environment and all of the rest creates a well rounded student .I have seen how the IB has benefitted my son when he moved from a traditional British curriculum to an IB school . I see it in the way he approaches problems ,  the way he thinks ,the confidence he has built up and the ability to critique and debate, never getting fazed with the  projects and work demanded from school . He has learnt to become more organised as well. (Took a long time and still a long way away!) But that’s him. Our children are all different.

My advise to parents mulling over whether to switch or not, is to research both the curriculums, know it well, speak to the subject heads at  both IB as well as IGCE schools or the Head of secondary, do a school tour(Important) .. What also may also help is to keep in mind where your child is headed for University education . For instance if he/she is headed to the UK, then perhaps the A levels or the GCE makes sense. If your child is involved in a lot of activities outside of school which he/she is passionate about and wants to make it a profession, it makes sense to opt for the A levels with the 3 -4 subjects.
Understand your children well .... the way they learn, recognise if they are more comfortable with guidance through text books, instructions and course work or are they highly independent learners with a broad range of interests and make your choice. 

October 10th ,2015

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